A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part three)

And so to the books but where to start? The Blood of Elves was supposed to be the start of the novels so I began there and…hang on, this isn’t the beginning – the characters are talking about Geralt and Yennefer and the things they’ve already done. Look again…ah, there are two books of short stories first. Now we’re talking.

The Last Wish

Temeria. King Foltest has a stryga situation. This is very familiar. Haha, he just said ‘whoa there, Roach’. Later Geralt arrives in a place called Blavakin and I know this isn’t going to end well. Here is the Cintra where Ciri is supposed to be a Princess. The stories are nicely contained and slightly unexpectedly from my experience of the games, particularly the first two, they are funny at times and not afraid of the odd cheeky cultural reference. There’s a line about not about not wanting to dispatch a troll because he does good work maintaining the bridge that could have almost been in place in Terry Pratchett. When I later revisited the games I realised some of this humour can be found but this is a journey and we’re not there yet.

Overall, the tone is much lighter than the grimdark I had expected having played the games. Being separated from Geralt’s leaden delivery helps in this regard. Book Geralt is world-weary and cynical it is true but he’s also more sardonic and generally animated. He also pontificates on the nature of things from time to time. In short, game Geralt isn’t nearly as good company.

I get to the Last Wish that is heavily referenced in the quest of the same name in Witcher 3. This is more or less the Yennefer we meet in the games. Spoilt, headstrong and manipulative, living in luxury and putting noses out of joint in every direction. As before, it’s a more light-hearted affair than is hinted at by the Witcher 3 and provides a satisfying set up for what is to come.

 

The Sword of Destiny

I later found out that Sword of Destiny wasn’t released in English for a long time. I wonder how followers of the books got on because it’s quite an important missing piece to remain unfilled. I’m glad I started reading them when this volume was available as it is vital to understanding the relationship Geralt has with the two most important women (for that matter people) in his life; Yennefer and Ciri.

I’m also glad Sword of Destiny was available to me from the beginning as it remains by far my favourite of all of Sapkowski’s works. It makes the tonal transition from the lightness of The Last Wish to the gloom that will follow. As an aside, I always have a fondness for the parts of a series that hit this sweet spot. Goblet of Fire and Mass Effect 2 also fit in this category but that is a matter for another blog.

Yennefer is back and on fine form and the dragon hunt is on. Witcher 2 references paying off here with the Crinfrid Reavers (in fact they are only in Witcher 2 to do this) and Yarpen Zigren. There’s also a GWENT card pay off and the conversations between Geralt and Yennefer in The Last Wish quest now make a lot more sense.  The oft spoken of Zeugl also makes an appearance later on. In terms of the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, if the games had been set between where they end up here and the next time they meet the Yennefer/Triss choice would have been more finely balanced.

The short form seems to suit Andrej Sapkowski. One thing he does very well is introduce characters and quickly make you care about them even if you will only know them for a short while. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking and I wonder why he did that to me. A life, like the Sword of Destiny, has two sides. There is the life of the person and there is the life that their effect on other people has. I understand now why he did that. Sometimes to understand someone you need to see how they act towards other people and how they suffer at their loss.

Sword of Destiny is mostly about the two women in Geralt’s life. For me, it is also where I started to like Dandelion. His humanity emerges from behind the facade of ridiculous hedonism. I find he is at his best when he is prepared to contradict Geralt and in these moments their unlikely partnership seems to make the most sense. Sometimes you need to see how people act towards others to understand them. Through Sword of Destiny and beyond you see the flashes of Geralt’s soft side. Not weakness but a fierce if somewhat begrudging loyalty to anyone or anything that falls under his care, even if he does call them ‘Roach’.

A point of view is like a camera. It can only focus on one thing at a time. In the world of The Witcher this often means that important things are happening out of sight. Sometimes this works, other times this is frustrating. We never get to see the Battle of Sodden. We get to stand on the hill and feel it’s aftermath. Names are mentioned that I’ve heard in the games. I think about the sorceresses who fought together there and wonder how Sapkowski would feel about how their fates play out in them. Is Sabrina Glevissig supposed to end up burnt on a wheel?  It’s an idle question really. I get the impression that Sapkowski doesn’t give the storylines of the games too much thought.

I’m glad I didn’t start with the novels. The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny is where the main characters are properly established. From what I have gathered so far it also seems that the events of these books are set to feature heavily in the upcoming Netflix series. In essence, if you want to get to know Geralt, Yennefer and Dandelion; read the short stories. I think you could go from here into the games and need almost no explanation for who is who and why these things are happening. With one exception; Witcher 3 is in many ways Ciri’s story and her story is yet to be begun. To understand that properly I had to read the novels.

 

Featured photo.

Photographer: Victoria Romanova aka Milligan Vick

Model: Galina Zhukovskaya

 

 

 

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Mars Fallen Released!

FallenstraightenedAfter what has been a number of months of frustration both for Nexus and JW Whitmarsh, Mars Fallen is finally here. It is available in ebook format from Amazon.

Click here for US.

Click here for UK 

As is traditional we had a chat with the author, JW Whitmarsh about the new release and how it fits into the Elemental Cycle.

Nexus: Many might see this book and assume it is a piece of historical fiction. Notwithstanding the fact that it is set in a parallel world, how historically accurate is it?

