Posts Tagged ‘Ben Tate’

Ever have a trope, convention, whatever you want to call it… ever have one that you didn’t even realize was there until something broke it?

I’ve mentioned a couple times since I’ve started talking about this blog that I’m always trying to find something new. I’ve been reading SF-F since I was a kid… I’ve seen a whole lot in twenty years. Finding something new (and conversely, writing something new) can be a real pain in the ass at times. Relating to what I’m talking about now, I’ve been drifting away from straight up fantasy books for a while. The Tolkien, the Goodkind, the Lackley… I’ve seen it in countless novels. I’ve tried writing it in a whole mess of things in varying stages of completion. And I’ve played it in many late nights of DnD.

But I’ve found some fantasy books that have grabbed me because they’re doing something different. Myke Cole has managed to do something completely new with his magic-modern military mash up. I enjoyed the hell out of Sam Sykes. Kelly McCullough and Ben Tate are adding aspects of thrillers to the mix. So fantasy has caught my eye again after a long drought and I think because I haven’t been seeing it so much in the last couple years, that’s why I think these tropes caught my eye.


The tropes are about food, a largely insignificant detail in most books of any genre that’s just thrown in as set dressing. The menus of most fantasy novels read like the Goods and Services Table in Dungeons and Dragons. “Eeeew. DnD, I don’t wanna read that.” Fine. I’ll talk about it some more than. Bread. Onions. A fish. Stew. Chunk of meat. Hunk of cheese. Rations. Ale. More ale. And then wash it down with some ale.

Seriously. Food is very mundane in fantasy books for the most part. You’ll get the highborn set in fantasy. Their hunks of meat are roasted swan instead of miscellaneous bird. It’s dressed up but the same stuff.

Let’s break tropes! (still one of my new favorite words)

First time I saw it was with Ben Tate’s Leaves of FlameSome of the main characters are on a speed run towards a major confrontation and they’re getting ready to move out. The Alvritshai character is making breakfast for Colin, the main character, and the other Alvritshai in the party traveling with a massive dwarren war party. He makes scrambled eggs.

Seriously. Scrambled eggs. Completely threw me for a loop that they ate the same thing for breakfast that I did.

Example two came up in Kelly McCullough’s Broken Blade. Aral is on the run at the end of Act Two. He had his ass kicked and was recovering with his allies. It was breakfast time again. They had bacon. That falls under Chunk of Meat. And they had bread. That falls under Bread. Put them together. Huh? Bwuuuuuh? Sandwiches. They made bacon sandwiches.

I eat bacon sammiches! Hell, I want one right now just thinking about them!

I finished Broken Blade a couple weeks ago and Leaves a couple weeks before that. It’s still rolling around in my head how such a little thing can stand out with such a weird impact. If those books had stayed with the common tropes about food in fantasy books, I would never have seen them as tropes and kept right on reading. I wonder how many other genre conventions are sitting in our pages without even being noticed.

So I was called out on being tired and/or child distracted at the end of the last post about First Lines. It took much longer to type than I thought it would what with needing to hold the book with one hand and do the 3rd grade hunt and peck typing. The people have spoken, here I am to deconstruct the first line.

As a reader, it’s very easy to gloss over the first line. As a writer, I know I tend to agonize over it.

When I start reading a new book, I’m running pellmell face first into it, I can’t stop for just one line. For me, the first dozen pages are where I get my quote unquote, first impression, from. In fact, some of the first lines off the Shelf of Honor books give a different impression than what I remember of the openings. Specifically I’m thinking of A Thousand Words for Stranger and Boneshaker. In regards to Stranger, I remember Sira waking up not knowing who she is. Amnesiatic characters is something I find fascinating (also, see Zelazny for that) so that’s probably why it tends to jump at me. My first memories of Boneshaker are of Briar shleping through the muck of Seattle coming home from work, not of a mood moment.

