Names Have Power

Thursday, September 30, 2010

So we're told by fairy tales, and authors of novels spend plenty of time coming up with names for their characters.  Names are tricky, and I'm sure different readers are more or less forgiving of different naming conventions.

I can be forgiving of many naming sins if I like the story enough, but here are a few starting rules, starting with the most important:

Names must be pronounceable. 

Simple, right?  I just need to be able to read the name and have some idea of how it would sound.  I don't even have to be correct in my pronunciation.  I read about Eilonwy (The Prydain Chronicles) for a long time before I realized I was mentally pronouncing her name wrong.

Quit it already with the weird spelling/punctuation!

A little of this goes a long way.  A few works get a pass for when they were written, or if it's not too pervasive.  Mercedes Lackey popularized the abuse of apostrophes in the Valdemar books, (Shin'a'in, Ma'ar, k'Whatever) but at least she mostly used it to distinguish between fictional races that used them or that didn't. Odd or non-English punctuation and odd spelling can be used to good effect, (like !Xabbu, Otherlands, or Trurl and Klapaucius, The Cyberiad) but only by seasoned professionals, please.

Limit the number of permutations for any one character
If your main character is named Kylara Vatta (Vatta's War), and her friends call her Ky, her relatives, Kylara, and her crew Captain Vatta, that's fine.  You might be able to add one more nickname on top of that, since she's the main protagonist.  But if all your characters have, say, a first name, a nickname, a family name, a true name and a code name, I'm going to get lost fairly quickly.

Names should usually be in tone.
Not an unbreakable rule, but a relative one.  A serious book shouldn't have names that are too ridiculous, overtly modern names better have a good reason to be in a medieval setting, etc.

Silly, elaborate or simple names can sometimes be altered just by good writing.  Fleming, after all, famously chose James Bond as the name for his super-spy because it was the plainest, least intrinsically “cool” name he could find.  It didn't stay that way, obviously. 

There are further stylistic guidelines for particular genres, but they are just that, guidelines, which a talented author can feel free to disregard.

If you've read my recent review of A Mighty Fortress, you know why I'm harping on this now: David Weber.

His Safehold series has just about scraped raw my last nerve as far as names go.  He breaks every rule, not in a good way.  There are too many consonants in most of the names, making them nigh-impossible to read, much less pronounce, much less remember.  Many of the minor characters have three or four names, including a first name, a surname, and a landed title.  This makes it extremely difficult to remember some of these guys when I don't see them for a while, or to identify them as unique characters. 

A named character died in the climax of the most recent book, and I have no idea if he was in any of the previous books; he just blends into the fog of similarly named gentlemen.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the title names are descriptive, often places: Green Mountain, Stone Hollow, WaveThunder.  I think one of those I just made up, but I'm not sure.  Oh, and as for tone?  The main character is called Merlin ironically, birth name Nimue, unironically.  I'm mostly over the silliness of it, but still.  Even then, many of these problems wouldn't be so bad if there weren't so many damn characters to juggle.  There are 22 pages in the character list – single spaced.

I know what Weber was trying to do.  He took “normal” modern names and spun them through a few hundred years of pseudo-medieval society.  But that somehow turned “normal” names into impenetrable mouthfuls that look like bad fantasy names.  Some changes aren't so bad: Brian to Bryahn, Michael to Maikel.  Some just break my brain.  Lywys?  Hauwerd? And some I just have to stare at until they make sense.  Ahnzhelyk.  Look again: Ahnzhelyk.  What a mouthful.  After slowly and painfully sounding it out, I managed to resolve this one into Angelic(a), but it wasn't easy. 

I'd like to contrast this with one of my favorite examples of  complicated naming: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  This series also has a great deal of characters, many of which have fantasy-esque turns on “normal” names.  Why is it better?  The different countries have characters with different-sounding names (and yes, one of those involves apostrophes - it's not perfect). The character appendix is separated by country/faction.  (This would be so helpful in the Safehold books.)  Examples of some more legible 'new' names: Simon to Seoman (actually goes by either), Joshua to Josua, Rachel (no change), Elijah to Elias.  Also, not ALL the names are modified names, many are original. A few of the main characters have more than one name, but it doesn't get too complicated: Simon, Seoman, Simon Snowlock, or Josua, Prince Josua or Josua Lackhand

I respect Weber's idea, but it really didn't work.  Williams has a few near misses with names that skirt the edge of ridicule, but overall handles it much better.  (Look at his most awkward, the name Pryrates, for the evil priest in MS&T, is it as bad than that of the evil priest in Safehold: Zhaspahr Clyntahn?)

American Fairy Tales

Monday, September 27, 2010

American Fairy Tales
L. Frank Baum, 1901

I have a Kindle!  I know, you're excited.  And you know what is FREE on the Kindle?

