Reviews of THE END OF EARTH AND SKY

Reviews of The End of Earth and Sky are beginning to trickle in. I have the particular honour to call your attention to two: Sherwood Smith offers a fine and perceptive (and favourable) review on Book View Cafe: ‘New Discoveries — The End of Earth and Sky’ Jonathan Moeller reviews it on his own blog: ‘The End of Earth & Sky, by Tom Simon’ Encouraging news, to be sure.

Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
  If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet. There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. One is to name people and places with the kind of jumble one might get by rolling Perquackey dice. This will do for a joke, or for a private diversion like a role-playing game: a friend of mine once did yeoman service with a character unfortunately named Hogheospox. But it is unkind to inflict such names on the reading public; especially your public. The opposite error is the perfectly mundane name with a coat of bad paint. I am referring to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies. Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:
‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’
Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun. But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second. George R. R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune; or rather, they seem to be playing about three different tunes at once, and the tunes don’t harmonize. In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious (unless he intended them not to be, like ‘lovely Lugbúrz’) and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it. As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell. The C stands for Cat, you see; it is a natural contraction, like the one you occasionally used to see for Scottish names — MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories. What’s more, Smith actually unbends far enough to explain this. The average perpetrator of Aggravated Apostrophe couldn’t explain why she sticks pothooks in the middle of words, not to save her life, her soul, and her poetic licence. Or at any rate, she doesn’t bother. Likewise, it is only right and just that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike, and that he should apprentice for a time under an old medico by the name of Prunesquallor. (It is still more right and just that the medico should have a ghastly sister named Irma Prunesquallor.) These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on some of the glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language. This is a great timesaver. An honourable mention — I owe this observation to my friend John C. Wright — should go to David Lindsay, for some of the names in his infinitely strange novel, Voyage to Arcturus. Despite the name and the ostensible setting, this book really belongs to the genre of fictionalized philosophical declamations, like Atlas Shrugged, rather than science fiction or fantasy as such; which is one of the reasons why it has gone out of vogue, and (frequently) out of print. But Lindsay must have been a considerable influence on Smith and Peake, with his protagonist Maskull, and characters with names like Krag and Nightspore. These names are not all euphonious and certainly not all of one linguistic type, but they are striking and evocative, and that makes up for some of their deficiencies. Lindsay’s onomastic triumphs, known to thousands who have never read any of his books, are jale and ulfire, the two primary colours that one sees in the Arcturian sunlight, but never on earth. Those names are so suggestive that I can almost imagine what they look like. Jale, to me, suggests a colour between red and green that is nevertheless not yellow; pale like milky jade (for all I know, the name may be a portmanteau of jade and pale), but as bright and vivid as any colour you can see through a prism. (I have read that women with the recessive gene for colour-blindness sometimes report seeing such a red-green colour, but I don’t know what it looks like to them.) Ulfire suggests a torridly brilliant colour somewhere beyond violet, which would affect the human eye somewhat like the purplish-white of the very hottest lightning. Lindsay describes ulfire as ‘wild and painful’, and jale as ‘dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous’. I can well imagine those descriptions fitting with colours of the sort I have described, though I came up with those impressions from the words alone, without ever having read any part of the book. The names are just that magnificently evocative. Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Inventing languages, like writing archaic English (or, as Le Guin says, bicycling and computer programming), is one of those things you have got to know how to do before you can do it. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice, alas; and so the ghraem’lans, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come.

