Posts Tagged ‘Shades of Milk & Honey’

Exposition is one of the most important skills in a writer’s arsenal. Whether you do it subtly through implication or by stating things plainly in long passages, how you tell readers about your world maters. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where those readers need to understand how your world is different from our own.

A C Macklin, aka Everwalker, has already written an excellent post on the fundamentals of exposition, so I won’t repeat what you can read elsewhere. But I want to talk about exposition as a matter of skill, and as a matter of taste.

Implication, Explanation and External Reference

Three of my more recent reads have shown very different approaches to exposition. In Cold Magic, Kate Elliott uses large paragraphs of narrative and dialogue to explain the workings of her world. Mary Robinette Kowal, in Shades of Milk and Honey, subtly lays out the world through implications and small references. In Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman, the reader is presented with a huge mass of detail and left to disentangle it, with references to history and other books helping to give these elements meaning.

I enjoyed all these books, but Mary Robinette Kowal’s approach to exposition was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s tempting for me to say, based on that, that’s she’s better at exposition than the other two. But on reflection, I don’t think that’s the case.

I think it’s a matter of the writer’s style and the reader’s taste.

The Reader and the Book

I’m not going to argue that all books are equal. Even within different styles, some authors are far better than others, and Elliott, Kowal and Tidhar are all excellent at what they do. But the enjoyment of a book doesn’t just lie in the skill of the writer – it lies in a relationship with the reader, and in what they want.

I like my exposition subtle. I’ve been trained that way through years of genre reading, among other influences. Some others like to have things clearly laid out for them – it’s more accessible. For me, a big chunk of explanation disrupts reading. For others, a small reference that isn’t explained straight away, and that for me builds the world, will throw them out of the story because it doesn’t make sense.

I can also be put off by books trying too hard to prove that they’re smart. I love to see a few references to other texts or events – an appearance by a disguised Sherlock Holmes, a real political upheaval. But when the book is reliant on those references for its meaning, when they come thick and fast as in The Bookman or Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, it gets in the way of my reading. The thick mass of references others like to untangle leaves me wishing that the story had more to stand on in its own right. I feel like the writer’s showing off rather than entertaining me, but that’s probably not a fair assessment – they’re entertaining people with those dense layers of reference, those people just aren’t me.

Picking Your Style

So what, I hear you cry?

So then, as readers, we should be cautious about saying that a piece of exposition is bad, and instead ask whether it does what it aims for well, and whether that’s to our tastes. And as writers, we need to think about what style of exposition will suit our books, our readers and ourselves.

Because, like so much in life, this isn’t about good or bad, right or wrong. It’s about the rich variety of human tastes, and that’s awesome.

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

We start today’s sermon with a reading from the Book of Kowal, volume 1, page 71, where we join two characters mid-conversation:

‘…Would you enjoy a play where you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me, it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, then I have failed in my art.’

At last Jane understood his complaint and how she had transgressed at the ball and then again here, but her own principles were different. ‘I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.’

‘The effort, yes, but I want to transport the audience to another place; I do not want them to think of effort or technique.’

Jane was silent. She did not agree with him, but knowing now his feelings on the matter, she resolved to avoid offending him in the future. ‘I can enjoy both, Mr Vincent. I assure you, your art is affecting…’

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I read that conversation I almost leapt out of my chair in delight. It’s an echo of a conversation that Laura and I have had a number of times, though we weren’t weaving strands of glamour at the time, and we very seldom attend Regency era balls, on account of being born 200 years too late.

I enjoy picking apart the arts, examining and understanding how an effect is achieved. Whether it’s a book, a film, a painting, a computer game, whatever the medium, looking at how it ticks adds to my enjoyment. It creates extra layers of pleasure to understand how it is affecting me, how the creators achieved their goals.

Laura, like Mr Vincent, prefers the illusion to be maintained. Her most common complaint about proof-reading for me, apart from misused commas, is that it has made her more critical in her reading. Thanks to critiquing me she can now see some of the tricks other authors are using, as well as the weaknesses in their work, and that detracts from her engagement in their stories. Her eyes glaze over when I get excited about camera angles, story arcs or panel layouts. It’s just not her thing.