JW Whitmarsh: Well, the fact it is in a parallel world is a huge factor. So in one sense, it’s not historically accurate at all. None of the events of the story happened in our world. In another sense, there is some mirroring of genuine history. The Senatian Empire developed in a similar fashion to the Roman Empire for example, the expansion across Europe and beyond followed by a split between West and East is more or less the same with a few of the details altered along the way.

Nexus: What is the main point of difference then?

JW Whitmarsh: The main divergence is around religion and mythology. In a world where people can do magic, favour of the Gods or God is seen in a much more literal sense. This changes things. Where miracles are often seen the role of prophets and saints becomes much diminished. People will probably see a link between Patriarchism and Christianity but Patriarchism is not built upon the personality of Jesus. The similarity is in the structure and organisation of a monotheistic religion born out of a later Roman period.

NX: The Senatian Empire feels a bit more like the Empire period rather than the post Empire Kingdoms of Italy that were around in the Dark Ages.

JW: Yes. I’ve said before there is an ahistorical element to the series. In many ways the Senatian Empire is about a century behind the Lands of the West, which in turn are about a century behind the Northern Kingdoms.

NX: Is this an effect of magic?

JW: Partly, I like to think that the more demonstrable power of magic has kept the old pantheon clinging on a bit longer than it did in our world. With that goes the gladiatorial games, which are more closely aligned to celebration of the old gods than they were here. Likewise, the Empire in the West has lingered intact a bit longer thanks to the interventions of the Patriarchists.

The other part to it is that on another level the whole Elemental Cycle is a celebration of world mythology and legends. You can’t visit the Mediterranean world and not feature classical mythology and gladiators any more than it would make sense to remove castles and wizards from Arthurian legend.

NX: Is there a limit on that historical flexibility?

JW: Yes. The technology and understanding of the world should be consistent. You won’t see plate armour alongside bronze weaponry or discussions about the theory of evolution. As I’ve said before, there are some technologies that would likely have come much earlier to cultures that could wield magic, such as the use of glass. You could argue there might be others that would come later because people use magic instead but I tend to think there aren’t enough mages for people to become too dependent on them. In any case, I try to pitch everything at an early Dark Ages time.

NX: Just to remind people who may not have read previous interviews, what are the entry and exit points to Mars Fallen, with regard to the series.

JW: Mars Fallen takes place after the end The Book of Water (Enchantress Awakening, Enchantress Apprentice & Enchantress Destiny) although it does recap events that happened concurrently. It’s not necessary to have read The Book of Water but it helps. There is a slight overlap with Valkyrie Rising but it mostly takes place in the months following. There is no need to have read Valkyrie Rising to understand Mars Fallen as they don’t cross over in any way.

As for the exit point, the book ends a couple of months into the beginning of A Clash of Gods (Book 6) and a couple of weeks before Venus Ascending (Book 7) resumes the tale.

NX: What would you say to fans of the Book of Water hoping to see more of the characters from those volumes. Is the story of the West over now?

JW: The initial quest is over but the story continues for the characters. The Book of Water and Valkyrie Rising are quite self-contained tales. Mars Fallen is where the various strands start to leak into each other. In Books 6 and 7 their is full scale blending. The West and its cast will be seen again and their stories will converge with the overall story.

I think you could say Mars Fallen is the last book which stays true to its element and setting. Book 2 of Earth spends a lot of time in the Senatian Empire as well as the Northern Kingdoms. Book 2 of Fire includes sections from the West and the Southern Expanses, where Spirit is the ruling element.

NX: Cheeky final question. Valkyrie Rising came out in 2016. Can we expect another volume of the Elemental Cycle in 2020?

JW: Who knows? Novels take as long as they take. It might take longer than two years it might take less. What I will say is that I don’t expect there to be much of a gap between 6 and 7 being finished. But again, that’s just a guess at this stage. In some senses it is easier writing the second and third books of each element as there is less world-building to be done. On the other hand, the time taken between books isn’t just about writing it’s about the writing plus everything else that is happening in your life.

NX: Then we wish you a very settled and uneventful year to come.

JW: Err, thanks.

Dear Critics…(part II – Bright)

Bright. According to the critics, the worst film of 2017. By any rational measure it was not even the worst film the week it came out. What’s going on here? On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give an absolutely stinking 26%. That’s bad. That’s really bad. That’s a film so bad that it leaves you feeling dirty, like you’ve soiled yourself. With the disappointment there’s a measure of anger. Why? Why was I tricked into wasting my precious life on this? Just as well the audiences were forewarned.

And yet, and yet. Apparently a number of people went ahead and watched it anyway and…well, they seemed to like it giving it 85%. Hang on, 85%? That’s not a stinker; that’s a genuinely good film. People are saying they not just thought it was ok or short of being awful; they thought it was really enjoyable. A 60% difference seems to require some kind of explanation.

I’ve read a number of the bad reviews and well…there’s nothing particularly insightful about them. It’s a series of cliche’s. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like it because whatever. That’s not to say any of these critiques are necessarily untrue or unfair (albeit uninspired) but they could be levelled at any number of films that don’t lead critics to declare them the worst film of the year (some of these same critics were probably the ones who listed ‘Mother’ as one of the best films of the year so…yeah). Something else is at play here.

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Theory#1 – We are afraid of Netflix.

This theory is also pertinent when it comes to the discussion of Altered Carbon. It goes that Netflix has become hugely successful and is changing how people view films and TV. In the case of the latter, the critics don’t appear to be so worried because, let’s face it, most of them don’t want to have to sit down and watch hours of live TV. They are used to being given viewings in advance, binging four episodes on the trot. They might be a little bit worried about how traditional TV channels are going to cope (and maybe they should be) but it’s not impinging on how they’d choose to consume the product.

Films are a different matter. Many film critics truly love cinemas. For them, their first visit to the picture house was a seminal experience. The smell of popcorn and worn out seat coverings still causes their stomach to clench with excitement like remembering the first kiss of a favourite lover or a first professional level goal, try, century or crossing the winning line as number one. Cinema is at the core of their being, an integral part of their personal history and sense of self. That’s why films about films and cinemas always feature so highly in critics’ lists. It speak to something very real within them. It’s how they can give the Best film Oscar to ‘The Artist’ without a trace of self-awareness.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that until it gets in the way of the day job, namely making fair recommendations for the general public. Netflix represents an existential threat to the cinema-going experience (or so some believe) and they must be stopped. Bright was a big investment for Netflix, a chance to show they can do films as well as series. So, naturally, any true lover of cinema must use their power to stop this juggernaut regardless of whether the film deserves their disdain or not.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced I buy into this theory. There may be an element of that in play but whether it is uniform is debatable. In fairness, there is a argument to say Netflix should release these things in the cinema first. Why not? If they back a film that much let people see it on the big screen. People are going to use Netflix anyway. Anecdotally, I binge on Netflix a fair bit but I’m also going to the cinema as much as I ever have in my life.

Theory #2 – The ‘buy in’.

Another theory as to why ‘Bright’ received such a mauling is that the concept itself just alienated the critics from the get-go and they failed to appreciate the buy-in factor that many fans of sci-fi and fantasy bring to what they enjoy. Here’s a concept; buddy cops but it’s in a world where there are orcs and elves and one of the cops is an orc. You may well read that and go, ‘oh come on, that’s stupid’. Apparently this was the standard critical response.

On the other hand, lots of viewers were given that concept and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll go with this’. Second generalisation alert: fans care about world-building, critics care about performances. Ok, this may be a generalisation too far but there’s something in it. When futuristic and fantastical worlds are unveiled before our eyes a lot of people are just on-board with it. For them, this suggestion of another world to explore is the thing that enthrals them. It’s why they can look at the maps of Middle Earth or even Treasure Island and feel a sense of excitement just at the thought of going to these places, even if they are never really touched by the story. That feeling of immediate investment is something I got watching the title sequence of Game of Thrones and also the sense of instant familiarity when they visit the ‘Oasis’ for the first time in ‘Ready Player One’. Certain things tick certain boxes for certain fandoms and that should not be dismissed.

When you are gazing at the horizon whether the facial expression or vocal inflection of the person in the foreground is 100% convincing is less of a concern. For many critics, by contrast, the acting performance is the alpha and the omega. It’s why the accusation of 2-D characters is so often used and why some critics can feel fulfilled watching an actor’s face as he stares off into the distance while nothing happens. The interior world of the performer is where they want to explore.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why the critics love films like ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ (ok, I really enjoyed it too). It’s all about performances and it is stacked with them. If on the other hand, you went to that film hoping to see a world you’d never seen before where your mind can go off on adventures of its own, you’d be disappointed. The point here is thus, internal and external worlds are both valid forms of entertainment. There’s no rule saying that the former is worth more than the latter.

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Dear Critics Part 3 – Altered Carbon. Coming next…

The Sinister Conspiracy: Left-handedness in fiction.

A few weeks ago the internet announced it was left-hander’s day and, predictably, people came out with articles about how difficult it was being left-handed ‘Boo, scissors are wrong’ etc. There was very little about how left-handers are depicted (and not depicted) in fiction, which is a personal bugbear of mine. In a curious way, being left-handed gives you a glimpse into what being a minority is like and what being disabled is like. This is both trivial and non-trivial.

It is trivial in that being in the left-handed minority isn’t going to get you killed or arrested or treated to abuse or violence from strangers as is the case for many minorities in many parts of the world (although it wasn’t so long ago it lead to beatings in the British school system). Likewise, contrary to those articles being left-handed in a right-handed world is not a major adjustment – we do possess right hands as well and are often quite adept with them.

Where it is non-trivial is it gives a flavour of how the world reacts to difference and diversity. For many writers at the moment this is a big topic and writers of fantasy are by no means exempt from these concerns. The way difference is treated in fiction usually falls into three forms; representation, tokenism and diversity. Thus through the lens of left-handedness and the minor insights it gives, I shall attempt to approach the topic as a whole.

 

barack_obama_signs_emergency_declaration_for_arkansas_1-28-09Representation

At times, I’ve been sceptical about the notion of the need for representation. What is this narcissistic need readers and viewers are deemed to have that they need to see themselves in everything? American film producers are often the prime culprits of this and, I think, underestimate their audiences in doing so. They wanted to make Harry Potter American in the films. Fortunately, JK Rowling vetoed that and lo and behold American audiences still were able to enjoy it.

Similarly, I watch a lot of American TV and films and don’t spend the whole time waiting for a British person to turn up. When I read ‘The Famished Road’ I didn’t scour through the novel hoping that a white person would appear. I expect the people who populate a particular story to be consistent with that setting and don’t need to see ‘myself'(myself being someone who shares some identity position).

There’s an easy rejoinder to this point of view, however. That’s ok for you to say when you’re in the majority and have any number of representatives in fiction. There’s a measure of truth in that which only comes into focus when you’re not in the majority. Here’s where I return to left handers.

How many left-handed heroes are there in fantasy? Off the top of my head, Tolkien has one, Maedhros, who after having his right hand removed goes on to be better with a sword in his left hand. George RR Martin does a similar thing with Jaime Lannister only he is awful with his left hand. In fairness to Martin, I believe Ayra is mentioned as being left-handed making her the only example I can easily recall. I haven’t read the majority of fantasy fiction novels ever written so it is possible there are many others but I think my sample is large enough to be indicative.

Why so few? Here comes the explanation that is most often given for the absence of diversity – realism or, more properly, verisimilitude. Lets now create our fantasy world. I’m not going to say what is right and wrong for writers here (with one exception), rather pose the questions. And yes, left-handedness can obviously be substituted for other things.

First question? Is left-handedness as common in your fantasy world as ours? If it is then something like one in ten of your characters should be naturally lefty. Are they wielding their weapon left-handed? If not, why not? In many historical cultures there had been prejudice against left-handedness and lefties were forced to do things right-handed. The Romans were possibly the worst offenders for this. Putting aside the general cultural aspect of this intolerance for a moment, what function does this prejudice have? The Romans were keen on close formation fighting and had square shields for much of their Empire. Holding a spear left-handed and shield on the right arm would create a weak point in the line exposing the man on the left and shielding the shield of the man on the right. Getting rid of the lefty seems like a sensible course in this context.

Is this the only solution? Some hoplite shields from a similar time in history were notched on either side so the spear could be thrust through left or right-handed. Another option would be to put the lefty on the end of line (or block if fighting in squares). Does your culture care enough about the exceptions to make these adjustments?

If, on the other hand, your fantasy culture doesn’t fight in close formation like the Romans, for example forest skirmishers, the imperative for everyone to fight from the same direction disappears. In general, in a world where the majority fight right-handed, being left-handed is an advantage. Therefore, if it doesn’t undermine a formation, it would disadvantageous to force your fighters to suppress their natural preference. You may still wish to insist on this but then you need to bring in issues of intolerance rather than practicality to explain it.

I suspect lack of representation of left-handedness in fantasy broadly stems from two sources. One, the writer is themselves right-handed and has never given it any thought and two, their fantasy cultures are largely reminiscent of historical Earth cultures and transplant their attitudes to left-handedness into the bargain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this latter position but would it hurt to put in an occasional reference such as the character having a stronger shield hand than normal? Just as a note, if you do decide to make that reference don’t make it that the character is a liability or cack-handed. We get enough of that crap already (and it’s almost always untrue).

Tokenism

Tokenism is different from issues of representation in that in this example the writer/screenwriter has made an effort to include or make reference to the minority but has done so in a way that is shallow or unhelpful. If there’s one thing worse than being represented it’s being represented in a way that negatively stereotypes. Frankly, I’d rather there weren’t any more British characters on American TV than have another effete aristocrat speaking like they’ve walked out of the 1920s show up. Or football hooligans either. There are plenty (I dare say the overwhelming majority) of British people who are neither of these things.

Left-handers fare no better. When do we get a mention? In crime stories, of course. Left-handedness is used as a gimmick to help catch the killer, the killer almost always being left-handed in these cases. Dammit, my sinister plan ruined by my sinister hand. The only other example I can bring to mind is an episode of CSI where Grissom concludes that the victim’s work space has been interfered with because the mouse was on the right hand side. The episode then goes on to helpfully inform us of the many left-handed Amercians who die every year using equipment the wrong way round. Sorry, Grissom and your great detective skills but I don’t know any left-handed people who have the mouse on the left-hand side (see earlier point about being able to use our right hands). Another classic is which wrist the watch was on not matching handedness. It doesn’t? Maybe that’s because people don’t always follow that rule.

The problem with tokenism is that is rarely has a function beyond merely acknowledging the existence of a group. Little to no attempt is made to integrate that aspect of the person in a wider character or even to suggest they have a character beyond that particular aspect. In the case of lefties we are boiled down to murderers and being unable to adapt to a right-handed world, which ironically is actually something we’re generally pretty good at (the functioning not the murder although I’m sure we’d do a great job of that too if we put our lateral-thinking minds to it).

final_challenge_international_de_paris_2013-01-26_193155Diversity

How do you represent and get beyond tokenism? I think the major pointer here is about your motivation for including difference in your story. If you are including difference because you feel you ought to and it will make someone happy then it’s probably going to be a struggle to pass through tokenism because in essence that’s what you’re doing.

The most compelling reason I can think of to include difference and diversity in a story is that it is simply a better story and richer world for doing so. We don’t want to travel to a place that is the same as the one we left. We don’t want every new person to look and think exactly the same as the ones we already know. We wouldn’t survive as a species if everyone was attracted to one type of person.

In the case of left-handers, I think this works on an aesthetic and interest level. In sports, I always like the look of seeing a left-handed tennis player against a right-handed one or the field and tactics in cricket having to be readjusted for the left-handed batsman coming in. This can easily be transposed into fiction; the challenges of facing a left-hander in a duel or the particular advantage for a lefty fighting up a spiral staircase.

Left-handedness, like any difference, brings a new set of challenges and story-telling opportunities. As writers these are gifts that we should relish. Instead of contemplating how to bring diversity into our stories we should use diversity as a starting point and be grateful for the layers of complexity it provides.

 

 

New pages on fire magic coming soon

After a quiet summer on the Nexus front we are now settling down to a new run of activity. A new book is coming this season – Mars Fallen – where we will be taken into the classical world of the Senatian Empire where the element of fire is dominant. To tell us more we have the author JW Whitmarsh dragged back from exile by a pair of obedient centaurs.

Nexus Fiction: First of all, welcome back. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

JW Whitmarsh: Yes. I’d love to say I’ve been working hard in my writing retreat reeling out chapter after chapter of new stories but alas the truth is more prosaic.Humdrum realities such as earning money and moving house have got in the way of creative endeavours of late.

NX: Normal life can be so inconsiderate. So what can we expect from the fire magic of the Imperium?

JW: As I think I might have said in a previous interview, magic is handled very differently in the Imperium. There it is believed that all magic comes from the Gods of the Pantheon and the magically-gifted are, on the whole, absorbed into the clergy.

NX: The classical world had many deities.How do you fit that into the way you have broken down magic before by the elements?

JW: I have restricted myself to 12 Gods (arguably the more prominent ones from classical mythology) and grouped them into four groups of three, four triads, if you will; Heliomantic, which includes Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, Geomantic – Vesta, Vulcan and Ceres, Astromantic – Mars, Mercury and Neptune, and Lunarmantic for Diana, Juno and Venus.

NX: You’ve decided to go with the Roman names rather than the Greek.

JW: Initially, the story starts in the equivalent of the Western Empire so that made sense. Also Vesta has a role not mirrored by Hestia and the Vestal Virgins are a pretty important element to the novel.

NX: Going back to the groupings, are the priesthoods of each triad linked in the same way that the three disciplines of Enchantment are?

JW: No. The devotion of different Gods is kept entirely separate. The traitor Empyrean who was the architect of how fire magic would be learned gave thought to what might follow if one who was magically gifted could learn all that he had learned and so deliberately propagated the idea that one could only be blessed by a single deity at a time.

NX: So the Imperium has no great wizards like Caerddyn?

JW: No. Indeed the concept of a wizard who was in control of their own magic is a foreign one. The clergy of the Imperium are taught that magic only goes through them by the will of the Gods.

NX: Moving sideways slightly and with due care for spoilers, can you tell us why the contemporary wizards can’t learn all spells from their element in the way that the traitors did? Does that mean the past can never be matched?

JW: It’s a mixture. You have to remember that the traitors were the greatest wizards of their day in an age where magic was at its zenith. They were the guys who were left standing from the fight with Xyraxis and his arch demons where all others mages (bar Loreliath) perished. So all things being equal they would be hard to emulate anyway. There’s also the matter of what happens when you specialise. To go deeper into certain Arts you need a way of thinking that may be mutually exclusive with learning others. The expert specialists of the world contemporary to the stories would definitely be able to do magic within their Arts that had never occurred to their originators.

NX: So in a sense the magic of the contemporary world is more advanced than that used by the traitors?

JW: I’m not sure about advanced because that implies improvement. It’s more involved. An analogy might be something like in classical times Latin was widely spoken across western Europe. Now instead we have Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. If you pulled someone from the ancient world and compared them, speakers of each of those languages would be better at them than the Latin-speaker but if those speakers had never had any training in each others’ languages it is quite possible that the Latin-speaker would have the best cross language understanding because his/her language is the basis for all of them. Does that make sense?

NX: Actually yes. Does it follow that the priests and priestesses of the Imperium would be better at their disciplines than their Western Lands counterparts because of their focus?

JW: No, because they have been beset by false limitations. I think overall if you were to look at the world of the Elemental Cycle the places with the most impressive mages, the ones who most fit our idea of wizards, would most likely be found either in the Western Lands or in one of the mage cultures of ancient world.

NX: By which you mean the pre-classical civilisations?

JW: Yes, the equivalents of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia.

NX: When will we get to see them?

JW: Not for a while yet. Not this year certainly.

NX: On which subject, can you share your progress with us?

JW: Mars Fallen is nearly finished. There’s maybe one or two chapters to go. After that it will have to go through editing. We will see it this season, I expect. I intend to write Venus Ascending and A Clash of Gods in parallel so there may be a long wait before we see anything more. This time next year we could be talking about what’s to come in book 6 or book 9, who knows? As I said at the beginning of this, for authors as much as anyone life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.

Fallenstraightened

Hey, they’re not supposed to die!

First up….MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN GoT 6 08/READ DANCE WITH DRAGONS.

Ok, we’re happy now, yes? You realise what’s coming? Great.

Here’s some names off the top of my head (I’m sure westeros.org  has a much more comprehensive list) S1  – Mago, s2 – Irri, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Rakharo, s3 – Greatjohn Umber, s4 – Grenn, Pyp, Jojen Reed, s5 – Stannis, Shireen, Mance Raydar, Barristan Selmy, Myrcella s6 – Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah, Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully, Shaggydog, Osha, Summer, Hodor, Jorah Mormont (arguably), Roose Bolton and Walda Frey.

What do all these characters have in common? They are all (as of 608) dead in the TV show Game of Thrones and (as of Dance with Dragons) still alive in A Song of Ice and Fire. This is curious because of any criticism one might make of George RR Martin’s fantastical world, that he doesn’t kill of enough of his characters is not one. Why the disparity and what effect does it have on the story?

It’s fair to say of this list not all are equally inexplicable so (based purely on my own speculation) I’m going to separate them into different categories; dead men walking, not like this, herd thinning and bodycounters.

Dead (wo)men walking or It is known

These are the characters who we haven’t seen (in an imaginary sense) die yet in A Song of Ice and Fire but who will likely meet their end much the same as on the show. The first name that leaps to mind in this group is Hodor. When I saw that play out I thought it had Martin’s fingerprints on it and duly that was later confirmed. I would also just about put Jojen Reed in this group too as I think narratively speaking he will die in pretty much the same place, if not the exact same manner.

Just about sneaking into this bracket I would also include Shireen Baratheon. I’m not sure that in the books it will be by Stannis’s order but I think she is for the flames nonetheless. However, if it is not under her father’s command then she should be pushed into the next category for reasons that will become clear.

There’s not much to write about the It is Knowns because their role is much the same. Some would say they constitute spoilers, I tend to think at this point anyone watching the show hoping that nothing of the books is going to be revealed is probably deluding themselves.

Not Like This

Insert your Matrix gifs here.

This group is of characters I expect to die but not in the way it is shown on GoT and why the different ending makes a difference. The least important of these is probably Mago. Do you remember him? Khal Drogo ripped out his throat in Season 1. It was someone else in the book and Martin is insistent that Mago is due to have a significant role in future instalments. My guess is that he will play the same role as Khal Jhaqo’s bloodriders in the current season and this is simply a case of giving a different name to a character. I could be wrong but until I know otherwise I’m happy to let this one go.

Stannis I would include in this particular category. For the story to advance, Stannis has to die and it seems likely it will be in the North. However, I’m pretty damn certain Martin’s battle won’t consist of charging a load of weary infantrymen in loose formation against the riders of the Rohirrim who have suddenly and inexplicably flocked to the Bolton banner. Likewise, I’ll be shocked (and not in a good way) if Brienne conveniently arrives to deliver Stannis his death blow. I could be wrong but that felt more Hollywood than Westeros, where neat vengeance is rarely delivered. In Martin’s world, punishment is usually meted out by those with no claim to deliver it. Think Ramsey on Theon and Vargo Hoat (Locke on TV) on Jaime.

Whatever fate lies in store for Stannis I imagine it will be a little more complex. If it turns out not to be him who orders Shireen to be burnt then that would reinforce my suspicion that he was made responsible for that so viewers would be OK with killing off a major character in a fairly summary fashion. Certainly they did seem to rush to the end of his storyline.

Myrcella is another whose fate will almost definitely play out very differently. If we accept that the prophecy about Cersei’s children is true then Myrcella will die at some point. That is where the similarity likely ends. Everything Dorne post-Oberon has been horrifically misguided. The Sand Snakes are miscast and badly written. Ellaria has had a complete personality transplant and the whole plot line makes no sense whatsoever.

The result is Myrcella won’t die on a ship with Jaime because Jaime was never supposed to go to Dorne. It makes zero sense for the Sand Snakes to kill her because they were trying to make her Queen. Even if later developments that were never shown on TV pan out, she would still be betrothed to their cousin. In short, I expect little to no resemblance to what we have seen on our screens.

This matters because having Ellaria/Sand Snakes kill her is what led them into the current storyline where  having gone directly against his wishes they would have to be executed or be in open rebellion against Doran and…well, we’ve seen how that turned out.

I’m just about persuaded to put Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy into this group. In Jorah’s case, he’s been such a major character that I can’t think the showmakers would give him a death sentence unless he had no more role to play. The fact that they’ve cut and pasted John Connington’s fate onto him means that should he die it will definitely be in a completely different manner.

Similarly, while Selmy may or may not be long for Martin’s world it is clear that he won’t die at that point because he is still alive way beyond it, partaking in vital acts in the defence of Mereen. In his case I feel the premature departure has had a negative effect. Another senior figure in Mereen would make it look a bit less like everything is being done by three people in an empty pyramid. The only reason I don’t put Selmy into the herd-thinning category is that if he is to die in the books it’s probably fairly soon.

Lastly, I’m just about persuaded to put Roose and Walda in this group. Like with Stannis, Roose has to die for the plot to move forward and in A Song of Ice and Fire, people are rarely merciful to the families of the deceased. I’m not convinced his end will be as mundane as being stabbed in the stomach by Ramsey after dropping huge hints that he means to set him aside.