The Next Big Thing

Jonathan Moeller has tagged me for The Next Big Thing. I am nearly as susceptible as a dragon to flattery (although, unlike Smaug, I am painfully aware of the weak points in my armour); what is more important, I am stuck on the all-important cover copy for the Octopus, so I can answer these questions as a sort of rehearsal. The strict instructions call for me to tag five more writers, but Jonathan has sneakily tagged most of the people that it would occur to me to tag. Instead I shall ask the great-hearted and talented Sherwood Smith, who fights against the Deplorable Word under the name of Sartorias, if she has a work in progress that she would like to put through the procedure. Sherwood is generally too reticent about her own work, and could stand to be less self-effacing about it. (I humbly beg your pardon, Sherwood, if you’ve already participated in this Next Big Thing thing, but if you have, I missed it.) Now that I’ve broken the rules all to smash, let us get on with the battered residue and answer the questions. What is the working title of your book? I always make up sardonic working titles that imply that my work in progress is rubbish, just to discourage me from talking about it excessively instead of writing it. I got this idea from a story that went the rounds on the Internet grapevine some time ago. There was this tech company, it seems, whose engineers were sick and tired of having all their projects announced prematurely by the over-zealous sales force under their code names, generating hype (and impatience) that the actual technology could not live up to. So they struck back, and gave their new project the code name BARF. The sales force could not bring themselves to blab to the customers about a project named BARF, so the engineers were able to work in peace. In this spirit, my first completed project (Lord Talon’s Revenge), which was published this past August, went by the working title of ‘The Filthy Screed’. Writing Down the Dragon, my book of essays on what I call the Tolkien Method, is proceeding under the incognito of ‘The Scratch Monkey’. But the work I want to talk about here, which my 3.6 Loyal Readers know all too well, is ‘The Magnificent Octopus’. ‘The Magnificent Octopus’ is a multi-volume series. The actual series title is The Eye of the Maker. Book One, which with luck will be appearing very shortly, is to be called The End of Earth and Sky. Where did the idea for the book come from? There is a large park in Calgary near the neighbourhood where I grew up: Fish Creek Provincial Park. One day over thirty years ago, I rode my bicycle down one of the paths into the valley where the park is; but I took the wrong entrance by mistake, and wound up slogging through what seemed like miles of up-hill, down-dale, get-off-your-bike-and-push terrain before I struck any familiar landmarks. If this sounds like an inauspicious idea for a fantasy, it probably is. But it gave me the idea of the hero returning from the forbidden and forbidding mountain realm of the Old Gods, coming back by a different road than he thought he was taking, and being catapulted into all sorts of adventures because he didn’t know where he was. It is Brian Aldiss, I think, who says that his best stories come from the juxtaposition of two ideas, which he calls the exotic and the familiar. For me, getting lost in the park was the familiar bit. The exotic idea (which is now too familiar to anybody who uses the Internet) was the idea of the Eye of the Maker itself, the magic jewel that confers (theoretical) omniscience: it answers, correctly and infallibly (unlike the Internet), any question that you have the wit to ask it. But it can’t predict the future, and it doesn’t tell you the things that you don’t know you don’t know. What genre does this fall under? Straight-up epic fantasy of, I am afraid, a very old-fashioned kind. It isn’t particularly gritty or ironic or ‘Grimdark’, and it certainly isn’t urban fantasy; it hasn’t got a wizards’ school or sparkly vampires, and it should therefore, according to the commercial pundits, go over like pickled strawberries. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version? I go by voices more than faces when I think of actors; sometimes I borrow an actor’s voice, and try to imagine a particular character’s dialogue being delivered in that voice. I also like to read my work aloud (privately) as a way of catching infelicities and errors. In my mind’s ear I have borrowed Christopher Lee’s voice for Vargon, Lord of the Dead. Rijeth, the retired wizard, sounds something like the long-late William Hartnell. The other characters haven’t yet attached themselves to particular voices. What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book? Oh, gosh. I hate writing these— Young Calin Lowford, forbidden to go to war, braves the forbidden mountains of the Old Gods to avenge his best friend’s death. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Self-published (under the name of Bondwine Books). ‘Bondwine’ is the name of a magic elixir that appears later on in the series. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? Two months, but that was decades ago and almost nothing of that draft has survived. Once a decade or so, I have dusted it off and tried again, more or less from scratch, to see if I have grown sufficiently as a writer to do the subject justice. This time I think I may have done it. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? After so many years of drafts and side-story and back-story, it has developed some of the many-layered and ramifying nature of Tolkien’s work. I also have some of Tolkien’s habit of developing the story through language (or vice versa), though of course I am immensely less learned. The story as such owes something to Stephen R. Donaldson, though without, I hope, the brooding self-pity that tends to disfigure his heroes. There are threads of Welsh and English legend, and a certain flavour of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Prydain is of course just the old Welsh name for Britain; it was partly as a nod to Alexander, partly to emphasize the British elements in my invented country, and partly for reasons to do with my invented language, that I called that country ‘Pyrandain’. Who or what inspired you to write this book? In the first instance, I was a teenaged fanboy with Tolkien, Donaldson, Lewis, and Alexander (and others) swirling round all too freely in my head. I wanted to join in on the conversation, and pay forward some of the debt that I owed to the writers and the books I loved. Besides, it seemed like (and was) enormous fun to do. After the first attempt went nowhere helpful, I set the story aside, but something about it insisted on being told. I have tried my hand at a good many other things (some of which had nothing to do with writing), but I keep coming back to this. Evidently it needs to be written down properly and exorcised from my brain. What else about your book might pique the interest of readers? Chases, fights, oaths of revenge, ancient lore, wizardly combats, omens, visions, perils, betrayals, magical tests, hidden gods, and the Secret at the End of the World. And that’s just in Book One. Seven more to come!