I loved seeing these contrasting views of art explored in Shades of Milk & Honey, and the way that it became a driver for character conflict. It was a great moment of seeing my own relationship there on the page. Though I am somewhat less sensible than Jane, and Laura is far less brooding than Mr Vincent.

Intriguingly, the other work I mentioned in my previous ramblings about this book also explores perspectives on art. Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram shows the power of music as channelled by listeners and fans, whereas their more recent The Wicked + The Divine puts the power in the hands of the musicians. It’s a different angle, but a related one, in which they’ve shifted focus from the transported audience to the artists putting the pieces into place. The more I think about it, the more common strands I’m finding in these two very different stories, and in the novel ways they use fantasy to cast light on the real world.

How do you prefer to experience art? Do you like to know how it works, or prefer to leaves the mechanicals unexposed? And have you read any other stories that raise this question?

 

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Having got Lies We Will Tell Ourselves out there into the world I’m knuckling back down to concentrate on my freelance ghost writing. The other day I had to check whether a sword really can cut through someone’s arm during a fight. It turns out that the answer is yes, and that the internet is full of videos of people cutting up bones. Make of that what you will.

Science fiction writer W Lawrence, who I interviewed a while back, is running a giveaway in which you could win a free copy of his book Syncing Forward. I can’t get the embedded like to work in the preview of this post, but hopefully after this paragraph you will see a clickable link by which you can go and enter the draw. Because I’m all about the free sci-fi while I ramble about fantasy this week! Giveaway below:

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.

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Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.

 

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I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.

How authors reveal their fictional worlds can be very telling, both about their worlds, about their writing, and about the way we read genre fiction.

I’ve just started reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey, a fascinating book that combines the social whimsy of Jane Austen with magical fantasy. There’s a lot to be said about this book, and I may say more of it another day. There’s also a lot to be said about the author, who has repeatedly shown herself to be one of the most entertaining and insightful figures on the modern fantasy scene – if you want proof then go listen to a couple of episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast.

But one of the first things that struck me was a matter of geography. Early on, characters make reference to living in the vicinity of Dorchester. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘my mum lives in Dorchester, and she likes a bit of local interest, maybe this could be a way to get her reading fantasy?’ My mum found the first Lord of the Rings film boring, so getting her into fantasy is quite a challenge.

But then I stopped and thought for a minute about the way this book works. From the start the magic, called glamour, is worked into the story. This is done not through explanations and exposition, but by a steady trickle of references and a series of moments showing glamour in action. For me, as a regular fantasy reader, this is perfect. It’s done with subtlety and care, weaving an understanding of the world around me rather than dumping it down in thick expository slabs.

But that works for me because I’m a regular fantasy reader. One of the conventions of the genre is that new ideas and elements in the world are referenced from the start, but not directly explained unless that becomes necessary, letting the reader work it out for themselves. To someone who’s less used to the genre this could be frustrating. They might get annoyed at all these unexplained references, or not have the genre experience to piece the puzzle together and work it out. It could be baffling rather than pleasing.

Genre literacy is just like any other form of cultural literacy – it allows access to a heightened experience of the genre, but can lead to works that frustrate others. Just look at modern art – what’s meaningful to an aficionado is largely lost on me and downright ugly to my gran. Similarly, really well written fantasy can, by creeping steps, become less accessible to others.

I’ll probably lend Shades of Milk & Honey to Mum at some point. I’m curious to see how accessible it is to her, and if it sparks an interest in fantasy literature then that will give us something in common. In the meantime I get to enjoy a cleverly written book.

What do you think? Do you think well written fantasy is usually accessible fantasy? How do you like to see worlds revealed? And if you’ve read Mary’s Glamourist Histories what did you think of them?

 

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Quick reminder, my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is still free on the Kindle until the end of tomorrow, 22 November – go get some free reading, see how subtle or not my world building is.