Tag Archives: Epic Fantasy

The Devil’s Workshop: an interview with author Donnally Miller

When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.

Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.

So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as

A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.

In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.

And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.

The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.

This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.

Now let’s hear from Donn.

 

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.

DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school.  My first love was drama.  My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up.  In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions.  When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor.  I also started writing plays at that time.  Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else.  After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere.  At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school.  A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote.  So she read it and brought it home for me to read.  Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in.  I said sure, why not?  And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association.  So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out.  Of course, none of them were ever accepted.  At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel?  I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked.  And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.

DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?

DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.

DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?

DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot.  So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters.  I had no idea of the plot when I began the book.  I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot.  In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot.  I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift.  That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot.  Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes?  But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want.  It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.

DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?

DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue.  Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character.  I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it.  There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.

DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.

DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary.  So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side).  A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language.  When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.

DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?

DM: I think that’s the wrong question.  The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy?  I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction.  Many people eventually move on and their tastes change.  Mine never really did.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’  So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading.  What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.

DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?

DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting.  However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean.  I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient.  So I made up the world of the Coast.  This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.

DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?

DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense.  I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point.  Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act.  As to what fiction should do, I have no clue.  Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it.  You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it.  If they’re good at it, you just take it all in.  Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984?  You bet.

DC: Who are your favourite authors?

DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?

DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity.  The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision.  For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say.  Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.

DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?

DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words.  I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature.  Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story.  I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.

DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?

DM: No, I don’t.  All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again.  I have started something new.  I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.  It has nothing to do with the Coast.  I have no plans to return to that world.

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later.  I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.

 

The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂

To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/

Notes

1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/  To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.

 

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Ken Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu is one of the most prolific and highly regarded authors working in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) field today. In just the last five years, he’s published scores of high-quality short fiction pieces in publications ranging from the core SFF magazines to more scholarly venues such as Nature and The Atlantic Council. He is also the only author to have ever won all three of the field’s most prestigious awards—the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—for the same story, The Paper Menagerie (2011).

2015 saw the publication of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in Ken’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Ken has also translated several Chinese SF works into English, including Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.

Ken’s first story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released just this week, and the second volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, titled The Wall of Storms, is due out in October.

DC: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Although you published your first story as early as 2002, you really burst onto the scene with a spray of astonishing work beginning in 2010, and the standing ovation is still continuing. You’re living proof of the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.” What were you doing in those years between 2002 and 2010?

KL: Thank you, Dario! Always such a pleasure to chat about writing and books with you.

For most of that decade I was involved in the practice of law, first as a law student and then as a corporate lawyer. The legal profession demands a great deal from practitioners, both in time and mental energy, and there wasn’t much room left for fiction writing.

However, I was doing a great deal of writing—papers, memos, contracts, briefs—just not novels or short stories. Yet, in a way, the practice of law turned out to be good preparation for fiction: we like to think that abstract logic and cold reason should be the primary modes of persuasion in the law, but crafting a powerful narrative—telling a persuasive story—is just as important, and perhaps even dominant. Law students are often very good at legal reasoning, but learning how to tell stories that achieve the right result for your client takes a lifetime of dedicated practice. It was the sort of experience that came in handy later when I turned more of my energy to fiction.

DC: Your short fiction can best be described as literary, precise, and intimate. How did you go from being an English major with a passion for the Western Canon to writing Science Fiction?

KL: Ha! You know, the thing is, I’ve never thought of genre fiction as standing in opposition to “literature.” As a result, I’ve never been interested in efforts to carve out some special aesthetic claim for science fiction or fantasy.

To me, all fiction is speculative because all fiction is interested in a mode of rhetoric in which the logic of metaphors is more important than the logic of analysis. What gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy are typically just works that achieve their effect by literalizing their metaphors.

The advent of Modernism has resulted in an intense interiority being read as the (sole?) mark of psychological “realism”; writers who write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, however, can still get away with stories in which the interior drama is played out through literalized external manifestations.

I view science fiction as having a perfectly valid claim on the Western Canon—in the same way that the author of Frankenstein was consciously engaged in dialogue with Milton’s Paradise Lost throughout her text.

DC: Roots, memory and identity, the sense of straddling two cultures and the need to either reconcile them or commit fully to one, is a recurring theme in your short fiction. As an immigrant yourself—I believe you were ten when you arrived in the US—is this a process you still struggle with?

KL: Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.

I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities.

We live in a world that is defined by historical injustices, and it is a mark of privilege for someone to declare history to be irrelevant—the descendants of historical winners are the only ones who can afford to ignore history. I write stories that stubbornly—and perhaps unrealistically—cling to the hope that it is only by understanding and empathizing with the pains of historical suffering and accepting the burden of historical injustice that we can truly be free.

DC: As well as being an amazingly prolific author and translator, you have a wife and two young children, practice law as a litigation consultant, and write software as well. Assuming you don’t have a time machine, how do you do it all?

KL: Ah, you give me too much credit. My biggest problem is that I’m not very efficient. Almost every writer I know writes faster than I do, and context switching is expensive for me—I’m not a good multitasker at all.

I do think I’m pretty good about picking meaty, rewarding projects and saying no to everything else. I translate only stories that I’m enthusiastic about, and I write only when I think I can make an interesting, impactful contribution. When I take up a novel, as you know, I ended up writing a very big, very long book. (smiles)

DC: Given this incredible schedule, what suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?

KL: I wish I had more time to write software and play with technology! I used to be able to spend a great deal more time writing apps and simply exploring code. The combination of being under contract with a publisher as well as having a demanding day job means that I value time with my family even more, and I’ve had to give up my coding time.

Luckily, my daughters are getting old enough to be introduced to robotics and some basic programming, so I’m hoping I’ll be “forced” to do more playing under the guise of “teaching” them something.

DC: What do you do for relaxation?

KL: I play games on my Nintendo 3DS. I especially love puzzle games (Box Boy is wonderful).

DC: Your Epic Fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, which is a radical departure from your short fiction, has given rise to the wonderful term “silkpunk”. Can you define it for us, and tell us who coined it?

KL: That’s my term. It’s a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the novel as well as my literary approach.

Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western tradtions from Beowulf and the Aeneid.

The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In writing this book, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

DC: I know that your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, worked with you on creating the universe for this series. What sparked the idea?

KL: When I was looking for a subject for my first novel, Lisa and I had many conversations about what might be an interesting tale. One day, she said, “I’ve never read a story in English that gives me the feeling of those historical dramas in Hong Kong.”

Lisa and I both grew up imbibing Chinese historical romances as our foundational narratives (she did it by watching TV dramas, and I did it by listening to storytellers on the radio). This conversation sparked in me the thought that it would be interesting to transpose a foundational narrative in one culture—the founding of the Han Dynasty, for instance—into a narrative structure built with elements adopted from both the Western and Chinese literary traditions. It had to be done in a way that felt organic, lively, distinct, instead of being just another “magical China” story that merely validated the Western gaze.

It sounded like a tough challenge, which is also a sign that it was a project worth pursuing. Lisa and I discussed how such a world should be built and what it would look like and what sort of Orientalizing pitfalls had to be avoided to thwart the expectations of the dominant Western interpretive framework. She helped me to define the language, culture, and geography of Dara until it felt like a world that could support our dreams.

DC: This enormous landmark work (The Grace of Kings clocks in at around 650 pages) is eclectic, multilayered, and daring in so many ways. In approaching this story of upheaval and revolution you chose a narrative voice strongly reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, which carries echoes of Homer and other classical authors; the way these are blended is uniquely Liu. I was both engrossed and awed by how well you pulled this off—you own the narrative voice in these novels. What made you settle on this narrative strategy?

KL: Thank you! I’m so glad my choices paid off for you.

I wasn’t interested in writing a “contemporary” genre novel, by which I mean a novel whose narrative strategies are deeply influenced by Modernism, with a focus on psychological interiority and tight, intimate POVs. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more interested in exploring the idea of trans-cultural foundational narratives, the logic of metaphors, and playing with epic structure and omniscient POV. I wanted to tell a story that was self-consciously engaged in conversation with both Western and Chinese literary forerunners, both ancient and modern.

I don’t believe there is only one kind of “good story.” I wanted to write something that feels as different from the contemporary genre novel as a brush painting feels from an oil painting. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is closer to something like Moby Dick or the wuxia classics—I certainly ignored a lot of “rules” of genre writing.

DC: Looking at some of the reader reviews it’s clear than not all readers have either the background or insight to appreciate what you’re doing here, with some grumbling about too much exposition, too much telling and not enough showing. Did you know you were taking a risk with this approach?

