Friday, May 28, 2010

Exploring New Worlds

I understand now why paranormal romances tend to develop into series -- you only need the reader to learn all the jargon, backstory, logistics, and contrivances once.  After that, the reader is returning to a familiar world; you might add more details but you don't have to start from scratch.

The problem with this system is the work the reader has getting through that first book, particular if the paranormal or fantasy element is not one for which we already know the mythology.  Vampires: yup, they drink blood (or its substitute); werewolves change into wolves either volitionally or at the full moon (or both), and so forth.

What about sylphs?  Anyone?  Nope, me neither.  All I could think of was the ballet, Les Sylphides, although I see now that there are two ballets and only the La Sylphide version has a plot to explain what a sylph is.  (According to that story, the sylph is a forest fairy that can disappear at will or take human form.)

Here's a picture, courtesy of Flickr:

Ethereal white-blond hair, killer bod, and Victoria's Secret satin bustier.  Works for me.

But in Lori McDonald's first sylph book, The Battle Sylph, there's a bit more to the mythology.  I've only read 20% of the book -- which is rather the point.  This post isn't about spoilers or the avoidance thereof, it's about all the front-end loaded stuff you need to learn about the world the author's built.  If you've read the book, this will remind you; if you haven't read it, this may be a useful primer.

Our first human character is Devon.  He has an air sylph named Airi.  (We get the impression later that the naming element -- critical to the ownership and control of a sylph -- is not a choice a person gets to linger over.  Which could explain why some of the names sylphs end up with seem a bit unimaginative.)  Airi is female but not especially corporeal.  No love match brewing there.

Which is the first thing I started thinking about.  With vampires and werewolves, we actually expect human/creature romance.  ("Creature" isn't intended to be pejorative; I just can't think of a more value-neutral noun that doesn't presuppose humanity.)  As soon as a character -- who thinks, feels, connects, etc. -- isn't human, that doesn't preclude a romance but it opens a bunch of questions.  Given that every male in romances these days is very sexual, I'm thinking the absence of a body is a deal-breaker.

Nonetheless, Devon and Airi have a nice relationship.  Somewhere between having a best friend-who's-a-girl-but-not-my-type-if-you-know-what-I-mean and having a dog.  They talk telepathically because, even though it's standard that sylphs be ordered not to speak, Devon is an enlightened owner.

The concept of owning a creature doesn't precisely pin down the historical era this novel is trying to evoke, but in the first few pages, we have a castle (complete with ramparts), trade ships, men on horseback, and a cart.  Not definitive, but I'm thinking it's the Middle Ages, roughly.  Later clothing choices seem to confirm this.  Just picture the movie The Princess Bride and you'll get close enough.

Devon isn't mentioned on the back cover blurb.  Only our human heroine, Solie, shows up on the back cover by name -- along with the titular battle sylph she comes to own.  The way she comes to own him is from a battle sylph capture gone wrong.  McDonald has some fun with this bit, although it's not a nice image.  Ordinarily, what happens is a human female virgin is captured, stripped, tied down and then the castle door is opened.  In sweeps the battle sylph, then the intended owner kills the sacrificial virgin, names the battle sylph and the deed is done.  Mind you, the battle sylph HATES his new owner, but the deed is done all the same.

In Solie's case, she gets snatched on the way to visit her decidedly independent aunt, a baker in a nearby village.  Aunt Masha has armed Solie with a knife cunningly fitted into a butterfly barrette, so when the time comes for the idiot prince to kill Solie and get the battle sylph for himself, she stabs and kills him instead.  Yay!  She's not stupid (of course she's not stupid; she's the heroine) so she's paid attention to the explanation to the late-prince about the importance of naming the battle sylph.  After killing the prince, she figures she had better name the creature herself.

"Hey, you," she says.  He's been named -- Heyou.

Okay, so at this point, I was a bit troubled.  Who used the expression, "Hey, you," before, say, the past 50 years?  It sounds modern and even a bit trendy.  It does not sound at all consistent with a landscape out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I don't expect the dialogue to be in Middle English but it seemed jarring to flash on a snippet of dialogue from Pretty Woman under the circumstances.  (Incidentally, I'm wrong.  Here's evidence that "hey" as an informal word to attract attention existed in the early 13th century.  So at least theoretically the words "hey" and "you" could have been strung together, allowing for accepted levels of transliteration to modern spellings.)

Heyou takes Solie off, rescuing her from the castle.  For the first time, we get Heyou's POV and learn more about how sylphs live and operate.  It's a hive system, with a queen at the center.  Battle sylphs have all kinds of special (if alarming) powers and attributes.  (Teeth made of lightning remain my personal fave.)  Solie, like Devon, is an enlightened owner who doesn't order Heyou as much as give him choices.  We might question that wisdom, given that he can flatten half a village in a fight, but still...

We also learn more about battle sylphs.  They are noncorporeal but can take human form.  They're male and when in human form know precisely what to do with the dangly bits.  They're amorous and unless they have been expressly ordered to do or not do a specific thing, all bets are off.  They're all about working the angles and finding the loopholes.

The Battle Sylph took off, for me, when we got to know Ril, a battle sylph belonging to the king's head of security, Leon.  Ril hates Leon because Leon killed Ril's queen (i.e., the virginal sacrifice used in Ril's capture), but Leon has daughters, and Ril -- permanently in the form of a bird of prey -- lurves those girls.  He finds sneaky ways to communicate with them without violating the letter of his orders from Leon, and his longing for the girls, and theirs for him, is so heartbreaking that I could happily have left Solie, Devon, Airi and Heyou to their own devices and just followed Ril around.  Bring back the Bird!

