Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin

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It feels appropriate that my return to writing about writing is also a return to a long familiar and beloved series. We’re diving into Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb today — the third of her trilogies about FitzChivalry Farseer.

As always. There will be spoilers — all the spoilers. Possibly for previous trilogies too. If you aren’t caught up on the various Six Duchies trilogies, well… then you have work to do. Get out of here and read some Robin Hobb.

So…

Fool’s Assassin takes place mostly at Withywoods, a charming country estate in the Six Duchies, and now the home of Molly and Fitz in their retirement. The events of the book center around their unexpected child Bee — she is even given alternating POVs with Fitz through most of the book.

This is not a plot driven book. It’s about Bee growing and Fitz handling aging in his own way. It’s about losing people and trying to get used to new people. It’s about expectations and living. Because of that, I’m not going to spend much time recapping here.

Let’s jump into some writing lessons from Fool’s Assassin.

Throughout the Six Duchies books, the background characters are fairly evenly split between men and women. There are male and female assassins, healers, soldiers, magic users, musicians, merchants, and on, and on. It’s done with very little comment.

That’s it really. There are plenty of times where men and women in this book have Western gender-normative roles, in the foreground and in the background. But by having lots of main cast, secondary cast and “extra” female characters who fill various normative and non-normative roles, it alleviates the pressure on the female characters to be entirely representative of the gender.

Lesson #1 : Gender Balance for Extras

Diversity in storytelling isn’t all about creating diverse protagonists. We need diverse backgrounds too. We need women in the room when it’s not a brothel or a group of wives.  Even if the culture you are building is patriarchal, keep in mind that women are still ‘around’ so to speak. It sounds self-evident, but it’s unrealistic when the extras’ demographics are monolithic.

As I mentioned, this book switches between Fitz’s POV, our dear former assassin, and his daughter. Bee is nine years old for most of the book, and she’s an ‘odd’ child. She has a much longer gestation period, she’s born with a high level of consciousness, has prophetic dreams, is able to read and write and draw at a young age. If you’ve read the series, you’ll pick up quickly on what she is, even if poor Fitz hasn’t caught up yet.

Writing children isn’t easy. Writing non-humans or extraordinary humans isn’t easy. Bee’s POV walks the lines of both carefully and with grace. She’s a child, but not exactly an ordinary one. Seeing her through her own eyes and the eyes of her father gives you empathy for the character, and at the same time lets you understand the ‘creepy child’ response she gets from some adults in her life.

Like Fitz, I wasn’t sure what to make of Bee at the beginning, and she grew on me.

Lesson #2: Being Bee

The tight first person of Fitz’s trilogies is consistently a masterclass in perspective. Bee’s perspective is like getting a whole new set of invaluable lectures on the subject. She’s sometimes selfish and naive, frustrated when her own self-evident truths are misunderstood, and both eminently human and quietly alien. 

For as brutal as these books are, a surprising number of characters have made it through six books and into Fool’s Assassin. Aging a character, letting them change and yet be the same, is something that we get multiple examples of in Fool’s Assassin.

Molly has been around peripherally for six books, and by now is an aging woman. Chade, an assassin who was old to begin with,  is now a medical miracle. Kettriken, once princess of a foreign kingdom, then queen of the Six Duchies, and now a dowager queen, has different priorities. Her son, King Dutiful, is a father in his own right.

Lesson #3: Aging Well 

It would be easy to let any of these characters stand still — to not check up on them, to leave the younger generations out and focus exclusively on the happenings and aging of the protagonist. And Hobb doesn’t. They’ve all grown up, grown older, and grown different.

First person. I mentioned the fabulous first person, but we’re going back to it in order to talk about misunderstandings.

This is everything from Fitz’s surprise that Chade is happy when Fitz reaches out telepathically, to his disappointment in Chade’s inability to offer consolation to Fitz on Molly’s death. There’s such nuance to the way Fitz sees Bee and Bee sees Fitz. There are tons of different details in here to look for.

Lesson #4: Misunderstandings between Characters

Human interactions are fraught with misinterpretations, with tiny differences of opinion and memory. Communication is imperfect, even between old friends. Hobb pays attention to her character relationships, and gives rough and irregular edges to their ability to relate, communicate and understand.

That’s four, and normally I’d stop there. But I have a few more thoughts. So…

SUPER SPOILER BONUS ROUNDS

Like really. I’m going to spoil the end of a few books in a moment. Get out of here if you haven’t read Farseer, Tawny Man et all.

So.

