Saturday, April 18, 2015

Return to Nitpickery: Mystic Warrior

Alright, so our next Starcraft official novelist is Tracy Hickman, the guy who wrote Starcraft: Speed of Darkness.  He brings us today the story Mystic Warrior, book one of the Bronze Canticles series.

Okay, so this one is written by Tracy, but with the help of his wife Laura.  I have no way of determining who did more, or if the two contributed equally.  However most of Tracey's work seems to be either written with his wife, or to be some franchise work for Starcraft or Batman.  Since the two write so much together, it would seem that co-writing with the wife seems pretty representative of his work in general. If we get something at work that's him alone, I may give it a chance, depending on how this review goes.

And yes, I do write my introductions before finishing reading the book.  I like the contrast between the before and after reactions to the book.

In any case, Tracy Hickman wrote Speed of Darkness.  In my critique of that work, I noted how the story felt like it could apply to any given franchise, not necessarily Starcraft.  It also had good narrative, but at times was pretty boring -- it was detail oriented rather than character or plot driven. And it used a lot of past tense when present tense would have made a given battle scene more exciting.  As the final problem, he spoiled his own ending by stating what the characters intended to do, then doing it exactly, rather than knocking down the reader expectations he'd created.

I can't blame Blizzard much at all for any of the problems in Speed of Darkness.  Blizzard, as the holders of the franchise, have to draw the line when it comes to things like canon plot elements and characterization.  Since Speed of Darkness had almost nothing to do with Starcraft the game and no in-game characters appeared, Blizzard probably isn't too much responsible for the book's content.  As far as someone who doesn't work at Blizzard can guess, anyway.

On the other hand, Tracy was clearly better than many of the other Starcraft novelists.  He did have a good germ of an idea, and his narrative was less confusing.  He's not one of those writers that try way too hard to be fanciful.  That happens way too much in sci-fi.

In other words, I was kind of looking forward to some of Hickman's original work.  Ones he could publish on his own deadlines and with his own personal passion.  It seemed like he could pull something off that's pretty good.

Nitpickery is spoilers.

So the Bronze Canticles series is apparently about the history of three lands: Aerbon, Sylani'sin, G'tok. These three lands exist simultaneously in three different dimensions, and the story consists of three protagonists interacting with each other through dreams and visions to inadvertently help each other win over their enemies.

Aerbon is the world where the reader is going to spend most of the book.  Here we are with Galen Arvad, a blacksmith who just wants to enjoy his life, particularly now that he's just been married. Unfortunately for him, his country, as well as the countries surrounding, worships the great dragons who supposedly freed the people of the world from tyrants 400 years ago.  These dragons require a sacrifice, called an Election, where people labelled insane are taken away for the service of their local dragon, Vasska.

Galen, having the ability to comunicate with forged items (swords, metal dragon decorations, sculpture molds, etc), fears that he'll be called up in the Election and hides every year.  Only this year he's caught.  The Priestess holds up her dragoneye staff and the stone in it makes anyone mentally devious react strongly.  She then carts off these "madmen" and takes them to her dragon's temple for his work.

In Sylani'sin, the faery Dwynwyn from the kingdom of Qestardis is a Seeker for her queen, Tatyana. The seven kingdoms of fae are in turmoil because one of their lords is attempting to conquer Qestardis.  Dwynwyn has to discover a "new truth" that will enable her to help the queen defeat Lord Phaeon and save Princess Aislynn from being forced into marrying him.

In G'tok, the land of the goblins, Mimic is just some grunt worker in goblin society.  The entire place is devoted towards discovering machinery from ancient titans, large metal men that goblins won a war against centuries ago.  Ever since, the goblins have been digging out metal works wherever they can, and they worship the machinery they find.  Unfortunately for them, they can't read the books the ancients left behind, and these mostly get burnt.  Mimic, however, discovers some machinery, and it only works around him.  He has to use his wits to figure out how he can better his position in life with this technology.