KL: (grins) Did I ever! The Grace of Kings is a departure from much of my short fiction (as you alluded to earlier), and I knew going in that the choices I made wouldn’t work for every reader. I appreciate every reader who tried my book, and if the book didn’t work for them, I can only say that I’m sorry and I hope to write a book that will be more appealing to them in the future.

But in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, it was necessary to make use of a narrative structure and adopt techniques that melded the different epic traditions I wanted to converse with. I was sailing into the unknown, and taking risks is absolutely necessary when you are interested in terra incognita.

And I’m incredibly gratified by the many readers who have written to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what I did with Dara.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. What is it about this work that so appeals to you?

KL: I think Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language. In composing it, Milton was forced to create a new aesthetic that melded the Classical and Biblical epic traditions, and elevated vernacular English to a level formerly reserved for Greek and Latin. He was building a new world as well as a new language and a new set of narrative techniques, challenging reader expectations as he conversed with the literary traditions he claimed for himself and irrevocably changed them in the process.

 This is, as you might have guessed, a project that very much resonates with me.

DC: I believe you also write poetry, but I’m not sure in which language?

KL: I only write in English. My formal schooling in Chinese ended in elementary school, and though I can appreciate poetic Chinese writing, writing in Chinese at that level would take decades of dedicated practice. If I live to be a hundred and fifty, I might give it a try.

DC: Here in the US, the climate in the core Science Fiction community has become particularly toxic in the last few years, with a brutal internecine war that has caused deep and lasting divisions within the community. Despite having strong views and beliefs, you’ve wisely avoided making enemies. Why do you think people can’t have a civil dialogue over their differences?

KL: There’s a tendency in modern rhetoric to reduce complicated, multidimensional differences into simplistic, binary oppositions. The genre community is divided along many different dimensions, some aesthetic, some political, and others even more fundamental than either. Trying to flatten all of these differences into a matter of two “sides” or “factions” is, in my view, the reason why many of these debates just involve the participants talking past each other.

I do want to note that “civility” by itself is not a virtue. It is possible to be perfectly polite in discourse while utterly disrespecting the humanity of others.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in working on projects that interest me and pleasing readers who enjoy my work. Everything else is just noise.

DC: It’s not unusual to see SFF “insiders” openly slam the genre’s hugely popular writers—fantastic storytellers like Andy Weir (The Martian), Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), and, a decade ago, J.K. Rowling—as mere popular hacks lacking craft. Is SFF a popular art form or should it be the property of a highly educated elite?

KL: I think most writers would prefer their books to be both critically acclaimed and best-selling. Personally, I just don’t find it interesting to slam other writers for their success, even if what they write isn’t to my taste.

Whenever there’s a book that I don’t like—but whose fans are passionate—I try to learn why the book is so successful. Popular books inevitably do something really well and scratch an itch for their fans. It’s fascinating to figure out what that itch is.

DC: A few unkind reviewers familiar with Chinese culture have accused you of simply rehashing the Chu-Han struggle of Chinese history in your Dandelion Dynasty series. How would you reply to these critics?

KL: I’m actually not interested in replying to these critics at all. I don’t even bother reading my reviews. Writers who argue with critics rarely come out ahead. What matters is writing another book for readers who would enjoy my work.

But I will say to potential readers sitting on the fence about trying my book that Paradise Lost is also just a rehash of the first few chapters in Genesis, and Journey to the West a rehash of old oral traditions that came before it. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them so that we are transported to new realms.

DC: In stories such as The Man Who Ended History, The Reborn, and Ghost Days, you address some difficult themes—genocide, the destruction or assimilation of peoples and cultures. We should never forget, but should we forgive?

KL: I think we bear a responsibility towards history, and it’s our duty to construct a future that is better than the past.

When we speak of historical atrocities, it’s worth remembering that their effects still govern the lives of the descendants of perpetrators and victims. The past is not past.  “Forgiveness” is often touted as a way to lead to forgetfulness, and I’m leery of it when used in that way.

DC: Last year you were honoured at the Beijing Xinyun Awards with an award for special contribution to Chinese SF. What was that like for you?

KL: Incredible. The enthusiasm of the Chinese fans was deeply moving. I was deeply moved by how much Liu Cixin himself took the trouble to thank me, when I really didn’t do much of anything as a translator.

It was Liu Cixin’s powerful imagination and skill as a writer that allowed The Three-Body Problem to replicate its success among Anglophone readers. I hope that in the future, translation of works from Chinese into English would become so routine that no one will remember the translators.

DC: What’s the best part about being a dad?