Grim dark fantasy is in vogue,  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people using the brutality of a secondary world to make it ‘realistic’. One problem with relying on that sort of thing, especially in an ongoing series, is the pressure to alway go bigger — to find things worse than death, to make the deaths more horrific, etc..

In the second book of the first trilogy, Fitz dies. Our first person POV is executed. Bloody brutal.

And yet, Hobb consistently succeeds in coming up with worse corners for Fitz to fight his way out of — without yet going back to killing him.

Fool’s Assassin is mostly small events both happy and sad — but I read the book waiting for the other shoe to drop — to really get punched in the gut by more than the melancholy of aging and watching the world change. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it better. There’s a body count at the end, a painful and effective body count, but that isn’t the main impact.

Ending the book with Bee in the hands of fanatical torturers, just after seeing what said torturers did to the beloved Fool, is crushing. Can’t wait to see how she breaks my heart in the next book.

Lesson #5: Upping the Ante

There are things so much worse than death. I like a good grimdark story as much as the next person. Possibly more than the next person. But murdering characters for shock value does not a narrative make. Don’t get twisted into thinking that death, torture, maiming, loss and illness can’t be effective in degrees. You don’t have to go all the way to be effective. 

Finishing this post I keep thinking of other things to talk about: Fitz saving the dog near the end and how satisfying it is to have him be a righteous badass after so much slow burn patience in the book. Or how painfully unfinished the lives of Revel and others feel when they are murdered.

Man, I missed this.

What did ya’ll think of Fool’s Assassin? Learn anything fun for your writing?

Box 17 – Blake Charlton’s Spellwright

So, today we dive into the lovely and fantastical box which is Blake Charlton’s Spellwright. The novel sports an innovative magic system, beautiful writing and puns for those who don’t normally pun. Keep the title in mind as we go.

***Spoiler Warning***

Below this line, I shall spoil without mercy or guilt. You are warned.

Spellwright is the tale of Nicodemus Weal, a cacographic (dyslexic, in this case) spellwright in a world where magic is literally “spelled” in words and paragraphs. Nicodemus is the potential center of several prophecies and plots for power, and struggles to understand what is happening around him, while trying to overcome his disability with magic.

The first item I want to talk about is the word “disability.” It’s used to describe Nicodemus and his fellow cacographers. Nicodemus’ life and his self-perception are heavily based in the reality of how the other wizards (“authors”) treat him. It’s never taken lightly, and it doesn’t go away. Nicodemus’ disability walks with him, convenient or not.

Lesson #1: There are lots of under represented experiences in fantasy. When it comes to mental disabilities, the other examples that spring to mind are Thick from Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy and Hodor from Mr. Martin’s world. Neither of which come close to protagonist material. (More examples I am missing? Head to the comments, dear readers!) Under represented perspectives can make your writing more compelling (if you do it while thinking of the character as a person, not a mouthpiece) and broadening the experiences we write about in fantasy is good for the genre. 

Next we’ll get into the magic system itself. Magic in the world of Spellwright is written spells in magical languages. There are different languages, most specific to a culture or organization. Spellwrights write letters, words and paragraphs in their bodies and cast them into the world to create an effect. A vocabulary of composition is used to describe the magic, making it more accessible than an invented vocabulary would be able to.

Lesson #2: Using mundane and common language to describe the foreign or magical aspects of a world helps the reader enter that world. I was sold on Spellwright in the prologue, where a wizard is forced to “eat her words,” which takes on a horrifying connotation as you quickly realize how the magic system works. Charlton continues to twist common sayings and give them new meanings throughout the book.

On the other end of combining the familiar and the strange, one of the magical languages introduced in the book is Language Prime – the language out of which all life is written. It has only four letters, and therefore any spell written in Language Prime is terribly long and very difficult to memorize. Language Prime is DNA.

Lesson #3: It is useful to describe the strange in terms of the commonplace, but it is also useful to look at the commonplace through the lens of the strange. Taking DNA and working it into the core magic concept adds a level of verisimilitude, and heck: It’s just cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is laying restrictions and obstacles on your character. As a protagonist moves through a heroic story, they are likely to become more powerful/competent/skilled, but they can’t become too powerful. Nicodemus’ great obstacle is his cacography, but that is used to inform his smaller obstacles. He comes into possession of an Index capable of accessing every book and journal in the magical university where he studies. This is super powerful, but his contact with the book means that anything he looks up misspells (another word that takes on a whole new meaning in this story). So, he cannot simply pull powerful wartexts off a page. They misspell and don’t work for him.

He finds a language to spell in, one that is logical and his dyslexia does not effect, but magic written in this language dissolves under sunlight: it was developed by subterrestrial people.

He learns Language Prime, but he will misspell any living thing he touches.

