Great Art and Granularity

I have a new favourite artist. Check out this painting by Christi Belcourt. It’s called My Heart is Beautiful.

My Heart is Beautiful

You can’t see it in this image, but each flower and plant is made up of tiny dots of colour, like beadwork. Belcourt is Métis and bright floral beadwork on dark-coloured fabric is a traditional Métis art. She’s also a keen observer of real wildflowers. The botanical details give her paintings a whole extra dimension.

What I like about the image is not just that the overall design is pleasing to the eye, but that there’s more to see at every level of magnification. You can stand back and enjoy the swirly damask pattern, or you can let your eye travel around the canvas and identify the different species of plants. Every time I look at it, I see something I didn’t notice before: Vervain! Sundew! Robin’s nests! If we could visit the canvas in person and lean in still closer, we would see the dots of different colours in each flower.

The painting is also a good analogy for what makes a great novel memorable to me. Some books are fun to read the first time through, but don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Other ones only become more meaningful the closer you look at them and the more you know about their subject matter. In a really great book, you can keep coming back and find something new to see each time.

When I write, I want to be as granular as a Belcourt painting. The overall plot should be fun, but as people look again more closely, they should also be able to recognize glimpses of reality: gestures that people really make, details of the setting, themes that resonate. At the finest level of magnification, the prose should be beautiful. I don’t think I can claim to have produced the literary equivalent of My Heart is Beautiful yet, but the work continues.

The Goblin Emperor: A Review

I just finished reading Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, one of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Hugo awards. It’s a book that answers a question I’ve asked many times at the end of other fantasies: What happened after the protagonist unseated the Bad King and took the throne for himself? How did he turn the ship of state around?

Maia is the disregarded fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, and a half-goblin to boot. He has been raised in exile from the court, and seems fated to live his entire life relegated to a remote manor, except that an airship accident kills his father and three elder brothers. Maia is hastily crowned Emperor, though he was never trained to rule and does not understand the motives and intrigues of his father’s courtiers. He struggles to overcome his abusive upbringing while facing down the daily conflicts that his imperial duties entail. When he discovers that the airship crash was an act of sabotage, he quickly realizes that the unknown assassins must be planning to murder him next.

Among all the SF novels I can think of, this one has the best portrayal of an imaginary government. Fantasy kings and emperors have a bad habit of shirking actual work. At best, their role is usually limited to sitting in a great hall and hearing the occasional petition. Not Maia. He’s thrown into an empire with a fully-developed cabinet, parliament and chancery, which he has to learn to navigate. There are real problems to solve, and they look very different from the perspectives of different stakeholders. As a former aide to politicians, all this warms my tiny, twisted heart.

Other reviewers have also noted how the story touches on subjects of race, class and gender in a nuanced way, without losing narrative momentum. I think the female characters were particularly well done. As writers, we’re so often tempted to fall into the old character tropes of either the “sexy lampshade” who could be replaced by an object without affecting the plot, or the superwoman, who faces no obstacles to her hyper-empowerment. Addison gently reminds us that there are hundreds of points in between those two poles. From the spoiled princess Sheveän, to the opera singer Nedäo Vechin, to Suler the nursery maid, they make excellent examples of how to write women who have personality and agency, even in a society where they have little power.

Maia himself is a character of a type that has become all too rare in the fantasy genre lately: the kindly protagonist. He is genuinely concerned for the well-being of those around him. His attitude manifests as small thank-yous and grander demonstrations of imperial mercy. Nevertheless, he’s more than a one-dimensional goody-goody. Time and again, he’s faced with the realization that when you’re in a position of power, you can be cruel merely by being oblivious.

Paradoxically, I think characterization is also the book’s main weakness. I count 164 named characters, not including gods and horses, and some eighty-odd of these people have speaking parts. While I recognize that the tradition of epic casts goes back to Homer, I don’t think it serves this story very well.

You never really get to know much about any one character except Maia himself. When someone close to him betrays him and subsequently commits suicide, you realize that this character has never been described and has not uttered a single word up until now. The complete opacity of the character’s motives–and the suspicion that the author is cheating–combine to suck some of the emotion out of an otherwise powerful death scene.

The detachment is exacerbated by a complex system of naming and honorifics. Characters are often referred to by their title and surname, but later in the book might be called by their personal name. Similar sounding names like Sheveän, Shaleän, Mireän and Nemiriän abound. Time and again, I stopped cold in my reading to ask Wait, who is that? Have we met this person before?

Fortunately, the book comes with a list of characters, or I would have been completely lost. Even when Maia names his closest associates near the end of the story, there was one name I had to hunt down in sixteen pages of appendix before I recognized it.