Opening lines tend to be mood moments or action. Both can set the pace of what’s going on but even as I type this, I’m thinking of all the ones that do the opposite. Look at Un Lun Dun, the word ‘nondescript’ is used twice. You get a juxtaposition out of that one. When I write my own stuff, I tend to be of the ‘start with a bang’ school of thought. I vaguely remember it being taught in school at some point. I’ve tried mood openings or informational openings and they just don’t pop for me. In my in-process novel, I actually lopped off the first four pages and ended up with two people dying on page one. It made for a much better hook. It’s a show don’t tell kind of thing for me.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a book with a mood opening, the Shelf of Honor First Lines clearly shows that, but deconstructed as a single opening line, action speaks much louder than words. Actions make you ask Why? That little question propels the reader just as much as the writer. Actions? Questions? What single lines are the flavors I like best? I’m getting there. They’re next in fact.

“At the height of the long wet summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.” —The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

There’s a lot of information going on here. The weather and the year, they don’t do anything for me, but fortunately this is a nice long line. Thiefmaker and Eyeless Priest… who are these people? They’re titles so unique, they demand answers in themselves. But that’s informational. What’s the action? Why he’s got Lamora up for sale. The title character is for sale in the first line? Do tell more.

“Colin saw Walter’s foot a moment before it connected with his stomach.” —Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate

This is all action, simple and impactful. Both literally and figuratively. By starting off the whole book right in the middle of the fight, we’re instantly involved with what’s going on. There’s no lead in for us to choose sides nor are we shown the aftermath yet with the winner dusting himself off. We’re not even given a chance to take a breath before stuff’s going down.

“In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers.” —The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks

This one is a little bit odd in that it’s the only non-fiction book on the Shelf of Honor. But take a look at that. This book doesn’t read like a history text. It’s researched just the same but it reads like a novel. We’ve got action in a place that could easily start out as “Captain Kidd was in jail in Boston on November 16, 1699.” What we got instead is a lot more interesting, even if the image of a pantsless angry Scotsman in jail isn’t exactly an image we want willingly.

I just now spent twenty minutes going through my shelves for more first lines that really pop for me. What’s surprising me is that so many books I enjoy the b’jebus out of, have regular first lines. This goes back to running headlong into a new novel. When there are 400 pages, you’ve got at least fifty to hook me, one hundred if I’m being generous and you’ve got an awesome premise. In the last twenty minutes though, I did find two more that really jab the hooks in before the first punctuation mark.

“On the last true day of spring the nine worlds will ever know, my brother and I fly recon through the land of the gods.” —Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

Godpunk is one of my favorite subgenres and the Norse are especially awesome. Not only do we have the ominous declaration that might as well be a Ned Stark saying “Winter is coming… everywhere,” we’ve got this awesome action of flying recon in the land of the gods. Something dicey is going on. There are so many questions in that half statement. There’s got to be danger a plenty in doing that, you don’t fly recon in safe zones. Expound on this danger! Tell me more!

“She let Johnny gag her mouth with a belt, that way she wouldn’t scream when he amputated her two mangled fingers.” —Johnny Zed by John Gregory Betancourt

Take a look at this book and read it’s synopsis and it sounds like a very dated 1980s popcorn muncher and then holy hell back alley amputations! I’m not so sure if I need to say much more about that. We’re starting in the middle of the action but it’s simultaneously the aftermath of another. What starts off as something sounding like it needs an R rating, turns out to be a lot more squeamish and intense than that. The question “What next?” drips off the page.

So there’s a thousand words about first lines, none more than 41 words themselves. One of the primary reasons I run this blog, is so that when I talk about these things, I become conscious of what works and doesn’t work in the books I read so I can apply those lessons to my own novel writing endeavors. So what have I learned, or more accurately, what have I become more aware of? Well, novels don’t have to get you in one line. Most of the Shelf of Honor books don’t hook me as fast as the 80s popcorn muncher that is Johnny Zed. When a first line really clicks though, it’s magic. Things are happening, things are moving and you’ve got no time to wonder what’s going on. All those magnificent questions these wonderful first lines raise, well hell, there’s no time to stop and think of them. We’re swept up in what’s going on without coming up for air.

There’s a whole novel for us to come up for air, but you’ve got to shove the reader back under the tide of words anyways. Make them work for it.

Leaves of Flame

Posted: June 25, 2012 in Reading
Tags: , ,

I was chomping at the bit for Leaves of Flame by Benjamin Tate to show up in the mail since it’s the sequel to the newly Shelf of Honorized Well of Sorrows. It was the only book of the last Amazon batch that wasn’t damaged in the mail and I’ve been devouring it between feeding the infant.

No mucking about today. Back of the book time!