Lesson #4: The deeper the limitation, the better the hero must be to overcome it. Peter S. Beagle put it better: “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed.” This book sets solid limitations on each stride the protagonist makes.

One last thing I enjoyed in this book: the author clearly has a deep affection for the fantasy genre. That’s not something one always wants to come through heavily, but if you have read or do read the book, you will see what I mean.

Well, that’s all folks. See you next time.

Box 12 – David Anthony Durham’s Acacia

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So I’ve just finished rereading (listening) to the beginning of David Anthony’s Durham’s Acacia Trilogy. Acacia is a beautiful book with plenty to talk about in it, and hence our box for today. Ready for Acacia? Excellent!

SPOILERS will follow. Lots of them. You have been warned.

So – Acacia is essentially the story of four royal children – the heirs to an empire with some nasty secrets – who are disenfranchised and scattered to the four corners of the known world. They come of age in various ways and eventually are able to reclaim their family’s empire. Those that survive walk away with serious personal demons, all of which is elaborated on in the two novels that complete the trilogy.

The one that doesn’t survive this book is Aliver, the eldest child. He is set up as an idealist, and as the one who will be able to heal Acacia. His idealism leads him to accept a challenge to single combat with Maeander Mein (whose brother is mostly responsible for the coup that displaced the Acacians) and Aliver loses. With him dies his heroic push for a better world.

Lesson #1: It is difficult to enter a true turning point in any story with real ambiguity, and seeing it done is rare. Aliver’s death is a classic reversal of the hero surviving a single combat, but because we enter the combat with real uncertainty it doesn’t feel like death for the sake of post-modernism. It feels like a tragedy, for Aliver, his family and his world. Most of the time the tone of a story will tell us who is going to survive and who is going to die. Or at least, you know how it won’t work. This isn’t a bad thing. It plays on either our prayers for the impossible or the satisfaction of positive closure with a scene or story. But the novelty of a real chance that this could go either way is awesome, and that’s what comes through in Aliver’s battle with Maeander.

Generally speaking, most new fantasy writers are cautioned against using too many perspectives right off the bat. If you can’t seem to manage that, I suggest looking at what Acacia does. Acacia has a dozen or more different perspectives: all four children, their father King Leodan and his chancellor, three of the Mein family (who conquer Acacia), the scheming Rialus Neptos, the general Leeka Alain, several friends to the royal children and probably more that I’m missing off the top of my head.

And it manages not to feel cluttered. There is a lot of art to how this gets pulled off, but part of it is that even though you have all these voices in the book, it feels like they are all telling one story. You never get a perspective that doesn’t give you insight into what is going on, that isn’t connected overtly to the story being told. And often you have several perspectives that tell a linear story. When three of the royal children are rejoined to lead an army you get all of their perspectives in that location. In the capital we get Corinn’s view (the last of the Acacian royals who was captured by the Meins), and the views of her captors. The events have continuity so that the voices can bounce around more.

Lesson #2: If you can pull off unity of plot, you can get away with a rainbow’s worth of POVs. That unity of plot part is no small feat, and just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean you should always go for it, but it was awesome to read something that does both and makes it look easy.

One of the perspectives we get is Leeka Alain, a general in the Acacian army. Near the beginning of the novel, his entire force is destroyed by the Numrek – a race of larger, stronger humanoids that the Meins bring into the war. Leeka is the only one who survives, and he follows the rampaging army of Numreks, too late to warn the world of their coming. He catches up with one Numrek straggler. They fight, and Leeka Alain, despite his inferior strength and size, despite fear and frostbite and starvation, manages to kill the Numrek.

It’s an awesome duel. After it’s over, Leeka wonders how on earth he managed to win.

Lesson #3: The coolness of the duel is almost too much. It almost breaks the story’s verisimilitude. Hanging a lantern on the impossibility of Leeka’s victory is what makes it work. 

Lastly, it’s important to flesh out our peripheral characters, which Acacia does in spades. One moment in particular stuck with me though:

Mena is one of the royal children, sent away with a single guardian. They are followed, but not by the Mein. A man overtakes Mena and her guardian and then kills the guardian. He has no interest in the princess, or in the political upheaval taking place. He is settling a private debt against the man who was Mena’s guardian.

Lesson #4: I can’t say it better than the mysterious murderer: The protagonist “is not the only one with a story.” And moments like this one in Acacia go beyond a lip service to that rule. 

Right. That’s all for Acacia. For now anyway. Thanks for stopping by! We’ll have more boxes soon!

Box 08 – Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering (Part One)

Welcome back to our wonderful crazy boxes and thanks for stopping by! Alas, we missed last week at In Small Boxes. So to make up for it, we get two posts this week! Yay!

Today we dive into Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering Duo. This duo (duology? hmmm… yes. Duology) reads like one book, but is broken into Banewrecker and Godslayer. We’ll do two posts on it, but not necessarily breaking along the line that the books are.

So, as per usual: Spoiler Alert! Also, if you haven’t read the Lord of the Rings, we’ll probably be dipping into that. And the Avengers movie. That too.

So. Banewrecker and Godslayer. These novels are sort of the Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Sauron, with a healthy dollop of the Silmarillion. The Sundering is the story of Satoris Third Born, essentially a fallen god, and his three lieutenants: Tanaros the warrior, Ushahin who walks in dreams, and Vorax the practical. Throughout the ages of Men, Satoris is persecuted by the combined power of his god siblings and their agents for disobeying the chief of the Gods. This conflict comes to a head and armies gather for a last battle between the forces of light and dark. Though, which is which is a point of contention. Meanwhile, the boy Dani gets closer to the stronghold of Darkhaven, carrying the Water of Life and the ability to make Satoris vulnerable. Both volumes of the Sundering run more than 800 pages, so obviously we’ll be skipping some things. I’ll try to keep making sense.

I actually want to start sideways, with the Avengers movie. On the verge of death, having been killed by the villain Loki, Agent Coulson tells Loki that he will ultimately lose the battle to rule the earth. Why, you ask? “You lack conviction.”

I think this is a beautiful and concise description of one division between the heroes and the villains of this particular piece. In the end, it is part of what makes Satoris believable as a villain even though the reader is on his side. Satoris fears that he is doomed, and whenever we see him it feels like he is thrashing against the inevitable rather than mounting a real defense. In the end, Satoris lacks the conviction of a hero. No matter how right he is, he is going to lose.

Lesson #1: There is more than morality which marks the villains and the heroes in classical storytelling. One of those divisions is that conviction. Or maybe it’s just the difference between epic and tragic. This book is a great and marvelous look at what it means to be one or the other.

Like the Lord of the Rings and several of its spiritual children, there are multiple races in The Sundering who live on different timelines. Men have the lifespans of humans, the Ellyl (similar to elves) are immortal (unless killed), but the Shapers (“gods”) are older and immortal (super difficult to kill) and the Dragons are even older than the Shapers.

Everything Satoris talks about is laden with the fact that he is older than whomever he is speaking to. The human sorceress Lilias is pulled between her natural mortality and her magical immortality constantly. The Three, Satoris’ lieutenants, are in the same position.

There are a dozen more examples: the leader of the Were lives an extended life compared to her people, we get the perspectives of ordinary elves and men, we met the oldest dragon, etc…

Lesson #2: The perception of time should rely heavily on lifespan. Lip service to the fact that different creatures have different lifespans, and, therefore, timelines for their lives, is all very well. But if you want to see someone take to heart the potential problems of such divisions, then this is a book to look at.

Now I mentioned Lilias – who consorts with dragons and the Sunderer. She is a very rough equivalent to Saruman. But I haven’t gotten to Cerelinde yet. Near the beginning, the Ellyl Cerelinde is kidnapped to keep her from marrying a human (and thus fulfilling a prophecy). She is taken to Darkhaven and becomes a torment to everyone from Satoris himself to the mad servants that inhabit the stronghold. She is the physical representation of the doubt eating at Darkhaven but she begins to fall into Stockholm syndrome. On the other end, Lilias falls into the hands of the forces of “light” and becomes the dark seed in the other side of the yin-yang.

Lesson #3: Characters do not need to cross paths in order to be foils. Cerelinde and Lilias are complements to each other. These women’s endings exemplify their roles: Lilias gives up and kills herself. Cerelinde fights her correct doubts and murders Satoris. In a way, this is a continuation of the the discussion in Lesson #1 about conviction as a difference between the villains and the heroes. 

Last we’ll talk about Malthus the Councilor, agent of Haomane, first among Shapers, and one of the most dangerous people in the Sundered world. This is an excellent character who stands on his own, but you can’t deny that Gandalf makes him feel like a personal betrayal. Whether you met Gandalf before or after Ian McKellan, Gandalf is the great grandfather we all wanted. And Malthus walks and talks like Gandalf. Except he is wrong. We know that the evil he is warning against isn’t actually evil, and that the things he is setting in motion will put Satoris with his back to the wall, and force him into battle and desperate action.

Lesson #4: The inversion of a classical mentor is a simple but effective character. (Sort of like the concept for this entire book is simple but effective). Malthus is a marvelous example of this. You hate him, with his fatherly smile and condescending assurances. It’s a wonderful construction, though unfortunately makes you twitch a little when you see Gandalf.

Whew! Okay, we’ll take a break here and then on to Part Two.

Box 06: N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms

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Well, today we are diving into our second N. K. Jemison box. Incidentally it is the second in her Inheritance Trilogy, taking us once more to the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in The Broken Kingdoms. (You can check out my lessons from the first book here).

As I mentioned, this is probably my favorite recent series, and if you haven’t gotten to it yet, then maybe I can convince you! It’s got all the fixings: true love, betrayal and revenge, and meddling gods.

As always, before we get going: SPOILERS! I’ll try to keep it to the first two books, but no guarantees.

So. At the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the gods Nahadoth (chaos), Sieh (childhood) and Zhakkarn (warrior) were freed, Yeine was elevated to godhood, and Itempas (order) was confined to mortal flesh as punishment. Although he is never a POV, in many ways this trilogy is about Itempas (as in the original Star Wars Trilogy is in many ways the story of Darth Vader).

In the Broken Kingdoms, we see through the blind eyes of Oree, an artist and street merchant, eventually revealed as a demon (hold that word, I love her definition) and magic user. She gets embroiled in the plots of other demons, of gods, and in the affairs of Itempas, the fallen god of order.

I want to start with Oree, and since I already mentioned it, with demons. Demons, in this world, are the children of gods or godlings and humans. They are not as powerful as gods, but they have extended lifetimes and they possess a particular kind of magic. They were also almost all destroyed, because the blending of immortal and mortal blood produced a mixture that was deadly to the gods and godlings.

Now, Oree does not know that somewhere in her family tree was a god and that she is a demon. It naturally becomes a major plot point and the nexus of a tragedy.

Lesson  #1: These books play a lot with the idea of antithesis, and this is one example. Here we care deeply both for the godlings and the demon, both sides of the antithesis, which makes for emotional tension in the reader.

We’ll stick with Oree for a moment and bounce back to the fact that she is technically blind. She can, however, see magic. This is written in first person, we see through the eyes of a blind woman, which colors all of what we perceive in the world. And at the same time, while the way Oree does and does not see is ever present, it is not allowed to dominate her character. You never think of Oree as the blind woman. You think of her as Oree.

Lesson #2: As humans we tend to describe our world visually – it’s the first thing we tend to put down in writing too. Which is why you will see lots of advice to use the other senses. Oree’s descriptions are still often visual, but by giving us a first person narrator who sees differently from ourselves and the other people in her world, we are more engaged with the sights. 

We’re going to move on from Oree to Itempas (or Shiny, as Oree calls our fallen god of order and daylight. Man, I love this book). I am a fan of stories that can encompass a character in a simple action. Shortly, sweetly, and definitively. And one of the first things we find out about Shiny is that he is suicidal. He keeps killing his human body, which will keep repairing itself. And because he is the god of order, he tries to do it neatly.

And there he is. All his despair and frustration and rage, all his damaged soul, and his nature: neat suicides.

Lesson #3: I mentioned that this trilogy is, in many ways, the story of Itempas, but this is the book where we spend the most time with him. We learn a lot in that brief scene where he stabs himself and tries not to bleed everywhere. This is a tiny masterpiece of show, don’t tell. Finding that sort of tight, brief introduction is a difficult thing to craft, and this is a lovely example of it.

Finally, with Shiny we will come back to the idea of antithesis. The gods and godlings of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms all have something that is so opposite to their natures that it is dangerous to them. The first god is chaos: Nahadoth who is change, who is darkness, who is neither male nor female. Itempas is the second. He is order and light and logic. Stability. They sound like opposites, no?

Call them balances rather, other halves. They are lovers, and if their natures were antithetical they could not be so.

In this book we find out why Itempas went mad. Why he killed the third god to come forth (Enefa, who was Life), why he imprisoned Nahadoth and the others, why he ended up stuck in a mortal (ish) body. He encountered his antithesis, and it was being alone. He was the second. He was never alone. And for one moment the other two were so focused on each other that they forgot him. In that moment Itempas met his antithesis and it drove him mad.

Lesson #4: This is where we need the old adage: “The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.” The old opposites we learned as children are not the only polarities or antitheses out there. Looking beyond our ordinary binaries makes for some wonderful storytelling. 

Well, that’s all for The Broken Kingdoms. There is more to talk about. Always is. And hopefully I will see ya’ll for my discussion of the final book in this trilogy: The Kingdom of Gods. Keep diving into boxes!