Galen is the primary protagonist of this story, and everything that happens in his land is generally treated as the main plot.  Galen has constant visions and dreams of the other two lands, but primarily of Dwynwyn, whom he sees as some mystical, angelic-like being.  She ends up doing things in his dreams that help him.  For example, Galen is being brought away by the Pir (followers of the dragons) and he has a vision that the faery woman is pulling apart spider webbing, which he then goes through.  This is, however, her accidentally pulling apart the bars of the cage that Galen's being carried around in.  Dwynwyn, however, thinks she's pulling apart lace, which for some reason she doesn't understand hurts Galen.  I wish there were more of these moments.  These were generally my favorite parts of the book.

Overall, I'd say the book is pretty okay.  It's nothing special, but it's based on some pretty good ideas, and half-decent narrative.  It's just not all that strong of a book.  While the idea to add footnotes and appendices to this book in the attempt to make it look like a historical document was cute, the narrative didn't match that same feel.  Most of the general writing of the book was fairly standard fantasy fare, not feeling serious enough to mimic textbook/history style narrative.  That, and the world wasn't detailed enough.  Sure, what details there were in the world (a society of dragon-worshippers, no staircases in fairy homes, etc) were all good, but nothing felt fleshed out enough. This makes the appendices come across as the world building that that story itself should have contained.

Another unfortunate consequence of the attempt to make the narrative sound like historical documents was a mental comparison to Lord of the Rings.  Since few people have the language and historical background of JRR Tolkien, few of us will ever come out on top in comparison to him in a contest of fiction. Well, if the Hickmans had decided to take a more silly route with the historical feel, it might have worked on that level.  Thing is, the primary reason Tolkien succeeded in his works was that the action of his story, not the narrative, was what made the reader feel things.

It's like this.  Say you want to convey that a character is uncoordinated.  He's, say, in a cafeteria, and he's throwing a wrapper into a trash can.  It's much funnier to write out half a page or so of his attempts at trying to make it in, rather than saying, "Edward threw the wrapper in the direction of the can, but winced painfully as it bounced to the floor.  He would never make the basketball team, he knew."  Hickman's narrative followed the latter example.

Yeah, the narrative wasn't all that great.  It wasn't horrible, though, and at no point was I bored enough to skip ahead.  Strangely enough, it had plenty of "show, don't tell" violations.  For example, it goes on and on about Dwynwyn being looked down on because she's a Seeker, but the only time it ever showed anyone being bigoted was one moment were people looked at her funny -- she'd gotten her wings wet, and needed help to fly up the stair-less passage of the fairy castle.  That's it.  It's well and dandy to mention bigotry as a part of a setting, but the reader won't buy it unless there are examples.  Particularly since any bigotry is beside the point for Dwynwyn's storyline.

The rest of the writing criticisms can wait a bit.  Let's talk about the storylines.  Starting with Mimic's, because it's easier.  In fact, it's too easy.  Now, I liked what was present, but it's just too shallow.  Not enough happens.

So. Mimic finds his important artifact, and his superior, Lirry, takes the credit.  Since the artifact only works with Mimic around, he forces Mimic to be his servant.  Mimic spends much of his storyline carrying Lirry's cape and watching as Lirry spends all of his money on Gynik, a "beautiful" female goblin.  Mimic then makes a fool out of Lirry in front of their king, takes Gynik, and then builds models of the dragon-battle Galen finds himself involved in at the end of the book.  Mimic shows these models to the local king, and then as the battle commences in Galen's world, the models attack the king and kill him.  Gynik, not at all put off by the circumstances, kicks the queen out of the throne room and declares herself and Mimic the new royal couple.

That looks like enough story, but it really isn't.  Much of what happens in each segment of Mimic's story can be summed up in a sentence or two.  None of his parts are very long, involved, or taken seriously.  Yet it's too watered down to be considered comedic.  Plus, it doesn't even start until page 177 (page 176 if you count the map).

