I’m thinking about…

I'm thinking about character all the time these days. Obsessively. Partly this is teaching; we just did a section on character in my intensive summer class last Saturday, so we talked about it for about four hours. Active characters, passive characters, arcs, reader engagement, sympathy vs. liking, and a hell of a lot more. Partly it's my novel, of course; my protagonist keeps changing, incrementally at times, in each revision, so I'm spending a lot of time thinking about who she is, but perhaps more importantly, how to make her clear to readers (while she remains somewhat fuzzy to herself). And then, of course, I think about character in the books I read.

Saturday, I was thrilled to have a review copy of Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword arrive at my door. I immediately started reading it, and read it compulsively until I finished after midnight. Could not put it down. Loved it loved it loved it. And yet, at the same time...I had a bit of character critique.

Mild spoilers follow!


First, though, let's start with the praise. If you haven't read the first book in this set, Swordspoint, run, don't walk to your local Amazon. It's one of my most-recommended fantasy books; it's smart, funny, edgy, and unlike anything else I've ever read. And the two protagonists of that book, Alec and Richard, are people that I fell madly in love with when I read the novel, so while I enjoyed The Fall of the Kings, a novel set in the same world, what I really was waiting for was another book with Alec and Richard in it. And she gives us that in TPotS. So I have now forgiven Ellen for keeping us waiting since 1987 to see those two again. (Yes, that's nineteen years. Nineteen!!! She's mean...)

My passion for Alec and Richard does make it difficult to judge TPotS fairly, I think, because they're not the center of this book -- they're in the background, while Alec's niece, Lady Katherine, takes center stage. And she's charming and plucky and interesting and all, but she had a tough task, trying to be the center of a story with Alec and Richard in it. I was talking with Jed about it last night, and he suggested that in some ways it was really two stories. And that's not necessarily a problem; Ellen weaves smoothly between one and the other (plus some side stories). It's nicely complex, to have one story foregrounded while another plays out in the background.

But here's the problem. Alec and Richard's story is marvellous. My only complaint there is that I love listening to them talk so much that I would have gladly sat through a book twice as long just to have all the new space filled with scenes of them talking. I adore their dialogue. I do grant that it might have been a bit self-indulgent (not to mention messing up the pacing badly) to have them talking for half the book, but at some point, maybe Ellen can just add a whole new section to her webpage with 'the continued conversations of Alec and Richard.' I would gladly read those every morning, and would give up all my webcomics in exchange.

The problem isn't really that Alec and Richard are so fabulous. It's that Katherine isn't quite fabulous enough to compete. And it took me a long time to figure out why I felt that way, because she really is a charming and plucky young heroine. But here's the problem -- after the first quarter of the book, I never really felt like she was in any danger. She should be in danger -- both physical and societal -- and in fact, she is. But she's never scared, rarely even worried, and so sure of herself that it feels like she just coasts through most of the book. And so while I'm charmed by her, I never fall in love with her, because she's never vulnerable enough.

Maybe I'm over-sensitive to this problem, because this is exactly what Ben said was wrong with the opening of my book -- that my protagonist seemed too in-control, that the book said she was in trouble, but she didn't actually seem to be in trouble. So I've spent the last few weeks obsessing over this problem and trying to fix it (and I think I did). So take all this with a grain of salt.

It feels strange, critiquing this, because I don't actually think I want Ellen to change anything that actually happens in the book. The plot arc is strong, the stories are compelling, and even Katherine's character arc (with three difficulties she has to overcome) works really well, I think. It's just that with the last big crisis, she never seems to have any real difficulty pushing through, and so it doesn't feel like a crisis at all. She's sheltered from its real consequences, both by the author and by her uncle. And I almost let it go, because Alec and Richard's story is so compelling that I was totally carried along anyway, and the ending of the novel is just perfect. But it niggles at me, especially because I think it could be a very easy fix, with just a few sentences here and there to make it clear that Katherine is really in trouble, really at risk.

Despite my quibble, this novel really was marvellous and very satisfying. There are so many great moments in it, and subtle and interesting explorations of gender, attraction, desire, social convention. Highly recommended. Read it, tell me what you think!

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