KL: Seeing the world through fresh eyes! My daughters constantly make observations about the world that remind me how full of wonder everything around us is, and how miraculous is the universe. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of the infinite joy that fills every second of existence.

DC: Ken, thanks so very much for spending time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

KL: Thank you so much for having me, Dario. I love our deep conversations.

This is a pretty exciting year for me, as I have four books being released.

On March 8, 2016, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, came out from Saga Press. This volume collects some of my favorite stories as well as one previously unpublished story I wrote just for the collection.

In August, Death’s End, my translation of the third and concluding volume in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, will be released by Tor Books.

For fans of The Grace of Kings, the sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be coming out from Saga Press in October of 2016 (and it’s bigger and better in every way, with even more intrigue and silkpunk technology!).

Finally, in November, Tor Books will publish my collection of translations of contemporary short-form Chinse SF, Invisible Planets. This volume will contain translations of award-winning stories by such luminaries of the Chinese SF world as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, and others.

To find out more about my plans, readers can go to my web site (http://kenliu.name) and/or sign up for my newsletter (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/)

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Ken? Let us know with a comment!

 You can read my own review of The Grace of Kings (vol. I of the Dandelion Dynasty), here: https://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/review-the-grace-of-kings-by-ken-liu/)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with SARA ALEXI, bestselling author of The Greek Village series, live right here on Saturday March 19!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews

Review: “The House of Shattered Wings” by Aliette de Bodard

Shattered WingsThe House of Shattered Wings by multiple award-winning author Aliette de Bodard is one of the most unusual and absorbing books I’ve read in years. How unusual? Let me count the ways.

First, it doesn’t categorize easily—and bored as I am with the cookie-cutter offerings from the big houses, this is a huge deal. Although shelved as Fantasy, this book is so much more. It’s Alternate History; it’s a Mystery; it’s a Supernatural Thriller; and it’s most certainly a major Gothic novel.

The story takes place in a late 20th-century Paris devastated by the Great War that began in 1914—except that in this world the Great War was a supernatural one between warring gangs, or “houses”, of fallen Angels and their human followers. With no clear victor, the conflict has settled into a kind of supernatural Cold War in which the houses spy on and plot against one another in the ruined debris of the once-great city.

In the burnt-out shell of Notre Dame, surrounded by the hopelessly fouled black waters of the Seine, House Silverspires and its leader Selene struggle to maintain the house’s power and place among the others, and in particular to resist Asmodeus, the brutally cruel leader of House Hawthorn. But when the mysterious Vietnamese Immortal Philippe triggers a curse that brings down the deadly power of the Furies against Silverspires, Selene and Madeleine, House Silverspires’ alchemist, find themselves beset on every side. Especially since Madeleine—now perilously addicted to Angel essence—is an escapee from House Hawthorn. Added to all this is the mystery of Philippe’s connection to the Fallen Angel Isabelle, and the strange disappearance of House Silverspires’ founder, Morningstar (aka Lucifer).

De Bodard deploys the full range of her writing skills and inventive audacity in this dense and deeply melancholic novel. There are strong echoes of both Western and Eastern mythologies, of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the underwater Dragon Kingdoms of East Asian folklore. The novel’s characters are real and believable, layered with tragic pasts and complex motivations as they move through their haunted, broken city. Yet even as the action and intrigue—and sometimes horror—ratchet up relentlessly, there is always a vivid sense of remembered splendour and grandeur, a yearning for the vanished beauty and elegance that seems to shimmer just below the surface of the ruined city.

Those familiar with the author’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy will be delighted to discover this new world in what is hopefully—de Bodard seems to be keeping her options open in this standalone work—the first book in a new series. That this book is both darker and more complex is certain, and some may need a few chapters to adjust to its Gothic tone. But this is a powerful novel that sinks deep into the reader’s psyche, taking you into a world so rich and characters so compelling that they linger for months after turning the last page.

Don’t miss it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books and Writers

Review: “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu

Grace of KingsI don’t write many reviews. Quite apart from the time investment, few books grab me enough to move me to the pulpit. Of those few, even fewer in recent years have been Epic Fantasy, a genre I view with some wariness for its tendency to never-ending series and faux-Shakespearian dialogue. And as an unapologetic fan of Tolkien, my personal bar—not just for story, but for the level of craft needed to pull off an original work in this genre—is set very high.