This is sad to me, as the goblin world presented here is the most unique of the three worlds; Galen's is a traditional fantasy medieval, and Dwynwyn is traditional fantasy fae.  By simply creating a world where goblins are not outright evil, the Hickmans form a place of new ideas and new culture, particularly since these goblins worship technology and yet can't read books.  There's a wealth of potential there, completely untapped.  Besides, if you're going to create three intersecting fantasy worlds, three fascinating ones blend together better than two serious ones and a goofy third.  Even if the Mimic world didn't have many pages to go by, these few pages should have teased and hinted at greater depth and power.  Well, they did a little bit.  I like the idea that Mimic is king, and can make sure technology is promoted.  Probably that's going to be important in the later books.

Honestly, I could forgive a lot more of the Mimic parts if they simply just let what happened to Mimic rise out of his own choices.  Instead, everything else makes choices for him ever since he finds the Titan technology.  First, Lirry takes the credit for Mimic's discovery and forces him to be a servant.  This is fine at first, because Mimic is the only one that can "fix" the artifact (it only works when it's near him).  Granted, you'd think that this is the point where Mimic would defy Lirry, but hey, if he'd rather watch and see what happens to Lirry first, okay.

But after that, the story perspective hovers on Lirry -- how Lirry meets Gynik and spends money on her, and how she manipulates him.  Mimic is not planning, quietly rebelling, or making any other choices. It basically becomes Lirry's story temporarily.  Mimic doesn't make any other choices until 382, where he finally pipes up to the king that it was him who made the Titan device work.  He does that timidly and reluctantly, too.  The whole timid thing might work if Mimic were emphasized to be timid and quiet, or simply lost in his own thoughts, but neither of those is apparently the case.  Nor is it clear that Mimic is biding his time until the right opportunity.  Mimic just passively accepts calling Lirry "Master" (despite his earlier fantasies of killing Lirry in various grotesque ways), then happens to pipe up later.

To boot, Gynik is the one that decided to choose Mimic.  She's also the one who decided to push Mimic to be king, after Mimic -- accidentally -- killed the one before him.  Heck, even finding the artifact in the first place was more luck than direct choice.  Mimic goes from nothing to king while making only two or three choices.  Protagonists from all genres, from the best epic to the worst chick flick, exist to entertain people with their decisions.  We follow them to learn what they're about and compare their reactions to how we would react in the same situation.  It weakens that when the character we're supposed to walk with doesn't make all that much of an impression.

I say all that, but this part of the story wasn't horrible.  The ideas present were very good, and Gynik, for all her scheming and plotting, is pretty interesting.  It makes you wonder if she simply craves status or if she has something more devious in mind.

If any storyline should have gotten the short straw, it should have been Dwynwyn's.  Hers is the most boring.  Sure, it has a nice system of seven types of faeries, and it's mildly interesting how they lump together all other magical creatures (centaurs, minotaurs, etc) into a group called "Famadorians."  It shows a lack of understanding on the part of the fae, which could have been an interesting plot point.

Basically, the fae are portrayed as mild snobs who look down on everything, including non-fae, fae from other lands, and fae in lower castes.  This could have worked if the fae were shown to be huge bigots who learn that they aren't the most powerful beings in their world, and that they suffer consequences from misjudging everyone who isn't just like them.  Trouble is, this plot potential is mostly ignored, and we're supposed to care that Dwynwyn is trying to save her judgemental people. To make it worse, the one race of Famadorians they do show, the Kyree, are portrayed as cruel, violent, and the sort of people who reinforce rather than contradict the prejudice against them.  They even enjoy ripping off fae wings.

The basic plot of the Dwynwyn parts is that Dwynwyn has been having visions of Galen, and as a Seeker, she's supposed to be learning "new truths" about the world through these visions.  However, Lord Phaeon wishes to conquer the land of Dwynwyn's queen and marry her daughter, so Dwynwyn has to take princess Aislynn and bring her to safety.  The tower they were going to is taken by the Kyree, and they both end up as prisoners.  Through the influence of the dreams, Dwynwyn had strung together a necklace of black pearls for Aislynn, believing they would protect her.  But when the Kyree find out who Aislynn is, she throws the pearls into the sea.  This somehow results in dead elves coming out of the sea, and they defeat Lord Phaeon, while the Kyree immediately backpedal and set their prisoners free.

This part sounds more interesting than it is.  Dwynwyn herself, while trying to be a mysterious, interesting character, is just sort of normal.  She doesn't feel like she has any defining personality characteristics.  Like Mimic, I can't tell if she's shy, reluctant, thoughtful, rebellious, strategizing, or anything else specific.  With Mimic's case, he simply wasn't pushed to the forefront of his sections enough.  With Dwynwyn, she's simply generic.  The book spends so much time trying to tell us she's an outcast that it never says or shows what she actually is.  From Galen's dreams, she looks mystical and imposing.  She's neither this, nor an ironic contrast that's the opposite of Galen's perception.

Moreover, nobody in Dwynwyn's world is that interesting either.  Tatyana appears only two times, and doesn't appear especially unique.  Her daughter, however, is my favorite fae character.  She's an overly dramatic, imaginative girl who keeps her room stocked with "fainting couches."  That's hilarious.  She's not too bright, but that only serves to keep her from being just another generic fae. People tend to think of magical creatures as naturally intelligent, so it's funny when one is not. Granted, Aislynn doesn't do all that much either, but at least she's reacting to her surroundings with real emotion.

Yeah, the fae could use some emotion.  Actually, what they could use is interesting conflict.  I mentioned before that fae bigotry against lower classes is told and not shown.  Boring.  Neither is Phaeon's quest that interesting either.  Phaeon is just there, it seems, as a motivation to get Dwynwyn and Aislynn to leave and go to the tower to meet the Kyree.  Why bother having Phaeon attack at all?Why not just have it so that Dwynwyn is having her visions, and Tatyana tells her to take Aislynn somewhere for magic studies?  That way Dwynwyn could focus more on her visions and their nature, and there'd be more page count to show, rather than tell, class bigotry.

Or, alternatively, the class bigotry could be tossed, and Phaeon's schemes could be a larger part of the plot.  Though I have a feeling that Phaeon was never developed enough to serve that kind of role. The whole conflict feels like a setup to introduce the Kyree, when really the Kyree revolting on their own works just as well.

Also, it feels really silly that a bunch of dead fae would come out of the sea just because Aislynn dropped pearls in it.  While objects passed between the three worlds often take magical properties, there was no particular reason why these dead should be normal fae.  It'd be more interesting if they were the dead from Galen's battle at the end.  Maybe a later book explains what the deal with that is.

So yeah, the fae part of the book feels like it was just there.  It was nice to see how Galen reacted to it, and how his and Dwynwyn's actions affected each other.

Galen's story was clearly the basis of the book, and the other two are additions to it.  I kinda wish that the other worlds had more weight and importance to them, but whatever.  So Galen tries so hard to hide from the Election, but finally is caught.  Up until the point he is caught, I was very interested in the book.  The beginning, like the beginning in Speed of Darkness, was written well.  The action caught my attention, and it felt like the Hickmans had created a world with real depth.  After that, well, the book just kind of meandered.

In other reviews of Mystic Warrior that I read, people called Galen whiny.  For me, that's pretty understandible.  The dude misses his wife, and he doesn't want to be a crazy person forced to fight for a dragon.  The character that really didn't work for me was Tragget, a monk of the Pir.  Now he was whiny.  He's forever living under the shadow of his controlling, patronizing mother, the priestess Edana.  Given that Tragget is supposed to be the Grand Inquisitor, you'd think he'd be old enough not to have to put up with his mom calling him "good boy."

Tragget can barely hold his emotions in check, and when his control freak mother dies in the end, he loses it and flips out.  It's hard for me to believe that a grown man constantly manipulated by his mother would throw such a passionate fit at her death.  He could be angry, sure, but to act as though someone had ripped out his heart?  If she's always treated him the way she treats him in this book, Tragget should be conflicted about her loss.