One hundred years have passed since Colin Harten – transformed to something more than human by the magic of the Lifeblood contained in the Well of Sorrows – used his new powers to broker a peace agreement between the human, dwarren, and Alvritshai races of Wrath Suvane. Since then all three races have greatly expanded their empires. And Colin has continuously sought ways to defeat the dark spirits known as the sukrael – and the Wraiths they have created to act for them in the physical world. Yet Colin has not been able to prevent the dark spirits from reawakening more and more Wells, thus extending their power across the lands.

Having mastered three of the five magics of Wrath Suvane, Colin has gifted each race with a magical Tree to protect them from incursions of the dark forces. He has also realized that unless a certain number of Wells are left open, their magic can never be stabilized, and the land will be torn apart by this uncontrolled force.

But now the enemy has located the one Well that is key to controlling the entire network, and if Colin can’t find a means to stop them from claiming and activating this Well, it could mean the end of all three races…

So starting off, I tend to have this thing with sequels where I go “Oh yay! Book two!” and never actually read the back of the book. Typing it out here was actually the first I read it and while I don’t think that the Back of the Book for Leaves misses some of the big selling points as much as with Well, I think there is some underselling going on here again. Now I figure that condensing a whole book down to three paragraphs has got to be a pain, otherwise I could be doing that rather than building submarines, but it seems that with Leaves it’s playing up the more traditional fantasy aspects of it. Colin is on a race to save the world! Ok that’s fantasy, but remember what I said about Wells. Thriller. That race to save the world isn’t some sort of old school D&D standard party. Leaves has more of the political wrangling (seriously, not exactly easy to make that interesting), backstabbing and conniving that the first book. The intrigue among the Alvritshai in particular take it to this to a cold war level I enjoyed the hell out of.

Speaking of the Alvritshai, we get to see a lot more of them and their culture in Leaves than we did in Well. Some of that background world building gets to come to the forefront here. Colin and a cadre of Alvritshai head to the northern wastes. There’s some mini ice age stuff going on in Wrath Suvane and the old cities of the Alvritshai are buried under glacial snow. Tate shows us the inner workings of an Alvritshai House and the shaman-chieftan relationship among the dwarren. Some of the world building set up in the first book continues along here as a set up for the finale. A lot of the “I want to know more about this” from Wells is expanded upon here to the greatest satisfaction. So this top tier world building went and build another, taller tier and set up camp there.

World building isn’t the end all and be all. That’s how you make a Dungeons and Dragons source book, not a novel. We’ve got our thriller plot and epic setting, we need the soul of the book now. Colin seems more realistically flawed here than he did in the first book. I think it is a reflection of the character’s evolution over the hundred year gap between the books. He loses touch with the world. Mistakes are made but he does what he feels is best at the time. That’s a common thing with the characters here and I’m glad. All too often, characters do what the book things they should do rather than what they feel is best. Some of the forces opposing Colin aren’t doing it out of anything evil or malignant, it’s what they feel is best.

In particular, my new favorite character is Siobhaen. She’s part of the religious Order of the Flame and gets stuck in one of the bigger moral quandaries of the book. She ends up rolling with Colin and kicking ass along the way. I know this is Colin’s story first and foremost but I’d read a whole book from Siobhaen.

Siobhaen isn’t the only new face we get in Leaves. We get chapters that follow the point of view of a dwarren shaman, a human leuitenant on the fringes of explored lands and a lot more focus with the Chosen of the Alvritshai. I’m calling this a neutral thing. The larger cast is well handled but there are some chapters that pull you away from a point of view you really don’t want to leave. A big cast like that can be a double edged sword sometimes although I think it is a well wielded sword here.

My only real drawback is Leaves has a bit of the Book Two Problem you can see coming from a long ways away. It’s the sort of thing that happens in trilogies of any medium. Hell, it’s even in Star Wars. The first installment has a self contained story arc but book two resolves bits and pieces while saving much for the third. It’s a complete non-issue when book three is sitting on the shelf ready to go, but Tate is still writing it. So this is less of a complaint and more of a “Keep going strong ’cause I’m all impatient!”

So go read the first book and then have at it with this one. This is an author to support so we can keep getting books like this for years to come. Hell, this is an author I wish was a Rhode Islander so I could talk shop over Wrath Suvane maps.