So when I heard that multiple award-winning author Ken Liu was embarking on an Epic Fantasy series, I was intrigued. Liu—one of the most extraordinary talents the Science Fiction/Fantasy field has seen in the last several decades—never disappoints. And the fact that the series, named The Dandelion Dynasty, was going to be informed by and draw upon the Chinese Classics suggested this might be something new in a genre which I’ve generally found to be rather disappointing.

Well, “new” doesn’t come close. With The Grace of Kings, standalone first volume in the series, Liu knocks this one out of the ballpark. This isn’t just a terrific book, it’s an important one that comes at the epic tale from a different angle, with an unusual sensibility.

At 640 pages, The Grace of Kings, by the standards of the genre, isn’t a very large book. But the scope of lives, of events, of pure, unalloyed story that takes place here is more than most authors pack into a trilogy.

From the sweeping, cinematic opening scene, the author shows a command of his craft that delights. Like his characters, Liu takes great risks, using narrative techniques and pacings that, in the hands of another, would result in distancing and detachment. Instead, the cumulative effect of Liu’s technique, with its free-ranging viewpoint and delicious digressions as new characters are introduced, feels very close to the oral storytelling tradition at the core of every culture. As night deepens, we gather closer to the fire, listening with rapt attention, fully immersed in a world so real and characters so alive that, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Zelazny’s Amber, it’s impossible to not wholly believe in them.

But Liu gives us more than brave deeds and battles, love and loyalty, passion and betrayal, song and spectacle. From start to finish, and with not infrequent undertones of wry humour, The Grace of Kings is a meditation and commentary on power, and the ways in which that power seduces, drives, corrupts, and (in Liu’s own words) occasionally ennobles. This is a novel that embraces ambiguity and relativism, that makes simple judgments difficult, even impossible. In a world as real as ours, in which “good” actions can bring catastrophic results, and where people, feelings, and loyalties are subject to living, dynamic change, what is right? Who can see around all corners?

Not everyone likes to face ambiguity. For many—including those of a secular bent—the essentially Christian narrative of good and evil is more comforting. The fact that Liu can bring these questions before the reader without for a moment sounding preachy or sacrificing story, wonder, and sheer, breathless adventure is a supreme achievement—and you’d have to be dead to finish this book without asking yourself where certain lines are, or if they indeed exist. And to his credit, even at the very end, Liu never tips his hand, never makes judgments. He respects and trusts his readers to be smart enough to think for themselves.

But, you ask, what’s the book about? Well, here’s the sketchiest summary:

The islands of Dara, a sprawl of historically strife-torn, warring nations, are finally at peace. But that peace has been dearly bought: under the iron rule of the Emperor Mapideré, clans are split, families are divided, and men throughout Dara are forced by corvée to work for years at a time on the emperor’s monumental projects, often never to see their families again.

Against this backdrop of totalitarian brutality, a series of small events started by minor players—a corvée gang leader trying to save his skin by faking an outlandish prophecy; a wily, charismatic tavern rat named Kuni Garu; and the vengeful giant, Mata Zyndu, grim heir of a noble clan expropriated by the emperor—escalates by degrees into an armed uprising.

Before long, Kuni and Mata, now allies close as brothers, find themselves and their trusted followers at the forefront of a revolution that breaks the empire apart. But as their power grows, so does the complexity of the politics and the influence of their advisors and generals, paving the way for miscalculations, misunderstandings, and treachery.

And the players in Dara are not only human. The fractious gods and goddesses of this ancient land have their own designs, and are not above taking on human form to help their favourites in the power struggle unfolding in the human realm.

As upheaval grips this land of nobles and peasants, rascals and heroes, exotic creatures and wildly imaginative silkpunk technologies, Liu delights us with a cast of unforgettable characters, among whom Jia Matiza, a skilled herbalist and Kuni’s wife; Gin Mazoti, a female street urchin who rises to become the world’s greatest military commander; Luan Zya, a brilliant adventurer and Kuni’s master strategist; Kindo Marana, a tax collector reluctantly placed in command of an army; the Lady Risana, a clever illusionist and Kuni’s consort; and Gitré Üthu, the magic book of knowledge that writes itself, given to Luan by a mysterious teacher.

In conclusion, The Grace of Kings is a book whose audience extends far beyond the traditional readership for Epic Fantasy, a must-read for anyone who enjoys a great story.

Now where’s book Two?

___________

Full disclosure: I was a beta reader of an early draft of this novel, and also the editor/publisher of Liu’s award-nominated novella, The Man Who Ended History (in the 2011 Panverse Three anthology from Panverse Publishing).

4 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers