Fantasy & Beyond

A Book Forum for Speculative Fiction

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By ScarletBea
#1176
Moved from the "What are you reading" topic - I thought it's a really interesting discussion that should have its own thread.
I had to copy your posts here instead of just moving because in the beginning you were mixing that discussion with "currently reading" comments, and then I had to maintain the temporal timeline...
Sorry for all the missed likes, feel free to like again :)

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Written by @Peat

I also recently had a peek at Swann's The King's Justice and I have to say my first reaction to it is very meh and perplexed people like it.
#1177
Peat wrote: April 9th, 2024, 19:17 I also recently had a peek at Swann's The King's Justice and I have to say my first reaction to it is very meh and perplexed people like it.
Ouch, this is one I've got still unread at home.
I hope it'll be one of those where we disagree, haha
#1178
Written by @cupiscent

Peat wrote: April 9th, 2024, 19:17 I also recently had a peek at Swann's The King's Justice and I have to say my first reaction to it is very meh and perplexed people like it.
Super curious as to the source of your meh, if you've time / brain / inclination to expand. I didn't love it to bits, it didn't hit anything I find super compelling (which is probably why I haven't read on) and there were some key sticking points (mostly gendered stuff I feel wasn't thought through), but overall there were some strengths. In particular, I thought the worldbuilding was refreshingly intricate for what might otherwise be a same-old faux-medieval-Europe, and I did like the narrator frame and voice. And the circuit-court premise gave a real weight of realism for me.
#1179
Written by @Peat

ScarletBea wrote: April 9th, 2024, 19:22
Ouch, this is one I've got still unread at home.
I hope it'll be one of those where we disagree, haha
cupiscent wrote: April 9th, 2024, 22:27
Super curious as to the source of your meh, if you've time / brain / inclination to expand. I didn't love it to bits, it didn't hit anything I find super compelling (which is probably why I haven't read on) and there were some key sticking points (mostly gendered stuff I feel wasn't thought through), but overall there were some strengths. In particular, I thought the worldbuilding was refreshingly intricate for what might otherwise be a same-old faux-medieval-Europe, and I did like the narrator frame and voice. And the circuit-court premise gave a real weight of realism for me.
It should be noted that I am still very critical of most things I read at the moment, which doesn't help.

But basically it boils down to just thinking there's no hook. There's no reason to care about the characters or the situation. A group of people I don't know goes somewhere I don't know and ask a bunch of questions that are one step removed from the particulars of the salted herring crop. The prose is solid enough and flows nicely enough but it's very vanilla with no particular interesting flourishes or witticisms.

I feel like I'm reading the fifth book in a series where they assume you know all the characters and you just have to be solid, so they don't put a huge amount of back into the introduction, and not a first novel that's sweating bricks about trying to make you see why to give this one a chance as soon as possible... except presumably that is happening because it's a first novel, and I'm just utterly cold to the hooks. Which isn't a good sign. Sure, I could continue reading easily enough, but with my precious time and stinking bad mood, why do so with someone where I disagree so strongly on what a first chapter should contain?

I also have to admit that what Dee said about the realism is like feeling ice slide down my back.

It's funny. I'm of a similar generation to most of the current authors. I understand what the drive to write more rigorously realistic fiction comes from. Hell, tons of my own is in this space.

But as a reader? I'm so bored of it. You can do great things with fantasy in that space but there's so damn much of it and so little adventure, so little fantasticalness, that I'm sick of it. We just did a three day party for the solar eclipse and by the end of the third day, I was only drinking water and thinking longingly of a huge plate of steamed broccoli. That's how I feel about these fantasies written in the shadow of GRR Martin. I don't want to see them. I don't want to see anything like them. You can sneak them past me if you disguise what they are, but point them out and I'm going eww.

We'll see how I feel for letting it rest for a couple of weeks but I suspect it's going to be a DNF and honestly, now that rant's tumbled out, probably the last recent-ish major debut I try for a long time.
#1181
Wriiten by @cupiscent

Peat wrote: April 10th, 2024, 01:35 But basically it boils down to just thinking there's no hook. There's no reason to care about the characters or the situation. A group of people I don't know goes somewhere I don't know and ask a bunch of questions that are one step removed from the particulars of the salted herring crop. The prose is solid enough and flows nicely enough but it's very vanilla with no particular interesting flourishes or witticisms.
This is fascinating! I was so intrigued by your rant that I went and found my copy of the book to read the first chapter again. Which I actually think is pretty good, so I thought I would lay out how and why. BUT I want to stress that stories / reading / writing are so very subjective, and if you don't like it you just don't like it and there's no requirement to read it! Going "ugh, not for me" is 100% excellent choices.
So for starters, I think the book has a cracking first line. "It is a strange thing to think that the end of the Empire of the Wolf, and all the death and devastation that came with it, traced its long roots back to the tiny and insignificant village of Rill." Right there: end of empire, death and devastation. We're starting here, but we're going to end up over there. This is the winch up the start of the rollercoaster.

I think the opening - the arrival in the little village - has lots of interesting detail in the cracks. There's dealing with the annoying priest - which just taps into every single annoying co-worker / fellow traveller experience, and immediately makes the main characters more relatable and sympathetic. And then there are the details of the setting (the isolation and size and make-up and style of the village, the recent history of conquest and rise of empire) and of characters (Vonvalt's fussiness, Helena's general avoidance of conflict).

Then we get into the meat - Vonvalt's use of the Emperor's Voice, demonstrating some of the special physics. We get a sense of how it works, but also of how it fits into the systems of the world. The interrogation and subsequent discussion also shows Vonvalt's character as a stickler for law, but not a True Believer, making him sympathetic, especially against the awful zeal of the priest. This in turn introduces the thematic element of compromise - why can't they just bend to the law, it's really easy, it's better for everyone - but also in the sympathy toward the victim there's the power imbalance and threat of compromise to empire.

These are all the hooks that grabbed me in that first chapter - big story, setting, character, themes - which is very efficient at only 10 pages in my hardback. That said, if they don't grab you as a reader, then that's both perfectly fine (we all like different things) and an excellent sign that the rest of the book probably isn't for you either. Which is pretty much the first chapter doing its job.
I also have to admit that what Dee said about the realism is like feeling ice slide down my back.
OK wait hold up, I feel I should clarify my usage of "realism". Because so often, recently, "realism" is used in describing fantasy fiction to mean "gritty violence (probably sexual, certainly systemic)" and that's not what I mean here at all. Like, yes Swan's setting has the dirt and squalor of medievalia, but when I say the circuit-court premise adds realism, I mean that Swan is a lawyer, I'm pretty sure he has worked the circuit court, and he brings all his experience to a system of law and its application that rings with verisimilitude and shining detail. (So often, fantasy settings have a local magistrate in places that are way too small to support such a thing; all justice is grand and massive; but the reality is much more tricky and complicated, and in that tricky complexity lie the fascinating details of what humans do and are.)

And when I describe the worldbuilding as "intricate", I mean there is more detail and thought and tricky complexity - as described above, being the abode of humanity and truths about our behaviour, to my mind. I've been thinking recently about how much I prefer non-European fantasy settings, and I think a lot of that is because it requires more worldbuilding intricacy to deliver to a Western audience. The author can't just go: village, tavern, ale, wench, ok we all know where we are let's go. The author needs to deliver more detail and nuance and vibe and interlocking pieces, which gives more richness to the whole thing. And that's the stuff I find fascinating and wondrous. So when I say the worldbuilding in Swan's work is more intricate, I mean he's giving more detailed life to a setting that is often allowed to be just a painted backdrop.

Which might be your point, @Peat. If you want to spend less time on the scenery and more time just getting on with the action, that's totally valid! I'm more just using this as a chance to line up some thoughts I've been having. :beaming:

I also want to stress that a) everyone gets to make their own choices about what to read or not, it's cool! and also b) I really am not championing this book, I did not enjoy it that much. I'm also feeling incredibly picky about reading material in the last few years, so it's particularly fascinating to have someone bounce off something that more or less worked for me; I wanted to dig into it. And, let's face it, I'm just a nerd for talking about the details of all this stuff. :phew:
#1182
Written by @Peat

I was going to write a long response to @cupiscent then decided that I should try going back to sleep instead -

But just wanted to say first I absolutely get you being a details nerd, and that's what I am too, and it's all good in the hood 8)
#1184
Written by @DrNefario

I'm going to finish The Justice of Kings (I keep calling it The King's Justice for some reason) today, all being well, and I have to say I'm kind of with Peat here. A good chunk of it is definitely me. The book sets out its stall early on: the interjections from the future where the story is being told kind of lay out where the story is going - right from the first line, as quoted above - and it just wasn't really a story I was in the mood for. Add that to the fact that the alleged good guys aren't very sympathetic - the Justice is basically an instrument of imperial oppression - and I contemplated DNFing for much of the first half of the book.

Ultimately I decided to push through, and it did pick up in the second half, but I'm still not sure I'm very interested in continuing the series.

So yes, I haven't really enjoyed it, but I think it was at least 75% bad timing (and lack of preparation). As I said, the book tells you what it is very early on, and I just let out a sigh and thought "this isn't what I wanted right now". That's quite a hurdle for it to overcome.

The use of magic is quite unusual and interesting.
#1185
Written by @Peat

cupiscent wrote: April 10th, 2024, 06:42
Peat wrote: April 10th, 2024, 01:35 I also have to admit that what Dee said about the realism is like feeling ice slide down my back.
OK wait hold up, I feel I should clarify my usage of "realism". Because so often, recently, "realism" is used in describing fantasy fiction to mean "gritty violence (probably sexual, certainly systemic)" and that's not what I mean here at all. Like, yes Swan's setting has the dirt and squalor of medievalia, but when I say the circuit-court premise adds realism, I mean that Swan is a lawyer, I'm pretty sure he has worked the circuit court, and he brings all his experience to a system of law and its application that rings with verisimilitude and shining detail. (So often, fantasy settings have a local magistrate in places that are way too small to support such a thing; all justice is grand and massive; but the reality is much more tricky and complicated, and in that tricky complexity lie the fascinating details of what humans do and are.)

And when I describe the worldbuilding as "intricate", I mean there is more detail and thought and tricky complexity - as described above, being the abode of humanity and truths about our behaviour, to my mind. I've been thinking recently about how much I prefer non-European fantasy settings, and I think a lot of that is because it requires more worldbuilding intricacy to deliver to a Western audience. The author can't just go: village, tavern, ale, wench, ok we all know where we are let's go. The author needs to deliver more detail and nuance and vibe and interlocking pieces, which gives more richness to the whole thing. And that's the stuff I find fascinating and wondrous. So when I say the worldbuilding in Swan's work is more intricate, I mean he's giving more detailed life to a setting that is often allowed to be just a painted backdrop.

Which might be your point, @Peat. If you want to spend less time on the scenery and more time just getting on with the action, that's totally valid! I'm more just using this as a chance to line up some thoughts I've been having. :beaming:

I also want to stress that a) everyone gets to make their own choices about what to read or not, it's cool! and also b) I really am not championing this book, I did not enjoy it that much. I'm also feeling incredibly picky about reading material in the last few years, so it's particularly fascinating to have someone bounce off something that more or less worked for me; I wanted to dig into it. And, let's face it, I'm just a nerd for talking about the details of all this stuff. :phew:
Easier to do this one as a twofer, particularly as expressing myself correctly on this one is taking some brain juice.

In any case, I knew exactly what you meant, although I can see why you wanted to put the clarification out there, and it was more or less exactly my point.

But not because I don't want to look at the scenery in order to get to the action. Sometimes the scenery can be the action. I think there's just a couple of tricky logic gates a fantasy book has to pass through for it

The first is the extent to which I increasingly want a good dose of awe and wonder out of my fantasy. Intricate social detail isn't mutually incompatible with that, but it's a very tricky pair of flavours to balance and I feel like there's a bias among the intricate social detail fans towards not valuing awe and wonder that highly to begin with.

The second is that if we're going there without the awe and wonder, then I'm looking for a) something exceptional about the story that draws me in despite myself b) no more turn-offs, which means walking some very fine lines if they're seeking to mirror modern issues.

The third is I'm now comparing it to every other story or book I've met that's really gone hard for intricate social detail, and that's a pretty hard bar to beat when I'm talking about stuff set in the real world vs that which isn't and stuff in RPG sourcebooks vs stuff in fictional novels. It's just easier to do these things in other mediums. So even when it's a strength of a fantasy book, it's unlikely to feel like a strength.

The result is what you're talking about is exactly what I'm going "oh no" at. It can work for me, but generally doesn't to the point that I lose a lot of expectation when I twig that's what's going on.
#1186
Written by @Peat

cupiscent wrote: April 10th, 2024, 06:42
Peat wrote: April 10th, 2024, 01:35 But basically it boils down to just thinking there's no hook. There's no reason to care about the characters or the situation. A group of people I don't know goes somewhere I don't know and ask a bunch of questions that are one step removed from the particulars of the salted herring crop. The prose is solid enough and flows nicely enough but it's very vanilla with no particular interesting flourishes or witticisms.
This is fascinating! I was so intrigued by your rant that I went and found my copy of the book to read the first chapter again. Which I actually think is pretty good, so I thought I would lay out how and why. BUT I want to stress that stories / reading / writing are so very subjective, and if you don't like it you just don't like it and there's no requirement to read it! Going "ugh, not for me" is 100% excellent choices.
So for starters, I think the book has a cracking first line. "It is a strange thing to think that the end of the Empire of the Wolf, and all the death and devastation that came with it, traced its long roots back to the tiny and insignificant village of Rill." Right there: end of empire, death and devastation. We're starting here, but we're going to end up over there. This is the winch up the start of the rollercoaster.

I think the opening - the arrival in the little village - has lots of interesting detail in the cracks. There's dealing with the annoying priest - which just taps into every single annoying co-worker / fellow traveller experience, and immediately makes the main characters more relatable and sympathetic. And then there are the details of the setting (the isolation and size and make-up and style of the village, the recent history of conquest and rise of empire) and of characters (Vonvalt's fussiness, Helena's general avoidance of conflict).

Then we get into the meat - Vonvalt's use of the Emperor's Voice, demonstrating some of the special physics. We get a sense of how it works, but also of how it fits into the systems of the world. The interrogation and subsequent discussion also shows Vonvalt's character as a stickler for law, but not a True Believer, making him sympathetic, especially against the awful zeal of the priest. This in turn introduces the thematic element of compromise - why can't they just bend to the law, it's really easy, it's better for everyone - but also in the sympathy toward the victim there's the power imbalance and threat of compromise to empire.

These are all the hooks that grabbed me in that first chapter - big story, setting, character, themes - which is very efficient at only 10 pages in my hardback. That said, if they don't grab you as a reader, then that's both perfectly fine (we all like different things) and an excellent sign that the rest of the book probably isn't for you either. Which is pretty much the first chapter doing its job.
And now for thoughts on that first chapter - in spoiler, although I don't think a huge amount is spoiled.

One thing I want to make clear outside of spoilers though - I don't think it's awful or bad, I'm just nonplussed given the rep the book has and surprised it isn't more of a traditionally hooky book as generally big trad publishing really goes hard after that hook and here, not so much.

And, tbf, there are a few things beyond that which don't work for me specifically. Details below!
So that first line had a big effect on me too, but kind of in an opposite way. It's very attention grabbing but once I had my attention on it I was going "hang on, what's really being told?".

For me, those big eye-grabbing opening lines should be trying to expound something unique. They're trying to demonstrate some oddity of the situation, or the people in it, or some unusual quirk of language (Neuromancer's sky the colour of dead television will stay with me forever) that says "this is why you should stick with this one".

And by choosing to focus on "we're winching this thing up" - which is pretty much the given of givens for trad fantasy - over any of those other things completely threw me and honestly probably led to my quickest doubting of compatibility between me and an author ever. Because beyond the genericness of it as an open line, it's making me go "hang on, why aren't your characters or specific opening scenario the first thing you think of?".

Because - and this is making me think of the logic gates of my response - I think by far the best (or perhaps better to say easiest) way to tell an epic/trad fantasy is to start small (prologue excluded) with a normal peep with normal problems and then increase the level of epicness and weirdness and fantasyness around them. The advantage is it gives the author more time and grace in introducing things, rather than trying to explain and sell three different things to the reader at once.

And that opening line is a tacit "no, I disagree" because Swann is going right for that jugular. Which is a bold strategy and I am big time struggling to think of *any* author that I think has pulled it off for me.

Which I think spills into the rest of the chapter. A difference between you and me (I think) is you're happy with all the juicy little morsels and happy to go nosing on the trail for more of them, but I want a big punch in the mouth of some sort to get my attention. A drip of details can go on around that, but I can't do all drip. Because Swann is trying to set up so much, I get all drip - although I'd notice there are ways he could have had his cake and eat it. The obvious one is an interesting narrative voice; I can't believe he has Helena as a first person narrator and has her so neutral, as that I think could have rescued it (in fact, I had to check she is a first person narrator as it made so little impression on me). I'd have probably forgiven everything if Helena was an interesting and lively narrator. Swann writes fine, but he doesn't write interesting.

What I'd have probably insisted on if I was his editor is a different first chapter where Vonvalt and chums happen across a heretic chapel with people worshipping, which introduces a lot of the same informational notes but in a more dramatic setting that lends itself to a discussion of the matter in the smaller setting of the group rather than the local landowner and everyone else. Then go to the castle, where the interview with the local landowner comes with more drama because Vonvalt now knows more, and the landowner is trying to avoid giving away too much without telling lies that Vonvalt will instantly see through. I think that would have been a far smarter use of the opening scenario to be able to get a bigger hook, and to also show more of Vonvalt, who is very underdrawn to me at the end of the first chapter. That's the other reason I think the first chapter should have been more dramatic - drama means choices, choices mean decisions, and decisions tell us about people. Making Vonvalt make more decisions would make him a lot better drawn and interesting.

There is one further big point where what worked for you didn't work for me and that is the whole scenario of conquering imposing faith vs conquered and how that looks. To me, I'm not reading a theme of compromise, I'm reading a theme of wrong and right with the wrong being kind of an easy target to pick on. The first two thirds of the sentence are whatever to me, not a turn-off just I'm not getting what you're getting and ergo it's not a good thing either, but the last third and the bit about it being an easy target is faintly distasteful to me. I have a lot of problems with organised religion, but I also have problems with compressing it to its worst impulses only which is Swann's first chapter presentation. It also makes it difficult for me to get compromise themes when someone is doing that, as they've gone with a non-compromise presentation of the world. It's like seeing someone say "I'm here to be the impartial chair on this debate on the ethics and rightness of meat consumption vs vegetarianism" while wearing a shirt talking about how much they love Big Macs.

Which might be a totally unfair representation of what Swann meant to do and what he's meaning to do, but that's part of why I think authors shouldn't be trying to do too much in their first chapters so they can do justice to what they are presenting.
User avatar
By cupiscent
#1188
Thanks for separating this out, Bea, because it is a really interesting discussion! Certainly from a reader perspective - looking at the different things we all like and don't - but very much from a writer perspective too - seriously: you cannot please everyone! Don't try! Pick what you want to do, and do it hard.

I'm not completely sure I get what @Peat is saying regarding the organised religion / compromise point. What I was meaning was...
In that first scene, we have Vonvalt noting that a particular aspect of the official state religion is basically the same points as the local religion (and the narrator noting that that's because the official state religion basically just subsumes all other religions encountered, in the style of the Roman Empire). So Vonvalt points out that they could just pay their nominal fine, which the lord could pay for everyone, and bow to the official religion while keeping their beliefs and practices. It's the compromise to law. It's not at all what the priest wants, but it keeps the law, and that's what matters to Vonvalt. Which becomes important for the overall story.

But still, in the mentions from Helena that the law is the only good part of being part of the empire, and in her sympathy for the local lord, there's an overtone that there's no harm in what they're doing, and why should they have to compromise? That empire of this kind is perhaps inherently unjust. And that introduces the dialogue between law and justice.
(This is a total sidebar, but the Roman Empire analogue is particularly fascinating to me here, because of how this scene echoes the trials of early Christians under Roman law. Much is made of Christian martyrs under Roman law, but when you look at the actual cases, you find judges/magistrates bending over backwards and genuinely begging with the accused to just swear the appropriate vow to Caesar (and Jesus having literally said "Render undo Caesar that which is Caesar's") but the Christians basically bouncing up and down, shouting, "Feed me to the lions!" There's a strong vibe of how what law is - at root - is a system to allow people to live together in a society, and it's quite difficult to live in society with people who are determined not to do so. I suppose, see also, many current movements in our modern society. Sigh.)