Wish Fulfillment – Living Vicariously Through Protagonists

cover_ukA short while ago, I wrote about Three Parts Dead, and spoke about its special brand of workplace wish fulfillment. In that piece, I mentioned that I wanted to do a post on wish fulfillment in general, and how the ever popular Kingkiller Chronicle employs it stealthily to great success. Well there’s no time like the present, so let’s talk about one of the most powerful writing techniques for immersion – wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment is one of the easiest way to drive immersion in books. It takes your hidden fantasies and secret desires and projects you into the life of a book character, letting you live out your dreams. One of the most common types of wish fulfillment in fantasy is the farm boy with a destiny trope. A seemingly ordinary farm boy discovers inner greatness and goes on to become the most important person in the land. It is not a stretch to say that most people have felt they were ordinary, and desired to go on to do something great. These books allow you to fulfill that fantasy, and that projection is what makes them so immersive and beloved. One of my favorite things in stories are magical schools. When I was a child I never could get enough of academics (I was one of those), and I love taking trips back to campus in fantasy books that let me relive those glory years. No matter how old I get, a magic school never seems to cease to enchant me.

However, many argue that wish fulfillment is a cheap trick used in the place of actual writing. By tapping into the secret base desires of everyone, readers are often much more forgiving of book’s flaws in their read through. This causes many critics and fans to claim books with wish fulfillment are of a lower quality than others. I believe that is pure nonsense. To demonstrate my point, let’s talk about The Name of the Wind, a book many regard as incredibly well written, and talk about how it’s one of the most clever forms of wish fulfillment I have seen.

There is a really interesting effect in psychology when you ask people to rate themselves on a variety of skills. We all like to believe we are talented, though most people are semi-realistic and understand that they aren’t the best at everything they try. However, there is an interesting effect where people almost always tend to rate themselves as “above average” at everything. No one likes to be in the bottom 50% in life, and while it is hard for people to lie to themselves that they are great at everything, it is easy to believe you are at least decent at most things.

Kvothe, the protagonist of NotW, is a representation of this is the mentality . Kvothe is not the best at anything, constantly coming up in second and fading behind the leaders. However, there is nothing he ever seems to be bad at. Anything that Kvothe picks up he is good enough at to dazzle and wonder, but never so good that he draws an inordinate amount of attention to himself and spoiling the illusion. In this way, Kvothe is relatable to the reader, fulfilling that deep held belief of accomplishment the reader has, when in fact he is alarmingly skilled in a way none of us are.

Now this in no way means I think that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad writer. Kvothe’s ability to tap into a primal form of wish fulfillment without the reader realizing is incredible. It is a smoke and mirrors trick I have never seen before, and it took a truly talented writer to pull it off. It shows you the absolute power of building in wish fulfillment into a book and hopefully helps explain why I was so impressed with Three Parts Dead, and its own form of workplace wish fulfillment.

The Masters Of Prose

When talking about the most talented authors, I hear a lot of fans say it comes down to who has the best prose. While I completely disagree that it is the end-all of importance when judging someone’s books, it is none the less an extremely important aspect of every book. Prose is the vessel in which you tell a story, and requests for recommendations of masterful prose have come pouring in. One of the culprits of this surge in prose love is the talented Patrick Rothfuss, a master wordsmith and one of the current kings of the fantasy world. I get daily requests for authors on par with this giant, so I have decided to make a list of the authors I have read that are prose masters and why. So without further delay, in no particular order, let us begin:

cover_ukPatrick Rothfuss – Let’s start with Rothfuss himself as a introduction. Patrick Rothfuss is almost as much a poet as author, and the fact that his character is also poetically inclined only enhances this fact. Rothfuss’s prose feels both beautiful and accessible, which is what makes it such a powerhouse. He describes scenes in vivid detail, but only focuses on the important and does not waste time on the frivolous. With his honed writing and clever direction Rothfuss piques your curiosity and then paints your imagination without a single word wasted. The combination of both beauty and clarity is what makes him so good.