Despite its flaws, the story moved me enough to make me go back and read choice parts over again after I had finished it. Depending on how I feel about The Three-Body Problem, which I still need to read, it may still be my first choice for the Hugos this year.

Deciphering Medieval Manuscripts

My university degrees were in Medieval Studies. In recent years I haven’t had much cause to crack open a manuscript, but the recent visit of a scholar friend from overseas got me thinking of an old puzzle I hadn’t solved yet.

Manuscript 01020 is housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. Most of it is devoted to a notabilia Bible, that is, a collection of quotable quotes from scripture suitable for inclusion in fifteenth-century business or government correspondence. However, it has a few interesting miscellaneous folios too. One of them is a single page of fencing instructions and another one is a list of unlucky  days of the year. A third one is mysterious calendar.

When I first looked at the calendar a few years ago, I couldn’t figure out how it worked, but now that I’ve returned to the puzzle, I think I’ve solved it. It doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to understand, but you do need to know that the manuscript was probably made in Florence. Click on the photo to see a larger version of the image. Can you see how it works?


Here’s a hint: by medieval Florentine reckoning, numbered years begin in March.

I’ll post an answer at a later date, when people have had a chance to grapple with the puzzle.

Reality: Just as Strange as Fiction

How many times have I scoffed at fantasy novels where a character sleeps comfortably on frozen ground, wrapped only in his cloak? I always assumed those scenes were written by authors from tropical climes who had no concept of winter or hypothermia. Yet today I came across the following passage from Julius von Klaproth’s memoir of his early nineteenth-century travels in the Caucasus (translation by F. Shoberl).

The distance from Mosdok [Mozdok, Ingushetia] to Grigoripol is sixty versts; and in truth it is not a very agreeable excursion to perform in the middle of December, partly at night, over the steppe covered with hoar-frost, and besides at a foot-pace. We had consoled ourselves with the idea of resting and warming ourselves at least till the next morning at Grigoripol, but were grievously disappointed; for on account of the lateness of the hour we were not admitted into the fortress, and were obliged to pass the night in the open air. Hungry, thirsty, and benumbed with cold, we had no other resource than to refresh ourselves with tea, biscuit, and French brandy; and then, covered with our excellent Lesgian felt-cloaks, to lie down to sleep on the frozen ground. The night was rough and windy, but yet we found ourselves next morning much more recruited than we would have expected.

Apparently such things are possible. Part of the explanation may lie in the expression “Lesgian felt-cloak”. The Lezgins are a people from southern Dagestan. Some poking about on the internet turns up the following picture of a Dagestani man in traditional clothing, albeit from a century later. The cloak in question may have been large and rug-like, like this one.


(Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Libraries)

That’s the great thing about reading world history: you discover how fantastical the real world actually is.

On Pen Names

Welcome to my brand new blog and my brand new identity. I’m Ariel Bolton, a soon-to-be-published writer of SF short stories, and a maybe-someday novelist. This week, I sold my first short story. When I received the contract, I had to make the first important decision about my writing career: to choose a pen name or not?

In the end, I decided to go with the pen name. I like my real name, and I’m not ashamed of my fiction, but several factors pushed me to choose a nom de plume.

1. My real name is hard to spell. Everyone gets it wrong at least some of the time. In daily life I’m okay with that, but it becomes a problem when you’re a writer. In a world where more and more books are being sold online, people have to be able to spell your name in order to find you. I don’t want to lose ten or fifteen percent of my potential audience to spelling errors.

2. I intend to publish unsuccessful books under my real name. At some point I will finish turning my PhD dissertation into a monograph and attempt to get it published through a university press. While I love my dissertation, I have no illusions that a book filled with quotes in Latin and historical legal terminology is going to be a bestseller. It will sell perhaps a hundred copies. I’m not sure whether poor sales of a nonfiction book would contribute to a novelist’s so-called Author Death Spiral, where a bookstore orders fewer and fewer of an author’s titles based on the mediocre performance of previous books, but why take the chance? It seems prudent to keep the two brands separate and distinct.

3. I may work for the federal public service in the future. I’ve applied for a job at Library and Archives Canada in the past and I may do so again. LAC’s code of conduct is notorious for muzzling its employees. If a librarian or archivist wants to teach a class or speak at a public engagement on her own time, she has to get special written permission from her employers, and that permission will only be granted if the event has nothing to do with libraries, archives, history or, you know, books. Hopefully, having a separate writing identity will go some way towards keeping employers out of my personal life and ensure that I’m not perceived as speaking on their behalf when I go to SF conventions.

I plan to update this blog regularly. Stay tuned for more posts!