Underworld as Otherworld: Combined and Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy Fiction

Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.

Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.

Moonheart            Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.

Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.

How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.

This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.

Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).

Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.

In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.

20160308_162556-1Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.

Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.

What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.

20160308_162621-1            I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.

A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.

The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.

Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.

This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.

The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.

 

Did you like this article? You might also like:

Part 1: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Part 2: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My Interview with Charles de Lint

 

 

Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Digital Era

bob steinLast Friday I attended a talk given by Bob Stein, who develop the first ebooks in 1992. You read that date right. It was 22 years ago, but the craze only began to catch fire with Kindle in 2007. During his presentation Mr. Stein said that he has always been 15 years ahead of tends in the digital book world. I thought I’d share my impressions of his talk because I believe that the future of the book  is a fascinating topic, one of the great technological transitions of this age.

Since Gutenberg’s day (the printin’ 50s, I might coin it–the 1450s that is), the printed codex (or book) has come to be the world’s dominant form of information dissemination. However, since the rise of the silicon chip in the last 30 or so years, ebooks and the Internet have slowly supplanted the codex. They have not conquered print books yet, but given the popularity of ebooks and ereaders, in 5 to15 years the landscape will be different. I do not personally believe that printed books are going extinct–technologies transform more often than they vanish. That transformation may be enough, however, to change how we read forever.

Traditional publishers have a legacy to protect, said Mr. Stein at the Atwater Library in downtown Montreal during the meeting for AELAQ (the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec). I was under the impression that many of the publishers in attendance were beginning to think about retirement. Those retiring soon have a reluctance to invest too heavily in digital publishing and a desire to defend the printed word. However, for someone like myself at 22 years of age, the world of ebooks, audiobooks, the Internet, and social media is where I will lay down my professional roots. Not that I don’t believe in print–quite the opposite–but I recognize the potentially exciting things that could emerge from digital publishing too. If you are reading this, you are witness to it; this is a blog, after all, and not magazine or private journal (see the irony in my blog title?).

I will have to come to terms with digital publishing if I desire to enter the industry as an editor or publisher–or even as an author. Authors are being asked to have build a platform through their social media presence. We are asked to not only be authors, but bloggers, directors (of YouTube movies), public speakers, and even voice actors (if we give our voice to an audiobook). Moving with this changing current is part of the purpose of The Vinciolo Journal, so I suppose you could say that you are glimpsing the future while reading this.

I myself have an ereader and the first book I’m reading on it is John Crowley’s Aegypt: The Solitudes, which I shall review next week. The ereader is the size of my hand and contains an entire library, including a thousand-page book of the complete short stories of H.P. Lovecraft–which would no doubt make my bag a lot heavier were I carrying it around all day. I find myself more reluctant to buy any physical book, no matter how badly I want it, because the shelf-space in my bedroom is packed and I still need space for school books next semester. Kobos, Kindles, and Nooks may be the only way to keep up a voracious reading habit.

A pile of rejected books. Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

There are other, more unexpected changes that the digital world could bring with it. Here is a list of some changes which Bob Stein said, or suggested, might come to the publishing industry:

-Printing will become more of an aesthetic choice. Ebooks will become mainstream, the option of utility.

-A new genre of literature may emerge once ereaders are the dominant form. It took 40 years for the novel to emerge as the main genre of print literature (from Gutenberg to Cervantes’ Don Quixote), so by 2054, perhaps we will see literature structured like a video game, where readers form their own narratives.

-A transition from solitary reading back to communal reading may be in store. Social media book clubs may become popular, the twenty-first century equivalent of the dominant mode of reading in medieval universities. Comment Press and Social Book allow you to write comments in the margins, renewing a habit of marginal notation that was popular in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed works.

Since public domain books will remain free, it will become popular to buy glosses on a book. For example, if you were reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you could get the book for free, but pay to have a historian’s notes on the text. If this becomes a thing, I suspect people will also pay to have a celebrity’s opinion on their favourite books, even if they have no academic understanding to bring.

-Digital books can be handed down through generations like family bibles. Your (grand)sons/daughters will read what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities if you write comments online. They will respond to notes you made twenty, even fifty years ago–and your comments will eventually outlive you for generations and generations.

-People will pay extra for supplementary material. Mr. Stein was one of the pioneers of including director’s commentary on DVDs. Would you be willing to pay extra to learn the author’s commentary on his/her own book? Something like that might be in store.

-Celebrity editors, like chefs, will be an effective way of increasing the branding of books. I find this last prediction fascinating, since I have yet to start my career as an editor. If I am interested in pursuing such a career, I would probably do well to pay attention to setting up my own brand right from the get-go.