That's pretty much as far as I've gotten -- not very far vis a vis the plot, but a long way in exploring McDonald's sylphian world, necessary first steps to enjoying the story.


  1. Oh, you still have lots of revelations to go! And that's all I'll say except that by book 2, I was really thinking a lot about gender roles, relationship philosophies, etc.. You can read these books on a pure action/adventure level, but looking deeper, there's some pretty subversive stuff worked in there if the reader wants to really ponder it. I'm curious to see what you'll make of it!

    Re: the worldbuilding - I completely agree. It takes a lot of pages to build a world so that the story even makes sense. Hard work!

  2. Okay, that's one reason why authors write series.

    The other one, and IMHO, the more pertinent one, is that one book is just not enough to explore.

    A lot of people tend to look at fantasy/paranormal etc. worlds in terms of 'building the world.' But I think the 'exploring the world' bit is equally important.

  3. Lynn -- I know what you mean, and I'm not yet halfway through Book 1. There's lots of cool stuff about this world that's unfolding. I'm interested to see what she does with the relationships. Even this early I can foresee some possible barriers to the HEA that will need to be negotiated.

    All that said, I have a tiny, whispery niggle of negativity about the "instant bond" component. I understand it conceptually, but when I think about relationships, I always wonder if that isn't a bit of a cheat. Same thing with the Black Dagger Brotherhood: as soon as they smell the "dark spices" they know they're mated. Where's all the struggle, the questions, the gradual discovery and understanding of emotions as a character falls in love?

    More to the point, what (if anything) is lost when all that stuff is finessed? If a straight-up contemporary novel did that (e.g., "The moment I saw you I knew ... "), I think I would feel a bit gypped, unless the rest of the story was hot & angsty & romantic enough to counterbalance that short-cut.

    Emily -- I did think about the author's own investment in an alternate reality and intricately organized world. Having done all that work for the first book, I can well imagine not wanting to do it all over again for another stand-alone novel.

    But at some point, there can creep into the series a certain "world fatigue" where the stuff that still amuses the author is maybe growing thin for the loyal reader. (The boots in the BDB series mysteriously come to mind...) The challenge for the author, then, is to continue to convey to the reader her own joy in exploring the world she has embedded in her mind.

  4. Other writers may think differently, but my academic training is an economist.

    The time you spend creating a new world etc. is a sunk cost. It is, or it should be, irrelevant to the decision you are making about whether you want to continue investing in the world you have already created or to junk it and do something else.

    (I swear, if I become a successful writer, it will be because I did my undergrad in economics.)

    Boots in BDB series? I read the first 3, I think, and gave up.

    But yes, I see what you're saying. And I think part of it is that authors invest too much in their worldbuilding. They don't want to let go, and they get tunnel vision.

    And tunnel vision is no good for anybody, and especially not for authors because it is their vision of something they are sharing.

  5. Emily I love it that you're thinking like an economist. As I have revealed recently, I am ignorant & have no specialized knowledge about anything!

    I do think sometimes like a lawyer, but that's really just more storytelling. And the risk for us as storytellers is that what's a nice relaxing book for the reader can be the Bataan Death March for the author. Sure, there are sunk costs, but there may also be depreciation of the author's investment in her own world. So she gets tired of it, just a little, and at first it doesn't matter, but maybe the sixth book in the series isn't as sharp as the second.

    Or whatever. The mileage may vary with the author, and the series.

    (The boots in the BDB series are always black sh*tkickers. Always. After a few books, I feel like saying "just write 'boots' -- we'll know which kind you mean.")

  6. Magdalen, I'm such a geek, I know. :)

    I'll say it is nice to have some framework in defining rationality, if that makes sense. And eliminating options until I have just the one left.

    I'm more inclined to see it as diminishing marginal returns: for every extra unit of investment, your return gradually gets less and less.

    OH! Haha.

    I hate the in-jokes. They really get on my nerves after awhile.

  7. Answering late but here goes:

    Re: instant bonds - I can see that as kind of a cheat depending on how it's done. However, in this series, it did start to work for me. I think it's because (geez, I hope I'm not spoiling too much) even with the instant bonds, the couples still have outside barriers to overcome and they still have to work on building true emotional intimacy. Personally, I think the relationship building worked better for Ril(Shattered Sylph) than with Heyou(Battle Sylph), but I like both books. Sometimes things are a little too easy, but I also read these sorts of relationships as a paranormal take on the historical arranged marriage. In other words, the couple may be thrown together by some force (arranged marriage or magic bond),BUT they still have to become a real couple.

  8. Lynn -- That's an excellent point, about the arranged marriage. Although it's almost the reverse: in an arranged marriage a lot of the logistics of marriage has been worked out (where they'll live, what income they'll have, etc.) in the process of the arrangement, but the couple have to find the emotional connection.

    With the "instant bond," the emotional connection is there but the logistics of the relationship have to be worked out. Not so much the where & how of living together, but all the stuff that arises in paranormal relationships (e.g., "Honey, I love you but your claws really need to be retracted before we go to bed...").

    Still, you make an excellent point: in both cases, they still have to become a real couple.


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