Category: Books

Other than human

It is interesting how authors handle protagonists who aren't human, especially when the author does it well. Of course, not any technically not human protagonist really counts. Lots science fiction or fantasy have protagonists with protagonists that are technically not human, but really are just humans with a twist. That elf might technically not be human, but really, it’s just a long-lived human from a culture with a preference for bows.

What I am talking about is when the author leans into this difference, when not being human is part of the point. A great example is the Books of the Raksura series by Martha Wells, where the protagonist in the main is a Raksura, a vaguely human species with wings that live in ant-like colonies with queens, workers and warriors. It’s even not quite one species but a couple of species in a sort of symbiotic relationship. The ecological, cultural and biological implications of this species’ nature and their colonies are an essential part of the books.

Importantly, Martha Wells doesn't go too far in the alieness of the Raksura, because that would get in the way of being able to connect with the characters as a reader. In some ways things still play out with very storytelling formulas. The queen of the colony still needs to mate, so Martha Wells throws in a good helping of romance tropes, just with some really refreshing twists. In other ways it plays out like a traditional fantasy adventures, with a fellowship heading out on a quest. The world also has human in it to provide contrast to Raksura.

The book that got me thinking about this topic is The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. Who the protagonist is in this book is, is tricky because of the way the narrative is constructed. The book is told in first person from the point of view of a god, who is also a stone. Leckie does amazing job communicating the stones perspective, getting across the age and patience of the stone. At the same time the book is also in second person because the plot is told by the stone to a human as the human is going through the main plot. In between the second person section the stone reminisce about past events that brought about the current situation in first person. This setup does make the book harder to read, and it speaks to Ann Leckie's skill as an author that she can make it flow so well. Another thing that helps underline the difference between the god and humans is that the stone god and the human have different goals and desires but both are explained by the god. How the god thinks about things and how the god thinks humans think about things.

The Raven Tower is a great book but it’s not as good as Ann Leckie's other series with a non-human protagonist Imperial Radch. Here the protagonist is an AI. A bit of a science fiction staple, sure, but done here with impeccable skill. This is not some boring, cold, logical AI. It has a rich inner life and a philosophical approach to life. This series has won a lot of awards, all of them deserved.

The best books with an AI protagonist are not Imperial Radch. That honor has to go to The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. This AI is a SecUnit, a sort of android that provides security in scientific expeditions and the like. This one though, has hacked its own governor, giving it freedom to ignore commands and pretty much do what it wants. The typical trope of AIs in science fiction is that they are emotionless and pure logical. Martha Wells goes in the complete opposite direction. With a complex enough AI you want it to have a rich set of fears and desires to guide its actions. So, in this world the really complex AIs like the SecUnits are a lot more emotional than humans. The end result is not just a very engaging protagonist, but maybe the most sympathetic one I've ever come across. The series is about the SecUnit trying to make sense of its own nature and place in the world all the while trying to hide the fact that it is a rogue AI. Beyond the advantage of a great protagonist the Murderbot Diaries also has amazing writing that is witty and charming, and flows so very easily. It’s the kind of writing where by the time you've finished the first paragraph you are hooked and won't be able do anything else until you've finished all the novellas. I recommend the series very highly.

The Peter Principle of POVs - and why Robert Jordan was great

There is something known as the Peter principle which basically is the idea that people get promoted to their level of incompetence. When someone is competent at what they do they are rewarded by being promoted to a new position. If they are still competent at what they do in their new position they get rewarded with a promotion again. This keeps happening until they get promoted to a job they are not good at. That is when the promotions stop and that is where they stay.

There is a similar pattern that can be observer in the use of Points of Views in books, especially in epic fantasy series. Juggling multiple POVs is tricky. Handling the different plot threads and POV switches without ruining the flow and pacing of the story telling is a challenge. It seems to me like there are many fantasy authors that keep adding POVs until they can't juggle them anymore.

A prime example of this is Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. That is a series that by the end was drowning in POVs. It is a common criticism of the Wheel of Time series that it had too many POVs. But this post is not a complaint about how Robert Jordan had too many POVs. Rather, I want to highlight how well he did, and how many POVs he was juggling before he became overwhelmed. I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Many authors seem to struggle once they go beyond three POVs. Robert Jordan was successfully juggling fifteen in the middle of Wheel of Time. I thought I would take a moment to see what he was doing that let him juggle so many POVs so well. The Robert Jordan rules of writing POVs, if you will. To be clear, the these are my thoughts on what he did. I don't say he would agree with me.

I must start with a couple of disclaimers/clarifications:

  1. Robert Jordan dealt with POVs differently in prologues/epilogues as compared to the main chapters in the book. In the prologue/epilogue He would often drop in to some completely unknown POV in order to give the reader some piece of information in order to set something up or foreshadow something. I am going to ignore this and focus on how he dealt with POVs in the main chapters of the books.
  2. He broke all the rules I will lay out here in one instance or another, more so in latter books in the series, probably because it became harder to keep to them when the number of POVs grew so great.
  3. Due to Robert Jordan's untimely passing the final three books were finished by Brandon Sanderson. How to portion out credit/blame for those books is something I won't touch upon.