I was so inspired to be thinking about the future of the book that when I came into Place Alexis Nihon, bound for the food court to grab my supper, I saw the bright lights and colours of a sports shoe department and thought to myself: what if we began selling books like Nike sells shoes? So much of consumerist culture is about branding and “the fetish of the commodity.” If we arranged shelf space in bookstores around either editorial or publishing company brands and set up rows of finely crafted hardcover codices of bestselling works, could a publishing company with money to invest arrange for a bookstore to sell titles in a way that emphasizes the premium quality of physical books, as opposed to digital books? Will such a niche market for codices arise after the ebook becomes dominant?

I know for a fact that I would visit such a store regularly. However, I cannot say the general public would take to it, at least not right away. For one, the price of these books would have to be relatively high, a reflection of the finer material qualities used in production. Why buy expensive $75 codices when paperback airplane thrillers come in at $5-10? But once everyone has an ereader and traditional books become rare, could this brand shop idea become a viable business plan? An opportunity to decorate one’s living room with attractive book spines?

Would you enter such a bookstore of the future, or would you not? While you search for an answer, I will give some thought to branding myself as an editor and await the coming of the day when I can sell comments on my favourite book for money. There may be money in being an author yet!

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

 

Photo Credits:

Bob Stein: http://lib.fsu.edu/conference/TheFutureOfTheBook/index.html

Pile of Books: http://walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2007/12/17/new-blog-how-to-read/

Ereader: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobo_Touch

Eternal Guarantee

salesEvery once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.

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Eternal Guarantee

Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies of Medieval Legend: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon. Part of Avalon Enterprises’ Premiere Set of Heroes. Customers can also buy individual warriors.

“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”

Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.

“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”

“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”

Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.

“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”

“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”

“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”

“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”

“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”

“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”

“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”

Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”

Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”

Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.

He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?

“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.

“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”

“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”

Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”

Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.

He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.

“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.

merlin and morgan.

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Photo Credits:

Morgan le Fay: http://www.howarddavidjohnson.com/arthurian.htm

Nine Worthies: http://www.scotiana.com/the-nine-worthies-on-the-oak-heads-medallions-at-stirling-castle/

Salesguy: http://www.zerotimeselling.com/confuse-activity-with-selling/

Antioch by William Harlan

The following is a book review of Antioch by William Harlan. Below the review is a criticism of the book, which I hope can help all first-time authors develop their talents. You can learn more about the series and read other reviews at http://www.williameharlan.com, as well as see his magnificent illustrations. You may also listen to the audiobook version on the same site. Click here to like his series on Facebook.

 

AntiochTwo worlds separated by an uncrossable ocean meet each other in the midst of a zombie apocalypse: this is the premise behind William Harlan’s novel Antioch, which is Part One of his series The Circle.

One world consists of a primitive medieval society, built around the authority of the church (a group of knights gifted with healing powers), and a distant northern king. The second is the more advanced world, either Victorian or twentieth-century, and is the home that a group of gun-totting, slang-speaking sailors have left behind, in the wake of the Fall.

Both societies have lost loved ones to the plague that is turning ordinary folk into deadly undead killers: bauran, also known as “devils.” Their meeting results in the breaking apart of the authority structures that bind Antioch, the largest city in a medieval wasteland.

Michael and John are two knights of the church who begin questioning their vows in the wake of the apocalypse. They are capable of summoning riin, a mysterious power that can heal wounds and make them the strongest warriors in their land. Riin bears some resemblance to the Force of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, but Harlan gives it a twist…

The Captain, Biggs, Andalynn, Ditch, and Drake are among the sailors who survived the deadly crossing of the ocean, only to arrive in the ghost town of Meroe, which has been devastated by zombies. They carry the big guns and strike up a friendship with the locals of Antioch. Except for Drake, they are much older than they appear—while in their sixties, they appear to be in their thirties. A mysterious figure named Ezekiel once saved them from the zombies, using riin to restore their youth and leaving behind only a single message:

Armageddon is arrived.

Break your silence.

Open the library.

The survival of both worlds hangs in the balance. The violence in the novel may be gruesome (what else to expect from a zombie apocalypse?), but the foul language is kept to a minimum. The concept of this book will appeal to any lover of zombie apocalypse movies or fiction, and to post-apocalyptic aficionados in general.

 

William Harlan is the author of Antioch.

William Harlan is the author of Antioch.

Congratulations to William Harlan for finishing his first self-published novel! Having written a novel myself, I am aware of the challenges that a first novel can bring, and the path of discovery the author inevitably journeys on in its process.

Harlan openly posts reviews that both criticize his novel on his novels, and those that praise it. This is a humble gesture that I respect. I could make a list of faults that I found with this novel, but instead of striking his novel over the head with a hammer, I will examine the work for what it is—a work written by a developing author. Hopefully, his future novels will overcome the setbacks of the first. All authors must evolve, and no one is more aware of this than myself, an unpublished novelist. For making the bold move of self-publishing his work, I can only praise William Harlan.