Herd Thinning aka We have a budget

The deaths I would describe as herd-thinning are where a character is killed on the TV show and there is no particular reason to think that character is about to die or their death was at least premature for no good in-world reason. These deaths are better explained by budgetary constraints, actor schedules and a general desire to keep the cast numbers in check both for cost and simplifying things for the viewer.

Rakharo (who seems to be an amalgam of Jhogo and Rakharo from the books) seems to have been killed off because the actor had a scheduling conflict. Presumably, if not he would have remained as the visible representative of the loyal Dothraki going on. It may have been the same with Clive Mantle (Greatjohn), although his lines and personality were fused on to the Blackfish from Season 3 onwards.

On the matter of the Blackfish, given that he is explicitly still alive and active in the books beyond the siege of Riverrun I can only think the showmakers considered him an expense they could do without (unless he is to take the place of Un-Cat).

Herd-thinning is the only reason I can think of that would explain the terrible plot decisions of the Dorne storyline. By killing off Doran and Trystane they have closed the door on a number of developments in that region, which to me says they wanted to give the viewers a reason to think Dorne is out of the picture now. Areo Hotah is just more collateral damage in this sense.

Last but by no means least in this group are the direwolves Summer and Shaggydog. They may die in the books but given how much they’ve been shoved to the side because CGI is expensive it’s hard to discount the possibility that this was a motivating factor in killing them off.

Bodycount

The last group includes Osha, Gren, Pyp, Irri and Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Each of these characters was killed not because they are set to die imminently but simply because of the drama their death would give to particular moments. In the case of Pyp and Gren this works. Pyp’s end heightens Sam’s jeopardy while also showing how far he has come as a character and Gren takes the place of a character not seen in the show. His death was done to make people care about a moment that deserves to be cared about.

Irri was killed to heighten the sense of danger in Qarth and in this case it didn’t work at all. The stolen dragons storyline was a major misstep and killing Irri to enable it was a waste of a character and an actress. It also cut much of Dany’s link to the Dothraki and made her entourage too light subsequently. It’s arguable that her role is filled by an aged-up Missandei but they are very different personalities and I can’t see that Irri’s presence wouldn’t have added more.

At the other end of the dragon theft storyline is Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Given that he’s a completely different character on the show to the book version his loss isn’t that important and probably preferable. The presence of the changed character was more problematic as it was integral to the deviations that undermined Dany’s season 2 arc.

Finally, Osha. She might die but I hope if she does it’s handled better than on the show. Another knife stabbing with little build up and zero reflection afterwards. She might as well have been a guest appearance. It’s possible that she was taking the role of one of the spear wives from the book but that doesn’t seem like a great reason to kill her.

Does it matter?

As with most questions, it depends. In the first group not at all. In other cases, as a book reader every time one of these deaths happen you see future storylines and scenes dying before your eyes. That is easier to take some times than others. Not including Arianna Martell is one thing. Bringing in Dorne then changing its course completely is quite another.

When you know you’re not going to see something you’d hoped to see it’s important that you’re given it in such a way that you can accept its loss. When things are edited for content you can always think it happened it just wasn’t shown. So in the Lord of the Rings films, for example, the scouring of the Shire could have happened (in the cinema release version), Tom Bombadil could have happened, the appendices could have happened; we just didn’t see it. There’s no way to undo aberrations like Osgiliath, unfortunately.

For the show watcher who hasn’t read the books and never plans to you can argue that it doesn’t matter at all. After all, if they had no expectations then there is no loss. However, as with any death if it is done without good reason it notices. I generally watch Game of Thrones with non-book readers and when a death doesn’t seem part of the story they tend to be taken out of their suspension of disbelief, frown and ask ‘does that happen in the books?’. They also ask this with stuff that’s in the books but usually after the end of the episode because they are still invested.

I appreciate that Game of Thrones doesn’t have an unlimited budget and my complaint isn’t with that. In fact, if I have a complaint it is directed at TV and film in general. Deaths of established characters can be very effective in drama. It’s important that it is never used cheaply and when that character has more stories to tell that will now never see the light it is all the more important the reasoning is sound.

 

 

Interview with JW Whitmarsh – Author of The Book of Water

Book of watereditNexus Fiction: Here we are again in the interrogation chamber of the Nexus castle. As we write our author JW Whitmarsh is being chained down by a team of obedient fomorii and told no food will be brought until all our enquiries are satisfied. So, with no further ado let us begin.

NX: How are you doing?

JW: Fine. I’m not sure how secure these manacles are though.

NX: We got them on the cheap.

JW: You mean you went to the adult store instead of the hardware store?

NX: It’s so much closer. Anyway, trilogy edition is out next week and since we haven’t interviewed you about Enchantress Destiny it seems a good point to talk about the final part of Caleigh’s journey.

JW: Won’t that be spoiling for those who were waiting for the trilogy edition?

NX: Be circumspect. Let’s discuss the books generally. Do you see the story as three parts or as one long tale?

JW: When I wrote it I definitely wrote it as one tale. I have or had a certain blindness slash ignorance of how long it was until it came to publishing. I thought I’d written something like a 600 page book. Long yes but not so long it needed to be partitioned.