So, without further ado, let’s get started with Robert Jordan's tricks of writing POVs.

Robert Jordan used third person limited narrator in his Wheel of Time. This means that, even though the narration was in third person, it would be limited to the kind of information the POV had. He would also color descriptions based on this. Like descriptions for a blacksmith's POV would include detail about the quality of the metalworking of the tools people were using, or the solider would notice if someone's sword had been properly cleaned and maintained. While Robert Jordan had his own voice as an author, he would flavor it differently for different POVs, in descriptions, words, thoughts and deeds.

He is also not mechanical in how he switches between POVs. Some authors mechanically switch to a new POV every chapter, whether it makes sense or not. Robert Jordan would be a lot more dynamic than that. Often, he would keep to the same POV for many chapters in a row, while in other situations he would switch POV many times in a chapter. This also has an interesting effect on the tempo of the storytelling. Staying with one POV for a long time is a more leisurely pace, while constant switching would feel more hectic. He would often switch POVs more towards the climax of a book. This would partially be because of the obvious reason that various storylines were converging, but it would also give the climax more tension, make it feel like more action.

Another thing that Robert Jordan does, that helps more the more POVs and POV-switches there are is that time is strictly increasing. What I mean by that is that time in the story is always moving forward, no matter where or how the POV switches. Every event described happens after the pervious event. For POV-switches this means that whatever the next POV after the switch sees or does happens after whatever the previous POV, from before the switch, did or saw. By avoiding going backwards in time, or even sideways, where the same time point is described from two different POVs, he greatly eases the readers ability to keep separate POVs in sync. Besides helping to keep the POVs in line it also helps keep the story moving forward. There is always momentum. Sadly, this rule completely falls apart in the last three books, which were originally supposed to be one book, but got split up into three. The split ended up completely messing up the timelines. Not just does this hurt especially bad with how many POVs there were by then, but because time starts flowing at different rates in different parts of the world due to "plot-reasons". Having abandoned strict time just before time gets wonky made things a lot worse.

Robert Jordan uses strict time and POV switches in a clever way to avoid too big time jumps but at the same time to avoid dead time. Strictly increasing time doesn't prevent time jumps if the jumps are forward in time. Robert Jordan often did time jumps between books in Wheel of Time but tried to avoid very big ones in the middle of books. This can be a problem in this sort of medieval fantasy book because there is a lot of dead time while characters are travelling between location, mostly by ship or horse. Robert Jordan uses POV switches to mask this. For example: some POV heads off with a ship on a trip that will last a week. He masks this time by switching to some other POV and follow that for a week and then switch back once a week on time has passed.

Related to how Robert Jordan handles dead time is how he switches between plot threads. Some authors, when switch plots threads, leave the previous plot thread on a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers on plot thread switches in books are like jump scares in movies. They reek of desperation. A good horror movie does not need jump scares to be scare. A good book does not need cliffhangers on switches between plot threads to keep the reader hooked. Robert Jordan usually stuck with the same plot thread for several chapters in a row, only switching away when the plot thread had reached some sort of resolution or at least a pause. This made each set of chapters following a single plot thread feel like a short story.

One of the most important things Robert Jordan did to manage so many POVs was to introduce the character before the character was introduced as a POV. By having an existing POV get to know something about a new character before that character becomes a POV the reader also starts the new POV with some notion of how the new POV fits into the story. This also made plot lines branch out from one line in a tree type fashion, rather than dumping a bunch of unrelated plot lines on the reader and hoping the reader keeps them straight. Now, Robert Jordan did have different ways of introducing new soon-to-be POV characters. The most straight forward way was to have existing POV character meet and interact with a new character, and then, later, switch to that new characters POV. Another way he did it if the characters couldn't meet was to have an existing POV character hear about some new character before that new character became a POV. If he wanted to keep the new character mysterious he would have an existing character do something somewhere and then switch to a new POV watching the existing character covertly. That way there would still be some tie to an existing character to keep the branching structure in place but keep the reader in the dark about the new POV.

To help smooth over POV switches Robert Jordan does something I call bridging. By this I mean that he keeps the thread of events ongoing across POV switches by starting off new POV after the switch following on from the last event of the old POV from before the switch. Let me give an example to make it clear what I am talking about. We are following POV character A and something happens and as a result the character decides to run off to deal with it. At this point the POV switches to another character B. It starts with POV character B reflecting on having just seen character A run off and continues with what B does after that. Because of strictly increasing time after the switch to character B cannot involve B seeing A run off, because that already happened for POV A, but it can still tie in to it by B reflecting on it. This way even though the POV switches, the chain of events remains unbroken, by having the new POV start of from where the previous POV left of. Robert Jordan mainly used this trick in two sorts of situations. One was when he did a lot of POV switches in one chapter between different POVs involved in the same events. The other is when switching to a new, never before seen, POV. Have some existing POV character meet a new character and interact with them. Then switch to new character's POV with the new character leaving the meeting and reflecting on it.