14497Neil Gaiman – Gaiman’s writing always reminds me of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; serious and dark subjects surrounded in whimsy and mystery. There are few authors with prose as imaginative and fun as Neil with his fanciful descriptions and mysterious and silly conversations. Yet these words still pack a punch, with layers of meaning and philosophy built into every single paragraph. Every single time you reread a work of Gaiman’s you will find some new meaning you didn’t see before and find the words more captivating than you remember. He is a thoughtful writer who has induced endless conversations about the complex meanings of stories.

51tpik8k2btlScott Lynch – Lynch has the one of strongest voices I have ever read. When you read any of his books you become the characters he creates, and live their lives. His books are both hilarious and alive. I don’t have a favorite part of any of his novels because if you were to open to any single page and start reading you would find yourself smiling and laughing. His books read like your best friend making you laugh after a rough break up and continue to bring me comfort whenever I need them. His prose will make its way to your heart and warm it with his lovable rogues and perfect humor. I have only found one or two books even close to as dripping with humor as Lynch’s work.

th_b_bennett_cityofstairs_ukRobert Bennett – I have only read one of Bennett’s books, City of Stairs, but it was enough. Bennett has displayed a talent for action, description, and imagination in his prose. His prose has both vivid detail, and an edge of humor, that makes scenes and descriptions both clear, beautiful, and memorable. In addition, in the creation of his original creatures and places he demonstrates a clear talent in helping the reader see his own imagination with clarity and understanding. His outrageous descriptives, dark humor, and use of the present tense in City of Stairs made me feel like I was reading something one of a kind.

61-whhujivl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Joe Abercrombie – Next we have the king of combat and the Escher of the fantasy world, Joe Abercrombie. I think that many in the fantasy world would agree that Abercrombie is one of the, if not the, most clever writers in the genre. There is so much going on in his prose that multiple people can read it, discuss it after, and wonder if they read the same story. Abercrombie’s prose feels like reality instead of a story, and does wonders bringing his tales to life. In addition, there are only a few authors who can write combat prose as well as Abercrombie. Many books feel like people just waving swords, but with Abercrombie you can feelevery sword blow, run every footstep, and take every breathe alongside the warriors in every battle.

828352Terry Pratchett – The world lost a giant when Terry Pratchett passed away last year. I honestly do not feel like I am a good enough writer to describe the power of Terry Pratchett’s prose, so instead for once I am going to refer you to the words of someone else on this list, Scott Lynch, as he describes what it was like to wake up in a world without Terry Pratchett (Warning – It will make you cry).

leguin01Ursula K. Le Guin – Le Guin’s prose is very, very powerful. She writes the kind of novels that make you feel bad about the way you live your life, and cause you to vow to give more to charity. Her prose uses tone and flow masterfully to manipulate your emotions and makes her messages incredibly heavy hitting. She is one of the few authors I have read to move me with just short stories like this one (only four pages long). Her work hits you like a truck full of bricks and is a great choice for someone looking for moving prose.

60211Gene Wolfe – Gene Wolfe writes the most dense, elusive prose I have probably ever read. His works are not on the same continent as “easy reads”. However, while his work requires a huge investment of time and patience, even the smallest snippet of his prose is enjoyable and oversaturated with meaning. You can read a book like Shadow of the Torturer 30 times and still find that each chunk of prose has new secrets that you did not find before. People are still writing books about the depth of his prose 30 years after it was published, so if you are looking for someone who meticulously chooses each word in a sentence/page/chapter/book he is always worth a read.