Well, yes, lots of things are free on the Kindle, or on the internet and able to transfer to the Kindle, but that is not the point.  The point today is that lots of collections of Fairy Tales are FREE on the Kindle.  I've been busy, so short stories are just the ticket right now.  Today's selection is a rather unique series of tales by L Frank Baum.

There is a fascinating harmony here between a practical "American" spirit and elements of traditional fairy tales.  For example, fairy spirits make trouble for fashion-conscious shopkeepers, an aspiring young cowboy lassoes Father Time, a boy king has trouble with spendthrift hangers-on, a "wise and ancient chemist" creates magical bon-bons, an immigrant (who happens to be an evil wizard) attempts to turn troublesome schoolboys into pigs.

They are a bit unbalanced in tone.  I think the most successful ones read rather like a child-friendly episode of the Twilight Zone, i.e. an 'average' person faced with a fantastic situation.  Of the twelve stories, most have this structure.  Two stories, "The Laughing Hippopotamus" and "The King of The Polar Bears", read like a poor attempt at imitating Kipling's Just So Stories, and I probably liked those two the least, although there were still bright and intriguing moments in each. 

"The Wonderful Pump" and "The Queen of Quok" are the most like traditional fairy tales.  The latter succeeds because it balances its fairy tale kingdom setting with extremely, shall we say, down-to-earth characters.  "The Wonderful Pump" is less enjoyable, and out of all the stories is probably the most directly moralistic, but I did enjoy the practical explanation for something that in a normal fairy tale would just be chalked up to "magic".

Most of the stories are characterized by a gentle yet sardonic humor: "If I could not make a glass dog bark I would be a mighty poor wizard," particularly when it comes to the occasional 'morals,' although I won't spoil the jokes by including one here.

My favorite story may be the first one, "The Box of Robbers", in which a young girl investigates a forbidden steamer trunk and reveals some rather unwelcome, yet amusing, houseguests.
"Perhaps in all the world there are not three other bandits so terrible and fierce as ourselves," said Victor, proudly.
"'Tis so," said the fat man, nodding gravely.
"But it's wicked!" exclaimed Martha.
"Yes, indeed," replied Victor. "We are extremely and tremendously wicked. Perhaps in all the world you could not find three men more wicked than those who now stand before you."
"'Tis so," said the fat man, approvingly.
"But you shouldn't be so wicked," said the girl; "it's--it's--naughty!"
Victor cast down his eyes and blushed.
"Naughty!" gasped Beni, with a horrified look.
"'Tis a hard word," said Luigi, sadly, and buried his face in his hands.
"I little thought," murmured Victor, in a voice broken by emotion, "ever to be so reviled--and by a lady! Yet, perhaps you spoke thoughtlessly. You must consider, miss, that our wickedness has an excuse. For how are we to be bandits, let me ask, unless we are wicked?"
The whole collection is amusing, more so for adults than for children I would think, and short enough not to get repetitive.  A couple of the stories are dated, especially in terminology ("Chinaman", etc.) but nothing terrible that I saw.  And did I mention it was free?

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3 Stars - A Good book

A Mighty Fortress

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Mighty Fortress
David Weber, 2010

This series seriously needs a “Last Time, On Safehold...” prologue.  I'm not going to re-read, or even re-skim, one or more additional 600-plus page doorstops to reorient myself in preparation for reading this one.  This is part four, incidentally, of what seems to now be shaping up to be Arthurian motifs plus Protestant Reformation plus Industrial Revolution plus Interminable Boring Warfare, In Space.

Also, the names continue to be eye-bleedingly awful.  See the third paragraph of my review of the previous volume for more on this.  I may have to write an entire rant about names soon.

After the action pace of By Heresies Distressed, A Mighty Fortress felt like filler.  Not much happened, and when there was plot, it mostly happened to characters I didn't care about.  It meanders endlessly, and I'm beginning to lose all hope that Weber doesn't plan to write a giant book about each year of a 30 year war.  Almost everything that happened could have been summed up in an opening chapter to a book set a year or two later.

The climax felt tacked on, and didn't directly connect to much of anything that happened prior to page 600.  I didn't get any feeling of high stakes from it, afterward there was one actually decent character scene, and then that was it.  I get the sense that he's pulling this style from something like O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series, in which several of the books are more a series of happenings than a traditional plot, and then end without any major change. 

The Aubrey-Maturin series, though, is not attempting to tell the story of every single person involved in the Napoleonic Wars as well as the Wars themselves.  It tells the story of a small group of characters, and mostly focuses on the friendship between the main two.  Weber, on the other hand, is juggling at least 7 or 8 major groups of multiple characters, (that's off the top of my head, there's probably more) and that doesn't count the many chapters about random people we never hear from again.  Also, reading 200 pages and not coming to a huge climax is okay.  700 pages... is not okay.

It's a shame, because I really remember enjoying the first one.  I felt as if Weber were taking all the themes and ideas he had begun in his various books and series and combining them into some sort of magnum opus.  Unfortunately, it hasn't upheld that promise.  At this point, he's just reiterating scenes he already wrote.

There was one sequence in particular in which the sequence of the battle felt like a direct copy and paste from scenes in the Honor Harrington series.  In short, the style is stale.

If I hear that some actual plot movement is happening, maybe I'll dip back into this series, but for now I may have to abandon ship.  I only have so many hours in the day.

1 Star - didn't much like it.

Well of Darkness

Monday, September 13, 2010

Well of Darkness (The Sovereign Stone, Book 1)
Weis and Hickman, 2000

I should just call this the “sooner or later I'll get through all the dollar fantasy I picked up at Forbidden Planet” series and be done with it.  Like Lord of the Isles, Well of Darkness was picked up on the very cheap, because I like the authors.

In this case, I got almost exactly what I expected.  Nothing jaw-dropping, no brilliant characters or plots here, but okay structure, an interesting magic system, and cool world-building.  Cool world-building is really what I expect from these guys.

Here we've got your standard fantasy world with a nice subtle twist.  They've kept something core about each race, and just given a perspective shift on the rest.  For example, the elves, as expected, love nature, live mostly in fancy gardens, and are contemplative.  They are also inspired by aspects of various Asian cultures and history.  Their society is very complex, they are very concerned with saving face and honor and their family position, they seek wisdom from their deceased ancestors, and they are highly warlike, just subtle about it.  It stays true enough to a classic elf to be instantly recognizable, but is still a really interesting take.

The plot is okay, though fairly obvious from the start.  It reminds me in an unfortunate way of the early Death Gate books, or the rather stupid “Dragonvarld” series.  Each of these had a first book that felt fairly superfluous to the larger plot when I got to the end of it.

I can see some of the construction work in this book, a turn of phrase or choice of tone here and there that reminds me of character types that have worked for these authors in the past.  These don't quite gel as well here, there were no characters who felt especially compelling outside of their place in the plot machinations.

Still, I enjoyed reading it; the writing flows at a brisk pace and is hardly ever boring.  And I'll probably read the second one.  After all, I bought it for a dollar, too.

2 Stars- An Okay Book

Sheepfarmer's Daughter

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 1)
Elizabeth Moon, 1988

I love the Baen Free Library.  I'd been meaning to read The Deed of Paksenarrion for some time, and was able to download the first part on my laptop for free.  Huzzah!

This is exactly what Baen's project is for.  I get to try the first book, and if I love it, I track down the rest.  And I did love it.

It wasn't tremendously ground-breaking or anything, but it was solid enjoyable D&D-style fantasy, medium magic level, with good action, good description, good characters.  I don't need everything to have a twist, i.e. to be fantasy but with (insert odd addition to setting or race here), and it's nice to see a new fantasy that doesn't make me feel like it's trying too hard.

I liked the prologue, which foreshadowed the story with a nicely mythic tone.  The first chapter begins in an awkwardly clichéd scene, and if I hadn't been reassured by the prologue, I may not have wanted to read on.

Despite it being fairly obvious the kind of destined hero story we're following here, I enjoyed that Paks wasn't inherently exceptional in this book.  She's a solidly talented warrior, and has a good mind for tactics, but she isn't super intelligent, she isn't a super-powerful fighter, etc.  She may have more powers in later books, but here I loved that she just did the best she could do, stubbornly and with conviction.

Moon does a similar thing with gender roles here as she did with race relations in her sci-fi. (Reviewed here)  She simply decided that problems are the exception, rather than the rule.  It was surprising in a good way that Paks isn't special because she's a female warrior, since that's one of many accepted career paths in her country.

I really liked the implication that the religious systems were nicely confusing and complicated.  Fantasy worlds where everyone everywhere worships the same pantheon in the same way often feel a bit fake.

(More spoilery, specific criticism follows:)

The amount of death was nicely realistic, considering the story.  Moon got herself out of a few possible cliché storylines by killing characters.

One major misstep was ever veering from close third-person on Paks.  The author only followed other characters a few times, but I found it grating, patronizing and awful every single time.  You can balance chapters among perspectives, but this was poorly done.

I did enjoy Paks rejecting her "blessing" at the end.  It seemed in character, and keeps the storyline from veering immediately into destined hero mode.  However, I hope that the progression in the next book can manage to be true to her decision without making the entire plot about that struggle.  I'm curious to see where the next book will go.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book