Saturday, December 20, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich vs. What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

After an atypically fair contest between two honest-to-God comparable books in our last battle, we now return to the Battle of the Books sweet spot: outrageous apples-to-oranges comparisons. This battle matches a Pathfinder RPG tie-in, The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich, against a non-fiction book, What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Dagger of Trust: Paizo paperback, February 2014, 426 pages, cover art by Lucas Graciano. The Dagger of Trust takes place in the universe of the Pathfinder fantasy role-playing game. We've had several Pathfinder novels in the Battle of the Books, and they have made a strong showing, always competing well and one time advancing all the way to the semifinals. The Dagger of Trust opens with our heroine Corvine Gale and a group of friends barely escaping a mob that went mad when touched by a strange glowing fog. Corvine sends for help from two wizards at the Rhapsodic College in Oppara, Sebastian Tambour and Gideon Gull. As her message arrives, Gideon Gull is taking a strange test that challenges him to win a debate while simultaneously preventing an assassination.

Chris Willrich is a new fantasist best known for his Gaunt & Bone series of swords & sorcery, including the novels The Scroll of Years and The Silk Map. We will be seeing Gaunt & Bone in an upcoming bracket of the Battle of the Books.

What Makes This Book So Great: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 446 pages, cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. What Makes This Books So Great is a collection of posts Jo Walton wrote for the blog, giving her thoughts as she rereads some of her favorite books. And anyone who has read Walton's Hugo-winning novel Among Others knows that she loves to talk about favorite books she's rereading. The first 25 pages of What Makes This Books So Great consist of an introduction and seven columns.

Jo Walton is the author of ten fantasy novels to date plus a great deal of short fiction, poetry, and essays. In addition to her Hugo Award for Among Others, she won a World Fantasy Award for Tooth and Claw. Her latest novel My Real Children will be in a future BotB bracket.

The Battle: Let's see, a novelization of a role-playing game against a collection of non-fiction. Rational people quail at the notion of comparing such, but here at the Battle of the Books, it's what we live for!

25 pages in, both of these books are entertaining and easy to read. The Dagger of Trust combines the fantasy elements of the Pathfinder RPG with a fog that drives people into a homicidal frenzy——as in James Herbert's novel The Fog, not the John Carpenter movie The Fog, if I have my deadly mists straight. (Actually, I'm not certain this fog isn't a Pathfinder game element; I know nothing of the game other than it's in the style of D&D. Thankfully, the Pathfinder tie-in novels do not require prior familiarity with the game.) The writing is clean and the story moves along at a nice pace. The opening section ends on an ominous note, when Gideon Gull is warned, "The dagger of trust is the sharpest blade of all."

But 25 pages in, through the Prologue and Chapter One, I don't feel I have much insight into any of the The Dagger of Trust's characters. Neither do I have a good sense what the main storyline will involve, since most of the first 25 pages were occupied by Gideon Gull's debate/assassination test. That was a good set piece, but it feels tangential to the plot. So while I'm enjoying The Dagger of Trust through the first section, I could put it down right now without any great regret.

What Makes This Book So Great looks like a collection of book reviews, only of older books not new ones. But it quickly proves more interesting than just that. In each essay, Walton isn't simply talking about a particular book. She's thinking a particular thought and using one or more books to illustrate. So her piece on A Deepness in the Sky isn't about how much she likes that novel, or it isn't only about that anyway, it's about how an author can use a reader's knowledge to create a tragic irony that is never explicitly mentioned in the text. Vernor Vinge did that making use of what readers knew from reading A Fire Upon the Deep. The chapter on Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence is about what sometimes causes good books not to find the audience they deserve.

In a post on "mainstream" vs. genre fiction, Walton observes that in A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, "the djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link's zombies aren't a metaphor." Worldbuilding is an integral part of genre fiction but not mainstream, so readers of the two types of literature bring different expectations of what is important to the story. Walton summarizes:
In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery." The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.
Last night I watched a 2006 movie called Cashback, about a young artist who becomes depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend. It's a nicely done film, but it probably would have driven me nuts if I had seen it in the past. For in the movie, the protagonist develops the ability to freeze time. Whenever he chooses, everyone else stops frozen as a statue while he can still move around. And with this magical ability, he proceeds to do . . . nothing. Nothing at all. He doesn't think of stealing anything or spying on anyone or performing amazing feats. He does disrobe some women, but only to draw them, not to try any of the naughty ideas that would occur to most of us. He learns that others have this ability but makes no attempt to investigate. These possibilities are the first things that went through my mind, but the script and the character never show any interest in them.

Still I was able to enjoy Cashback and not be driven nuts partly because Jo Walton's essay was fresh in my mind. Walton didn't discuss Cashback, but her analysis explains it perfectly. In this film, the ability to freeze time is scenery. It's strictly a metaphor, and not at all what the film is about.

Which is all a long-winded way of arguing that the Battle of the Books isn't so unfair after all. Write down whatever you like, science fiction or fantasy or YA or horror or even non-fiction, and I'll read 25 pages. And two days later, if I'm still thinking about what your wrote, if it's affecting my perceptions of things around me——say, a random movie I watch late at night——then you win.

THE WINNER: What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great advances to the second round, to face either Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer or The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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