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A Succession of Bad Days, Graydon Saunders 12 December 2021

2015 military fantasy. In the new Second Commonwealth, five apprentices learn to use their magical power.

It's like the first book, but even more so. There's still an aggressive refusal to use personal pronouns; there's still a prose style full of horrible incoherent tortured sentences laden with false starts and shotgunned full of commas. It's all like this:

We're going by, I don't think it's a thorpe, as such, it's a big orchard, the trees look old, there's a cluster of substantial buildings a hundred or so metres from the road, with low garden, some kind of herbs, probably flavouring, between the road and the buildings. Two old stone gateposts, they've got lichen, but no gate.

Saunders is of course a fan of golden-age science fiction, and like many books of that time, the ideas are sometimes great, but you don't half have to wade through the terrible writing just to work out what the author is trying to say, never mind actually engage with it.

Being 180,000 words long in this turgid style doesn't help the book, but the near-total lack of plot and pacing and tension are greater sins. Yes, the characters are decent – though they all have the same voice and the ones other than our protagonists blur into each other. Yes, there's occasional humour. But more and more this felt to me like being preached at by the sort of Very Smart Guy who just knows that he's got the answers to everything, his idea is the only way it can possibly work, never mind any actual subject knowledge people might have, don't you know he's Very Smart? (I've been that guy. I got better. You can too!)

Lots of sorcerers in the Bad Old Days seem to have worried excessively about escaped slaves hiding in swamps, or being snuck up on by frog warriors, or something. Around Wending, there were three distinct species of venomous duck, two with rending teeth so they could eat stuff too big to swallow in one go. Westcreek has a species of enormous diving duck, too big to fly, that's venomous and breathes fire. I suppose the fire helps them deal with the leeches. They're certainly prosperous enough; during the winter there were rafts of them, fifty and a hundred a time, in the turning basin at the end of the West-East Canal. Everyone local considers them sort of half-lucky, despite the occasional worry about kids getting too close. "Keeps the swans off," everyone says, in judicious, on-the-balance-of-consideration sorts of tones.

I liked the basic idea of trying to build a society in a world where people randomly get huge magical power, and the default state is a sorceror-king plus as many people as he can enslave. But I was never engaged. And because I'm not distracted by anything else I notice that there's no conflict, no challenge; everything is just handed to our heroes, so they never have any hard decisions to make. I liked the descriptions of how to do large-scale civil engineering with magic, but really that wasn't enough to sustain me.

Previous in series: The March North | Series: Commonweal

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:08pm on 12 December 2021

    In contrast, I like this book and re-read it regularly (which isn't doing my aim of reducing the bought-but-not-read pile any good).

    The fragmented nature of the description is partly due to the fact that this book is all first person and the person is Edgar whose brain was scrambled by a magical parasite and is currently bedevilled by sorcerous synesthesia. It's there so that we can watch him trying to make sense of his world and to give us an excuse for all the internal "as I already know" info dumps.

    It's true that the author is in love with his imagined egalitarian utopia (and especially the culture of the sub-species that dominates the local area the Creeks) and the problem of having it cope with the necessity of having sorcerers of their own but I'm not so sure he thinks it's a valid answer. He depicts it going close to the edge of failure here and elsewhere and makes its survival seem doubtful.

    It's a puzzle piece: given egalitarianism and also given sorcerers who are the ultimate 'over mighty subject' can they live together and have happy bouncy babies into the future?

    I don't agree about the lack of voice though other characters here are all seen through Edgar's bejangled eyes and ears. I can tell Halt from Wake from Mulch among the teachers and Dove from Zora from Chloris among the pupils.

    Where the stories break down is when they drift off into metaphysics or economics and politics without anything to anchor them. They try to describe the indescribable and the result strains the brains.

    I found something to like in all the novels except the fifth , A MIST OF GRIT AND SPLINTERS, which devolved into incomprehensible magical mil-fic where foreign invaders with undeveloped and mysterious agendas were defeated in highly technical magical ways that weren't even as satisfactory as a David Weber deus-ex-machina. I longed for a map of the territory to give me something, anything to focus on.

    One thing in the stories that would annoy me if I wasn't enjoying it is the obscure vocabulary. What really got on my tits in Stephen R. Donaldson is quite fun here if occasionally frustrating. Perhaps because Donaldson went for pretentious adjectives and Saunders goes for strange nouns that you're expected to work out from context but thankfully most of them yield to Google-Fu. 'Cadastral' means related to a survey of land ownership and I'm now more likely to recognise obscure terms for gravel. But '-gesith' which seems in context to mean 'Ministry of-' defeated my linguistic prowess.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:06pm on 12 December 2021

    I believe "cadastral survey" specifically is quite common in the US for people talking about details of property (i.e. land) ownership; at least, I've seen it in other US books without any perceived need for explanation.

    This is the longest of the books, and it doesn't even have the overarching narrative to justify that length.

  3. Posted by J Michael Cule at 03:52pm on 12 December 2021

    All right, I went and tried my Google-Fu again on '-gesith' and clearly the Power is with me more than in the past as I got:

    "Old English gesīth, literally, companion, one of a retinue of warriors; akin to Old High German gisind, gisindo one of a retinue of warriors, Old Norse sinni, Gothic gesinthja; derivatives from the root of English send"

    Which doesn't quite fit how it is used in the books. It's clearly plural and/or a group of people. I do wish I thought the author was doing something clever with the evolution of language but despite it supposedly being set hundred of thousands of years into a magical post-apocalypse the culture uses the French Revolutionary calendar.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 04:11pm on 12 December 2021

    As I've said elsewhere, pseudo-academic. I am using language that confuses you, therefore I must be far cleverer than you, respect me.

  5. Posted by Chris at 10:52pm on 12 December 2021

    Some people who use language that is arcane do so because they ARE academics and to them, the word used is the one which means precisely what they intend where no other word is going to be that exact.

    (Many academics are also pseuds, to be fair.)

    The real fun comes when a genuine academic, who loves and uses Difficult Words, genuinely wants to know why a particular word was selected by a pseudo-academic, and asks him or her. And then, being puzzled by the explanation, asks some more. And then, because they happen to know it off the top of their head, cites a Basque cognate that ought not to exist but does...

    I have been a delighted spectator on such an occasion. There was absolutely no malice on the part of the academic enquirer, just a genuine desire for knowledge, and it caused an awful lot of bluster and bad feeling on the other person's part.

    Mike, you should have known gesith; I am fairly sure it turns up in Beowulf. And it's definitely in Wiktionary, and the OED. If the author uses it in a way he has invented, to mean something quite different, that is on the author, not the word.

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