104089Guy Gavriel Kay – Kay writes mostly standalones, and his release times are infrequent. However, the long waits are always worth it as Kay’s prose will make you feel like you are living in another world or era. Kay is the most transportive writer I have ever read. He spends years studying the cultures and places he writes about so that he can get the details just right. His prose, without fail, takes you on journeys and fully immerses you in the characters lives until they feel like your own. His writing style is also incredibly poetic but also not too dense. This combination creates passages that are deeply moving but don’t require hours of thought to decipher their meaning. If you want to go on a journey, give any of his books a shot.

fellowship-of-the-ringJ. R. R. Tolkien – Tolkien. I feel like I really don’t need to justify why Tolkien is on this list, as Lord of the Rings is accepted as literature by a lot of people. However, I will say this – The Lord of the Rings is the kind of book that everyone wants to say they read, but doesn’t want to actually read. Its combination of popularity and dense prose encourage lots of people to skim through them in order to simple claim they have read it. This is a huge shame, because the prose (and everything) in Lord of the Rings is incredible. Tolkien’s prose is poetically descriptive, deeply laden with metaphors and symbolism, grand and inspiring in scope, and often times surprisingly funny and light hearted all at the same time. There is a reason he will forever be considered one of the all time fantasy masters, if you haven’t take some time and read through his books some time.

Rogues – A Few Gems But Mostly Filler

roguesBefore I start this, let me say that I do not often read anthologies so I may not be the best judge. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Rogues, the anthology being advertised under George R. R. Martin’s banner. The title of the post should give you a fairly succinct summary of my thoughts. There are some really good stories in Rogues but they are surrounded in some places by mediocrity and in others by disappointment. There are too many stories to talk about all of them, so I am going to talk about a few of the key pieces that might make the collection worth purchasing, and a few that left a bad taste in my mouth. There is, however, an individual scoring list at the end of this post for those of you who need to know about every story.

Let’s start with Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie. There is not a more “Joe Abercrombie” story on the face of the planet than this one. This short story follows a package that will be the salvation of anyone who can hold onto it. The story follows the package as it makes its way from person to person, each trying to save their lives to little avail. I love Joe Abercrombie, but it has been awhile since I read some of his work and I had forgotten how truly incredible he is at writing people. This story is roughly 40 pages long and has something like 15 characters. Given about 3 pages each, Abercrombie brings every single one of these characters to life and makes you care about them, it is uncanny. This story made me want to start The First Law all over again and reaffirmed my love of him as an author.

Then we have A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch, which can be found for free here. Where do I even start with this. My first thought when I finished this short story was: I would be ok if Scott never wrote another Gentleman Bastards book and just started a new series on this story. If you haven’t read the Gentleman Bastards (which begins with The Lies of Locke Lamora), stop reading this post and go do it. It is easily in my top 5 series of all time, and might possible be #1. This is why it is no small thing for me to make such a claim of this short. The story follows a group of retired thieves in a whimsical and violently magical world. These thieves have purchased immunity for their past crimes on the condition they never steal again. Unfortunately for our band of criminals, events force them out of retirement for one last job and getting caught will result in a fate worse than death. The new world that Scott builds in just a few pages is one I want to visit badly. His writing continues to be the most funny I have ever read, and his author’s voice charms me better than any rogue could. If you couldn’t read the story for free elsewhere, I would say it was worth getting Rogues just for this.

Next up we have How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman. If you scroll down you will see I only gave this story a 4 out of 5, and might wonder why I would choose it as a key selling point for the book? Gaiman’s short story takes place in the world of his novel Neverwhere, a novel I can’t stand. I found it boring, slow, and unejoyable, so I was ready to burn this short to the ground when I saw the setting. Instead, now I am wondering if maybe I was just in a really bad mood when I read Neverwhere. Gaiman’s short really embodies the essence of being a rogue, with his protagonist the Marquis. The story follows our dapper mysterious gentleman in his quest to get his incredible coat back after a mishap. Using a series of favors and negotiations, the Marquis attempts to barter his way back to his coat while also displaying the full powers of a true rogue. It was a great story that got me into the spirit of the anthology’s theme, and is definitely worth finding if you can.

Finally we have The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss. I wanted to hate this story. I am selfishly mad at Patrick Rothfuss (as many of us are) due to the fact that he hasn’t finished The Kingkiller series yet. As I began this short story about Bast in the same world, I was ready to cast him down and shout “he got lucky, this was terrible” to ease my bitter sad heart. Which is why it was really awkward when someone asked me why I was crying while I was reading it and I replied “because it is so damn good”. The Lightning Tree is a short story about Bast, a character in the Kingkiller Chronicles series. For those who are familiar with the series (so I assume all of you), it takes place in the present at the inn. The story follows Bast on a typical day as he goes to town and sits at the lightning tree. Bast spends the day trading secrets and favors for other secrets and favors with the children of the town. The story was incredible, I will say nothing else. Patrick Rothfuss is unbelievably talented and every day he doesn’t give me more to read makes me sad. The story does not further the plot of the original trilogy at all, but is definitely worth your time.

These four stories, and a few other fairly strong ones, made the anthology feel like a wonderful purchase while reading them. Unfortunately, there are about 14 other stories that felt like nothing special, including a few true duds. While not terrible, I wanted to make note of two personal disappointments starting with The Meaning of Love by Daniel Abraham. Daniel Abraham is one of my all time favorite authors due to his tendency to tell stories off the beaten path. He is my paragon of new and fresh ideas, which made his rather bland and uninteresting story, about a young rogue in love, disappointing for me. It was well written and well done, but it felt like something I had seen over and over throughout the anthology.

Then there was GRRM himself, who is certainly being used as the selling point of the collection. His story was the final one out of the group and I found it terribly disappointing, which I guess isn’t surprising given how much hype he has these days. It is a 30 page story about one of the targaryens and their life outside the events of Game of Thrones. I am increasingly starting to think that Martin does not know how to escape his masterpiece and write anything else. With only 30 pages, he provides some nice descriptives but not much else, which left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I closed out of the anthology.

At the end of the day, you are paying a hefty price for 4 gems, a few good reads, and a whole lot of filler. My overall average score of the stories came to a solid 3 out of 5, which isn’t terrible. In fact it is above average. However, given how many authors I love are in the lineup it is lower than I hoped for a group of works. I would recommend skipping on this one and trying to find the four aforementioned stories from other (legal) means.

  1. “Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie – 4.5/5
  2. “What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn – 2.5/5
  3. “The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matthew Hughes – 4/5
  4. “Bent Twig” by Joe R. Lansdale – 1/5
  5. “Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick – 3.5/5
  6. “Provenance” by David Ball – 3/5
  7. “The Roaring Twenties” by Carrie Vaughn – 2/5
  8. “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch – 6/5
  9. “Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton – 2/5
  10. “Heavy Metal” by Cherie Priest – 3.5/5
  11. “The Meaning of Love” by Daniel Abraham – 3.5/5
  12. “A Better Way to Die” by Paul Cornell – 2.5/5
  13. “Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor – 2/5
  14. “A Cargo of Ivories” by Garth Nix – 3.5/5
  15. “Diamonds From Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams – 1/5
  16. “The Caravan to Nowhere” by Phyllis Eisenstein – 2/5
  17. “The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle – 3/5
  18. “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman – 4/5
  19. “Now Showing” by Connie Willis – 2.5/5
  20. “The Lightning Tree” by Patrick Rothfuss – 6/5
  21. “The Rogue Prince, or, the King’s Brother” by George R. R. Martin – 3/5

Overall Rating: 6/10

 

The First Post – Part 1: What Makes the Great Great?

Many people often read popular fantasy books and question why they appeal to such a wide audience. While obviously no book will appeal to everyone, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about what makes some of these series so impressive to many people.

The First Law – by Joe Abercrombie:

Joe Abercrombie has an incredible talent for writing real people. His characters all live and breathe in the story and act as normal people would instead of formulaic characters or catalysts who just are there to move the plot forward. They learn from their mistakes, grow-up, don’t always do the right thing and generally feel like people you could meet on the street instead of two dimensional characters from a book.

Abercrombie’s books are very popular with more veteran fantasy readers who have seen a lot of tropes time and time again (not that there is anything wrong with tropes). He has a way of writing an age old story in a way that no one has done before. I recently read Half the World and despite the story being similar to other books I have read, Abercrombie tells it in such a rich and vivid way that I feel like I am experiencing the true version of the story for the first time. He also writes some of the best combat scenes in the genre. Every fight feels memorable and is so much more than just two guys beating at each other with swords.