To a certain extent, my criticisms are biased towards the printed word–you might find that hearing the audiobook read by the author is smoother than reading the novel.

Now I invite all first-time novelists to look over my shoulder as I briefly examine his novel, to hopefully learn something for yourselves.

My first criticism would be the development of his characters. At the beginning, Michael has little characterization, though we see he is an accomplished warrior with vows he holds dear. About a third of the way through, Harlan starts exploring the relationships of his characters, which is good. They appear more fleshed out as the book continues. One scene, a flashback, presents Drake’s point of view quite well. However, the book does open weakly with characterization, and I would stress that what readers remember most about a book after setting it down are not action scenes, exquisite descriptions, or even world building, but characters.

An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan

An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan.

The result of Harlan’s exploration of character is that more than half the book, it seems, is taken up with the characters’ boisterous camaraderie as they laugh at each other and crack jokes in a medieval restaurant. The historical inaccuracy of such a location aside (perhaps Harlan meant an inn?), the end result may be that character relationships are deeper, but it is at the expense of the story. While the opening of the novel promises a story of kick-ass zombie slaying and an attempt to find a cure for the disease, most of the novel is composed of talking-head scenes where nothing much happens.

The book is best when dialogue, setting, and characterization are balanced evenly in a scene, though many scenes are dialogue heavy and disembodied in the setting. Especially for fantasy authors, setting is important.

Furthermore, the medieval society seemed to lack many of the defining constraints that defined it, such as the aristocracy and the vassalage system, among other things. Perhaps Antioch is closer to a Renaissance city state? Also, the Continent has a vastly different history from our own world, but the customs are essentially the same as in the Unite States today, which I found to be unlikely. The book would have benefited from more setting details, and more world building.

DrakeAnother rookie mistake is the author left me, as a reader, wondering why things were happening. Most scenes, especially at the beginning, but also in the middle and end, left me disoriented. This is because things about the world are simply not explained, or if they are, they should be explained sooner. While it is true that an author should not dump massive piles of exposition in the middle of a scene, Harlan seems to take that rule too literally. It is okay to explain backstory and world-building details a little bit, otherwise the context is lost on the reader. Doing it cleverly, sneaking it in through scene tension, is the best way to do this. It happens that first time authors may have a whole world plotted out in their head—I certainly struggle with that myself—but if it does not appear on the page, it does not transfer to the reader’s head. And if that does not happen, the writer has not done his telepathic job.

By page 19, I did not know anything about the characters or context, other than that Michael kicks zombie butt. But if that is so, why should I care? We need to bond to Michael right off the top, in the first paragraph, or even the very first sentence. The first sentence should announce a question to be answered, or a hint at a problem, and if possible the stakes of that for character. And we need context to follow that introduction.

In terms of style, Harlan has potential to be a good prose writer—many of his sentences are pithy, short, effective. However, it would be best if he stayed away from writing the Southern accents into the sailors’ dialogue, which distracted from what they were actually saying to each other. He can probably hint at the accent through word choice and sentence structure instead of cutting off vowels with apostrophes. (Also, it would be fun for the medieval people to speak more formally, to contrast better with the sailors.) There were also some common grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences, perhaps made awkward due to an attempt to antiquate the language. Worse was the repeated letters in dramatic, emotional dialogue (“Noooo!”) which reduced moments of deep emotion into bathos—emotion that fails because it tries too hard. The result of the accents and clumsy, unprofessional-looking prose is that I could not take the novel seriously. This would be fine if Harlan was writing a comedy, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, I would doubt this was his intent. Mind you, this problem disappears slightly in the audiobook, since there is no physical page to frown at.

Devil's MArkFinally, I would say his plot needs tweaking and more structure. The ending does not end with an obvious success or failure, but more or less in the middle of things. While it is in the middle, in a way, of the series, after reading nearly 200 pages of buildup, I was expecting a showdown that had some kind of closure to it—not a total defeat of evil, but a definite change of circumstances for the protagonists. Writing Excuses, a fantasy/science fiction writing podcast, talks about a seven-point story structure system that I find helpful and clarifying.

I write these criticisms to aid Harlan in his writing career, and I hope he will take them to heart, and learn the art of the writer. These criticisms may also aid any other first-time authors out there, whether you are published or not. Read some well-written fiction to learn from the greats, develop your personal style, and consult Stephan King’s On Writing and Strunk &White’s The Elements of Style. You might also want to consult How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, if that is your genre, and Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction Series, especially Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. The only danger is one of my own ongoing struggles: you might read more about writing fiction than you actually write, so keep practicing and practicing!

Note: While it is a slight departure for The Vinciolo Journal to review a self-published author’s work, I hope the review above justifies my choice. I generally do not accept self-published works, but will handle queries, should they arise, on a case-by-case basis.

A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch

A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch.