WHM explains how science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeath Bear is like pro-basketball player LeBron James.
Elizabeth Bear writes fiction like LeBron James plays basketball. Note the presence of the verbs there. I’m not saying that Elizabeth Bear is the LeBron James of SF&F. James is a four time NBA MVP, two time NBA Champion and Finals MVP, two time Olympic gold medalist, 10 time All Star and the list goes on. Plus professional basketball is a game with rules and teams and a league and competition. But the way LeBron plays the game is similar to the way Bear writes fiction.
LeBron is unusual in the way that he has such a complete game. He can play almost any position on the court and do it a high level. He can shoot (and score) from almost any range. He passes well and receives passes well. He sets or runs through picks and screens. He can post up or step back. He can drive to the basket or catch and shoot. He plays amazing defense and is an impressive shot blocker. And he does all that with smoothness and physicality and with energy and confidence.
Bear does the same with her fiction. She can write almost any genre. She is very good at style, character development, setting and plot. Her prose has a smoothness and physicality (or muscularity) and confidence to it that reminds me of the experience of watching LeBron play. The Eternal Sky trilogy is like a triple double in the way that it shows versatility, dominance and an overall high level of play. This metaphor may only may make sense to me but when it popped in my head there was no denying it.
With her nuanced, lovely portrayal of a reluctant half-goblin heir assuming the throne in The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison proves her ability to write with emotional precision.
Now that I have read it, the rave reviews of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) seem less like hype and more like documentation. The novel is beguiling in large part because it features such a guileless main character in Maia, the exiled goblin-elf half-breed heir who assumes the throne of Ethuveraz when his emperor father and before-him-in-succession brothers die in an airship disaster. Maia is naive, ill-equipped to navigate the formalities, prejudices and machinations of the Untheileneise Court. But he is not without his own resources, in particular, his sincerity and intelligence, which are both strengths and weaknesses in the hot-house of imperial pageantry and politics.
Addison has to tread carefully here. It would be easy to make Maia too emotionally intelligent or too charismatic or too adolescent and thus drain out the tension in the plot. That she succeeds is because of emotional precision of her prose. By that, I don’t mean that Maia spends pages and pages in angst-ridden internal monologue. Rather Addison’s genius is in always reaching for just the right moment, detail, word, reaction and knowing when to go deeper into what Maia is feeling and when not to. I’m sure there are readers who will find this calibration off, wanting either much more or none at all. But count me among those who think she succeeds beautifully.
This example is less meaningful without prolonged exposure to the layers of character and narrative Addison builds in the book. But it’s one that I can share that doesn’t spoil the plot at all:
Ulis was a cold god, a god of night and shadows and dust. His love was found in emptiness, his kindness in silence. And that was what Maia needed. Silence, coldness, kindness. He focused his thoughts carefully on the familiar iconography, the image of Ulis’s open hands, the god of letting go was surely the god who would listen to an unwilling emperor. (302)
The progression of those three adjectives in that sentence fragment are perfect — fitting but also surprising, worldbuilding in the service of emotional precision. The Goblin Emperor is filled with such moments.
WHM shares one of his favorite passages from Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White.
More than the synapse buzz of sussing out the parallels and extrapolations, those bits of recognition, of things like oh, of course, the huntsman is going to be a Pinkerton man, and more than the forward movement of the narrative, which brisks along just like a novella should, the element which struck me most–both from a readerly and a writerly place–about Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White is the prose, which pulls some of its syntax from the Old West, but gets most of its effect from exquisitely precise details and masterful pacing.
This is a bit of a spoiler–it’s the scene where Snow White, who in Valente’s story is a half-native/half-white young woman with a mining magnate father, finds her stepmother’s mirror–but a) it comes early in the book and b) if you know the original tale, you know that it’s coming. So if you plan on reading the novella, maybe stop reading this post now, but if you have already or hadn’t up until now and need a taste to get you hooked in, well, here’s one of my favorite passages:
It was not like any of the mirrors Mr. H had brought over from Italy and France, with gold all over them and fat babies holding up the corners. It did not have any roses or lilies or ribbons cut out of silver. It was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The glass was so full up of dark it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror. The frame was wood, but wood so old and hard and cold it felt like stone. I reckoned if it came from a tree that tree was the oldest, meanest tree in a forest so secret not even bird knew about it. The tree saw dinosaurs and did not think much of them. I touched the mirror and my fingers went hot and cold, like candles melting. (29)
Now that is a magic mirror.
WHM appreciates the poetic, dense prose of Michael Moorcock’s The City in the Autumn Stars and quotes his favorite passage from the novel.
Michael Moorcock’s The City in the Autumn Stars holds many delights for the reader, including rambling metaphysical and philosophical discussions, over-the-top pulpy set pieces, and imaginative settings, but what I think I like best about it is the poetic (at time purple) prose. There is a dense, sometimes stilted, overwritten quality to it, which is intentional–intended to invoke the prose of the late 18th/early 19th century. If it were only that, it would get tiresome. Moorcock also beautifully weaves in luminous descriptive passages that are startling in their poetry and beauty and oddness, and it is those sections that move the work beyond a pallid imitation of the the prose style that the author is riffing on. Without them, it would be an interesting exercise in re-creation; with them, we have something delightful.
Here’s the best example of it — the second paragraph of Chapter Twelve:
The light which shone on this other Mirenburg was the light of a thousand senile suns; old light, dark gold and dull red, amber and ochre; the light of Autumn Stars diffused by a twinkling haze which was the fabric of some earlier universe, rotted and turned to dust. Shreds of weary starlight fell intermittently upon the bulk of the great town, making black marble gleam, reflecting a misty sepia before again becoming one with the massive silhouette above us. It was a unique illumination which set the city to moving like a slow ocean, creating shadows, sudden detail, so that not only buildings but faces were for ever revealing a different aspect, displaying a character which, because of the inconstant definition, possibly only existed in one’s imagination. One’s senses had constantly to be re-examined beneath the Autumn Stars. (194)