"Oh, don't you disappoint me, son, not after all I've gone through for you--for both of us!" Edana's voice was sharp-edged as she spoke.  "I've known you were of the Elect for years now!  How is it that you have always had special dispensation to be absent anytime the Eye of Vasska is passed?  I've seen to that!  Your position is uniquely suited to keep you from suspicion; who inquests the Inquisitor?  I've seen to that, too.  Oh, yes: your mother has watched over you, son, and now it is time for you to fulfill all the dreams your mother has had for you."

Is no one else creeped out by the control this woman exerts?  Granted, that does make her an interesting character.  I wish we could have seen her do more than give exposition to her son, but as far as it went, she felt very creepy.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.  In any case, Galen's story is a bit boring for a while.  This lasts from the time he is capture, to the time he finally starts training.  He goes on a boat to Vasska's home city, him and the other elect. He meets Maddoc and Rhea, a married couple who claim to recognize him.  Maddoc has seen Galen in his dreams, and Rhea is his non-elect wife who pretended to be one just to stay with her husband.  The two of them attempt to help Galen understand his dreams, and that they are more than just mad ravings.  Maddoc, who really is a bit nuts, insists that Galen is his leader.

In any case, this part is boring because we the readers already know that Galen's dreams are more than dreams, and we're waiting on Galen to get the picture.  His wife Berkita, for some unexplained reason, is shown in the plot.  She's goes with the dwarf Cephas to find her husband and insist his election was a mistake.  And she never does anything interesting.  It could have been a great opportunity to show an untravelled person struggling to understand her surroundings and get her husband back, but most of her trip is skipped over.  The part that isn't is just her commenting on the landscape of a place she's never been before.  She then protests to Tragget, who then has her in his custody the rest of the book.

Granted, Tragget never meant to do her any harm, and in fact attempted to help Galen escape his fate before his mother intervened.  Since he also was secretly an elect, Tragget was able to communicate with Galen in dreams.  Too bad he blames Galen for his mother's death.  Berkita's in trouble in the second book, most likely.

Galen's story does pick up as soon as he stops whining and starts training.  So how it works is that all the elect are chosen to fight in wars between the dragons of the various lands, and they have to learn to fight in the meantime.  Since Galen can talk to crafted things, he finds out from his sword that the reason the dragon are warring is because two of the kingdoms ruled by male dragons are fighting to figure out which of them has to mate with the female of another kingdom.  That's pretty dang hilarious.  It makes sense in a world ruled by dragons.

But of course the reason why the dragons use the elect is because the elect are people with special powers, ones that can see the other worlds and...well, talk to crafted items.  Probably other things too. By use of black stones he received in his dreams, Galen was able to inadvertantly gain the support of several men, and he and most of them escape the battle.  But not before getting caught up in a fight between two dragons.  Not only are Rhea and Maddoc killed, but the magical shield Galen uses to protect himself repels Edana into the fire of the dragons.  Tragget blames Galen for her death, swears eternal revenge, blah blah blah, to be continued.

I'm sort of losing my will to talk about Galen's story.  Not only is he reluctant to accept what is happening to him and make real decisions, but Tragget also is acting wildly, almost like a drunkard when he should be more self-controlled.  After all, if Tragget has been hiding the fact that he's what others believe is a madman for his whole, then he should have greater reign on his emotions.  It's kinda hard to take him seriously at the end of the book.

In any case, there were several good ideas in Mystic Warrior.  The idea of being ruled by dragons, dragonsmoke prophecy, talking swords, blending of worlds, goblins worshipping robots, and more were all interesting world details.  Thing is, a book, even if plot or world driven, always rests on how interesting and compelling the characters are.  Since most of the characters in this book weren't, and the ones that were didn't get much time, the great world details and plot ideas just didn't work out.

Besides, that, there are some execution problems that weren't fully sorted out.  One of which was inherent in the nature of the book: if you're going to write a story about three worlds intersecting, that means you have to introduce your reader to all three of them, which means providing three times as much expositionary detail as would have been necessary with just one setting.  There's ways to work around this problem, but the front of this book was nonetheless heavily weighed down with exposition and characters not really doing much of anything.  It could have helped if, while Galen's detail was going on, one of the other worlds was showing desperate action or mysterious intricacies to keep the tension up.

