Sunday, 23 June 2013

We have darkness


Did I mention how much I love Neil Gaiman? 

After months of studying, I have finally re-entered my Writing Cave of Darkness, armed with tea, notes, and headphones with epic music in them. The new manuscript for Book 2 is just over 5,500 words long and growing fast. I'd been struggling to start for a while – the sight of an empty Word document is always sobering – but now I'm settled at home, surrounded by all my books and general clutter, I've gone straight into writing mode. I'm trying my best to take breaks and not drink too much coffee, but I'm so excited by the story it's hard not to write into the night. I want to pace myself and take my time, though, and Bloomsbury are fairly flexible on my deadline. I'm aiming to get the first draft done by early 2014 so Alexa and I can get to work on the edits. 

As I'm well and truly stuck in Bone Season mode, this week is a mini-blog-slash-review of another book, following up from last week's post on worldbuilding.



A case study in worldbuilding



Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2) 
by Sarah J. Maas 

You'll recall in my BEA blog that I did a couple of events with a fellow Bloomsbury writer, Sarah J. Maas, author of the Throne of Glass series. Today I'd like to recommend the second book, Crown of Midnight, and give you my take on how Sarah constructs her paracosm: the imaginary continent of Erilea.    

Since I finished Crown of Midnight, I've been itching to explore the worldbuilding in this universe. The reason I'm particularly recommending these books is not only because Sarah is a very talented author (she started writing at sixteen on FictionPress) and the characters are very well-developed, but because I think the series does something incredibly interesting and unusual with traditional high fantasy. The majority of high fantasy books have a strongly medieval core, but the world Sarah has created, for me, evokes a much later era. Rifthold, the advanced and decadent capital of Adarlan, is much more like 18th-century London than a feudal Anglo-Saxon kingdom. There are teahouses, opium addicts, pianofortes, rakish courtiers, slums, masques, ballrooms and debauchery. Women wear powder and carry parasols. The characters play billiards and visit carnivals alongside their swordplay. Look at this description of food at a masque:

Indeed, throughout the room, entire tables were overflowing with the most beautiful, decadent-looking pastries she'd ever seen. Pastries stuffed with cream, cookies dusted with sugar, and chocolate-chocolate-chocolate beckoning to her everywhere. 

This is not pure medievalism. Fops, rakes and dandies would be more comfortable at this riverside party than knights, squires and princesses. As an English reader, I tend to read fantasy from an English perspective; unless a more specific location is evoked, English history shapes my understanding of the paracosm. Chocolate didn't come to Britain until 1657. Tea houses didn't appear until 1706, when Thomas Twining opened his tea room in the Strand. Cookies and biscuits weren't really around in the West until the late 14th century. Scenes like these dislocated me from the automatically medieval mindset I tend to enter into when I read fantasy. At first, when I was starting Throne of Glass, I wasn't sure how I felt about these elements – but after reading Crown of Midnight, I realised that they do all fit together; I just had to open my mind, and think beyond the usual tropes of high fantasy. Rifthold reminded me of Jonathan Swift's fantastically cynical 18th-century poem, The Lady's Dressing Room (1732), in which petticoats, powder and paints conceal a repulsive undercurrent of sweat, dandruff, wrinkles, oil and excrement.     

Throne of Glass is set in a corrupt court, populated by a morally dubious upper class, where a cruel king rules from a glass castle. The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien – a young assassin, pulled from a death camp to fight for her freedom – lives in this castle throughout the first two books. The of the Caroline era, when libertinism was the norm. Even the Queen of Adarlan's name, Georgina, put me in a 1714 – 1830 mindset. The character of Kaltain Rompier is particularly immoral: a beautiful, scheming noblewoman, addicted to opium, engaged to a duke, striving to advance her position at court – even if it means poisoning a rival. The whole concept of an assassin (especially a female assassin) and an underworld also seems better suited to the 18th and 19th centuries than it does to a medieval political landscape. Assassins do exist in medieval fantasy – Jaqen H'ghar in Game of Thrones, for example – but Celaena is not your average assassin. As well as being a coldhearted killer, she also takes pleasure in fine dining and beautiful dresses. She has that little touch of libertinism, that questionable morality of the Restoration. She's indulgently vain, witty and often quite self-absorbed, but can turn cold very quickly if she's betrayed or threatened. Despite that, she's still very likeable, standing out from the court ladies with her brashness, skill, and essentially good heart. 

There are still plenty of medieval elements to Throne of Glass – castles, lords and swords are all there – but I struggle to picture a civilised teahouse in Game of Thrones. In the first book, some of these elements felt strange in high fantasy, and I sometimes struggled to fully immerse myself. After reading Crown of Midnight, however, I really do applaud Sarah's divergence from straight medievalism. We need more authors to break the rules of their genre. The glass castle, to me, is a symbol of the novel's courageous experimentation. Like the castle, the books take an ostensibly traditional shape, but use unexpected materials to create a bold new breed of fantasy. 
 


Next week I'll be posting the 50-day teaser for The Bone Season. We're getting closer . . .

3 comments:

  1. I really like this post! I think you were spot on in your reflections about this world Sarah has created for her novels. Most fantasies are indeed set in medieval times, which I've come to expect. I like that Sarah definitely approached things differently with hers, and placed it in a more modern era (which you seem to have correctly identified). She's made it her own too, of course, which I adore.

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  2. I really enjoyed Throne of Glass and am looking forward to continuing the series.

    Can't wait for the teasers :-)

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  3. Well now I have to read Throne of Glass :)

    Happy writing!

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