Gardens of the Moon (Malazan) – by Steve Erikson:

Few people really understand what they are getting into when they start Gardens of the Moon. Malazan has an absolutely INSANE scope, size, and worldbuilding. You know when you read something like Game of Thrones, and they talk all about Westeros, and they do some hand waving and say “yea there are other continents out there/empires etc but who cares?” Malazan does the opposite of that. Erikson creates a world where literally every culture and people is fleshed out (not to mention some pretty non-standard races and species). It often overwhelms people because it is like trying to explain every culture and history on the planet to an alien who just landed on earth. Gardens of the Moon is throws you into the story but as you continue, the context and world become more clear. The story is meticulously planned out so that despite being enormous in scope, it all weaves together beautifully.

But with such a huge world you would expect it to be too hard to develop more than a few meaningful characters right? Except not at all. Malazan has more of my favorite characters in fantasy than literally every other series I have ever read combined. It is a phone book of astoundingly interesting characters who are all incredibly varied. An interesting side note is that the female characters are often regarded as some of the best written in fantasy because the books do not care about what your gender is, just what you can accomplish. Added to all of this is a great plot that is exciting and thought provoking.

The Name of the Wind – by Pat Rothfuss:

The Name of the Wind has 3 components that make it great. First, the prose is astoundingly good. Rothfuss has a talent for beautiful writing and certainly meets the standard of George RR Martin that people have grown used to in the wake of his popularity. Second, the story is both incredibly long and extremely exciting. This is not a book where he spends hundreds of pages building to an exciting moment. Instead, this is a book where he is using an exciting moment to get to the next exciting moment. This is the kind of book where you need to tell a friend to take the book from you at a certain time because it is very difficult to put down. Third, and possibly most importantly, Rothfuss does not waste words. There is a scene I remember vividly that demonstrates this perfectly. At some point Kvothe needs to take a boat trip, and it literally lasts a page. It says something like:

“All you need to know about the journey is I got on a boat, some things happened on the way, and I ended up at my destination without any possessions and very wet”

Rothfuss’ ability to know when to not spend 80 pages explaining something boring is what makes the book so addicting. Also, for added measure the world is pretty cool and the magic pretty awesome.

The Gentleman Bastards – by Scott Lynch:

So taste is very subjective, but this is the only book on this list that if you do not like I am going to assume there is something wrong with you. This is quite literally the funniest series I have ever read. These books are such a good time that I had to stop reading them on the train because I sounded like a psychopath as I fell to pieces laughing.

Locke and Jean’s dialogue is just amazing. The books are infinitely quotable because almost every dialogue, internal monologue, or stray description is enough to make you laugh out loud. On top of this, the series follows thieves and their high jinks, something sorely lacking in the world of fantasy. The plot is interesting and versatile and the storytelling uses both the past and present simultaneously to teach you about the characters upbringing and show you how it shaped their present day actions. If you want to just feel good and smile (and occasionally cry) these are the books for you.

The Way of Kings – or Literally anything – by Brandon Sanderson:

Sanderson is hard to define. I will say short and sweet because I am not that sure what to say. Sanderson is kind of incredible. He churns out books at an ALARMING rate, and while they are not always the first time any story has been told, they certainly hold their own. His books are all above average in quality on almost any possible metric (plot, character, world, prose, etc.) and all have his spark in them. I have yet to find a writer who can make me stand up and shout “YES” the way Sanderson can. Every book he writes provokes emotions and connection that other books grasp at.

Way of Kings in particular achieves this in droves. It is hard to put my finger on it but the book is just epic: the plot is exciting, the trials excruciating, the triumphs exciting, the defeats heart-wrenching. Even when an event is predictable you are still excited to hear Sanderson write it for you. He is a writer to inspire you and put a fire in your heart.