And while we're at it, let's get on a few writing errors.  Just to have a little fun.  In no particular order --

- "The guards grasped hold of Lirry.  He was about to get everything he deserved."

Note that his is when Mimic has proven Lirry can't repair relics.  That last sentence is redundant, particularly since it's its own paragraph at the end of a chapter.  Also Lirry was never someone truly evil, just really stupid and arrogant.  A sentence like this would work better if the person it described was a truly despicable person who had been avoiding consequences.  As is, it's melodramatic.

That, and we the readers already have the picture at this point.  All that needed to be said was that Lirry was dragged away.  We didn't need to be told Lirry was going to face consequences that Mimic had just mentioned the page before.

- "Sire," Mimic said.  His voice was quivering in his boldness, as though he were afraid of the very words he was speaking.

I don't feel like this was an effective sentence.  "Quivering in his boldness"?  Afraid of his own words?  Besides the awkward vocabulary, this is a too obvious way to say he's nervous.  Why not show his nervousness with shaking?  Honestly, I'd be happy with "Mimic said, his voice quivering." It's at least simplistic.

- "After all," Lirry continued, "keeping lazy and stupid servants employed shows character and upbringing.  I think that all truly superior individuals should have one."

This narrative reminds me of Arcturus Mengsk's lines in Starcraft 2.  That is, it's extremely simplistic and obvious to anyone with a brain that the speaker is an idiot.  Yes, I know Lirry's a goblin and he's not supposed to be dignified, but characters should never wear signs that say, "Look at me, I'm an X kind of character!"  Readers can gather from the behaviors of the character who they are, and they don't need to be told.

If this line were rewritten to make Lirry pretend he's being gracious (that is, calling Mimic "lesser" or "less abled" rather than lazy and stupid), then it would be easier for the readers to hate him.  That way he's pandering instead of idiotic. There is such a thing as a character too dumb for the audience to hate.

- There was a pattern to it, their daughter would say, a rhythm like a song that she could not hear.  Unlike her husband, Dahlia seemed to accept the madness with a calm and almost dispassionate clarity.

Note that the narrative is talking about the "madness" that's afflicting Galen and the Elect.  So at the second sentence, reading that would make you think Dahlia is the wife, yes?  She's instead the daughter of Maddoc, not his wife.  It's not immediately clear that the narrative means Rhea when it says "her", and that's pretty distracting.

- She shed a tear for each one...until there were none left.

Emo usage of ellipses is emo.

- They did, however, burn extremely well

This isn't so much a writing error so much as a factual one.  This sentence is a reference to the goblins burning books at their dig sites, and y'know what?  Books don't actually burn all that well.  In a house my family used to live in, we were burning some old papers in the chimney, and some torn up books found their way in. I'm pretty sure it's because oxygen can't get through the pages, but one way or another, books don't generally catch fire all that well.  You have to flare out all the pages or the flame won't catch.  And when you do, well, it burns like paper.  Not exactly the best for a sustaining campfire.

I dunno, maybe the goblins had a larger fire or oil or something.  Hey, the title of this blog does say "nitpickery", after all.  This isn't really a criticism of the book, anyway.  It's just that you'd think things are one way, and yet they aren't.

That about sums up the writing problems with this book.  Clumsy, emotional narrative tries to push the reader into feeling things, but since what's actually happening isn't always that exciting, it doesn't really work.  That, and I am so tired of the "show, don't tell" violations.  That was the biggest problem.  At one point, Mimic is forced to hold Lirry's long cape, and then after this is shown, it's also talked about.  If you've already shown Mimic struggling with the thing, why explain it?

I'm making this book sound worse than it really is.  As much as the writing nitpicks got to me, and as overly dull as the first bit was, the ideas here were sound and the book itself makes me curious enough to want to read book 2.  Which isn't in my store yet, more's the pity.  This is a fine piece of casual fantasy, which doesn't suck so much as it just plain fails to meet its potential.

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