These are not the only tricks Robert Jordan used to handle his many POVs in Wheel of Time, but these are the ones that stood out to me. It is also not like it is required to use tricks like these for handling multiple POVs in books, at least not when the number of POVs are limited. Once the number of POVs start increasing beyond three to four something extra becomes useful to help the reader handle them.

The Wheel of Time series is remembered for how it drowned in POVs, which is a shame. It deserves to be remembered for how well it handled multiple POVs.

Raven's shadow - To fall so far

Raven's Shadow is the first series by a new author Anthony Ryan. It’s a trilogy consisting of Blood Song, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire. It’s also a series which starts so great and end in such mediocrity.

The first book is really one of the great works of Fantasy. The book is really great. Its set in a medieval fantasy world and is a single POV story following the protagonist Vaelin Al Sorna. He gets handed to a sort of templar like warring monk society as a child and the book covers his time growing up among the warrior monks and then how he ends up in the service of the king of the land. Being fantasy there is also some magic in play. Vaelin has a sort of magical gift, the titular Blood Song, which guides him, at least when he bothers to listen.

The book also has a brilliant narrative setup where is sort of has two narrators. The prologue and epilogue is told from the point of view of a historian how follows a condemned criminal to his execution. On the way there he convinces the criminal to tell him his life story, so he can record it. The main narrative of the book is then the story of the criminal, Vaelin. When I started the book, I was a little worried about how well this would work in that the prologue sort of spoils the main story, but my worried were unfounded. In the end the meta-narrative of the historian and the life story of Vaelin come together beautifully. The ending is truly epic.

After such a great start the second book, Tower Lord, is a big step down. This is not to say the say the second book is a bad book. It’s not. Rather it’s just that the first one is so great that you can have a big step down and still end up with a good book. Rather than being a single POV book like the first one, this one has multiple POVs. It also handles them in a way I just loath: Jump between POVs and storylines every single damn chapter. It seems like it’s become quite popular lately. I blame George RR Marten. The good there is in A Song of Ice and Fire is good despite the constant jumping not because of it.

The book also undermines the previous book's world building. Where Vaelin had to train from childhood to achieve his martial prowess, now there are characters popping up that are way too good for what training they have. Worst offender here is a new female character called Reva. Which is a shame, for aside from that she is the most interesting new character, and the only one with a proper character arc.

If there was one weakness in the first book it was that the romance was kind flat and passionless. In the second book there is a new magically induced romance. Another flat and passionless romance, this time with a side dish of questionable consent. That does not improve things.

Where the second book was still a good book, the third one, Queen of Fire, isn't even that. It is decidedly mediocre. There will be some minor spoilers ahead, but this book isn't worth reading anyway, so don't worry. It is time for the main characters to take the war to the Evil Empire. This war is really boring with short descriptions of uninteresting battles against mind-controller slave soldiers. They are like the worst evil overlord goons.

To spice things up Vaelin loses his blood song ability. Cliched sure but could be interesting. How does the hero deal with losing his defining super power? But after moping about it a bit early in the book he runs into a woman with the same ability, so he just spends the rest of the book following her around instead. So, the entire plot point really doesn't lead to any interesting character growth or anything. He can just spend the rest of the book ignoring the issue. So, what does he do? Spends most of the book traipsing across a glacier just to get a big exposition dump in the end that explain everything about the big baddie. Who turn out to be boring.

The most interesting character in the last book is Reva, and that's saying something considering that she has neither a character arc nor anything to do with the plot. Reva's character arc is basically complete by the end of the second book. There is some hope for something interesting when she adopts a girl early in the book, but after that the girl is never heard from again and has no bearing on the plot. She also has her own side plot that has nothing to do with the resolution of the main plot. She just sort of ends up at the same place as all the other characters in the end. But at least her sub-plot has interesting action and adventure, not just dry battle description or walking across a glacier.

The ending still leaves a bunch of threads hanging. Like the how Vaelin never deals with losing the blood song. Reva's hunt for the priest from her childhood never goes anywhere. The wolf god thing is never explained. And the prophecy from the first book? Apparently just someone's pipe dream or something because it never leads anywhere.

The last book is also the longest, and it really feels like it. Plot-wise, you could just rip out both Reva and Vaelin, and just have someone else get the boring exposition dumps. That way you could at least cut the length of the book in half to tighten up the pacing. But honestly, it would still be boring.

My recommendation is to read the first book, because it is really awesome. Then just skip the rest. Sure, that leaves a few plot threads hanging, but their resolution is boring and the final book has its own unresolved plot threads anyway, and the ending of the first book is way better than the end of the trilogy.