NX: And then we told it’s 1,000 pages. A trilogy seemed like the obvious thing.

JW: Knowing what I know now I would have written it differently. Nonetheless there are distinct phases and tones throughout the story. Awakening is a coming-of-age journey. Apprentice is a quest. By the time we get to Destiny it is more of an all-out war.

NX: Less discovery and more resolution.

Destiny serpent2JW: Yes. I spent a long time gathering all the pieces and putting them into place. In the last volume we see how that unfolds. I noticed this in particular writing the dramatis personae for each part. By Destiny there aren’t so many people to introduce any more and so it is subsequently much briefer than the others.

NX: We’ve talked before about how some characters are ‘meta’ and some are ‘organic’. Can you expand upon that?

JW: Meta characters in storytelling terms are the ones who are required to be there by the plot and at certain points they will do certain things that are necessary to advance the narrative. In Dr Who terms they are fixed points that cannot be altered.

Organic characters, by contrast, do not need to be anywhere or do anything in particular but are grown out of the logic of the story or setting and evolve and act according to their personality.

NX: Can an organic character end up changing these fixed events?

JW: Organic characters can certainly influence how things play out and can create story-lines that would not have existed otherwise. That said, some fixed points are hard to get around.

NX: Can an organic character become meta and vice versa?

JW: Short answer, yes. The overarching story has a number of fixed events; the rest is fluid. Some characters started off as organic in Enchantress Awakening and have later become meta.

NX: So someone who started off as incidental can later have an important fate?

JW: Exactly. And the reverse can be true. Once all their fixed events have passed a meta character becomes organic. Almost everyone who was meta in The Book of Water is now organic.

NX: What would be the breakdown generally? Do you start with a set number of meta characters and let the rest grow around them?

JW: It’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking ten years ago. I would say a handful of characters began their life as meta characters and others became so in the writing process.

NX: And all those who survived The Book of Water are now organic?

JW: No. A few remain or have become important to much later events. Without giving too much away I will say as an illustration one character who started off life as an organic character now has a key role in the end of the entire series.

NX: That’s quite a meta leap. Can you give an example of someone who is an organic character and how they came into life?

JW: I think the most non-spoilery example I can give is Ellie. She was not part of the overriding narrative but as soon as I created Caleigh it was natural for her to have a friend of the same age. I don’t think I intended for her to be as involved as she was in the end but her relationship to Caleigh kept bringing her back into the narrative. It kind of mirrors how she feels about her role in these great events. She’s surrounded by all these wizards and heroes yet time and again she finds herself being useful to them. Now I think about it there’s an argument to say she’s the real hero. Maybe one day I’ll write the story from her perspective.

NX: She’s quite popular with the readers so we’d be happy for you to write it. Do you ever find you have different reactions to things than your readers?

JW: Haha. Yes actually. One reader reached out to me to tell me they found the story really funny. It was not the reaction I was expecting.

NX: There’s a lot of irreverent humour in the books though. You must have realised that writing it.

JW: Yes, absolutely. It’s just it’s not something I made a point of inserting. Humour between friends seems like a natural form of interaction and life’s absurdities are impossible to avoid altogether, even if it were desirable to do so.

NX: Have you encountered any drastically different interpretations from readers so far?

JW: Not as yet. Obviously, everyone has their preferences. Some say there’s too much sex others say they want more. Some don’t like fantasy generally but like the characters, others would like it to be more fantastical.

NX: In what way?

JW: I think one reader asked if I would do a human-centaur relationship.

NX: I almost dread to ask but will we see that?

JW: You’ll get to see centaurs.

NX: Now, you’ve written The Book of Water as volumes 1,2,3. Will the rest of the elements follow suit?

VlakyriegoldJW: No. I always intended for the narratives to shift and merge. The Book of Earth and The Book of Fire run more or less parallel to each other and intersect at points.

NX: How do you decide which bits go where?

JW: It’s a matter of narrator mostly. If we are reading Valeria’s story it will be Earth, if it is Marcus and Junia’s it will be fire.

NX: Are there any characters who will intersect across the all the Elements?

JW: Two for definite, and I don’t think this is giving much away; Loreliath and the Beast.

NX: Of course. The Book of Water is now finished. What sort of timeline can we expect for the books to come?

JW: In terms of in-story events or release dates?

NX: Let’s start with the latter.

JW: Book 4 – Valkyrie Rising (Part One of The Book of Earth) is written. Book 5 – Mars Fallen (Part One of The Book of Fire) is maybe 85-90% finished. I expect Valkyrie Rising to come out in the summer and Mars Fallen somewhere between late summer to early autumn.

FallenstraightenedLike with 4 & 5, Books 6 & 7 (A Clash of Gods/Venus Ascending) take place more or less concurrently and I expect I’ll write them as such. I hope to bring both out next year.

NX: And beyond that?

JW: Let’s see. I don’t want to get into soothsaying or making unfulfillable promises. When is ‘Winds of Winter’ coming out, by the way?

NX: Nobody knows, least of all George RR Martin. You’ll just have to keep us well read in the meantime.

JW: A heavy responsibility. Just don’t expect too much twincest from me.

NX: Dragons?

JW: There is always a dragon eventually.