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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Steven Brust: Learning From the Master

While I’ve already shared with you why I love Steven Brust’s fiction, and how his work spurs on my writing, I thought I’d share this example of his prose.  It stood out to me, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.

“I’d been to Northport a few years before, and I’d been hanging around the edges these last few days, but that next morning was really the first time I’d seen it.  It’s a funny town—sort of a miniature Adrilankha, the way it’s built in the center of those three hills the way Adrilankha is built between the cliffs, and both of them jutting up against the sea.  Northport has its own personality, though.  One gets the impression, looking at the three-story inns and the five-story Lumber Exchange Building and the streets that start out wide and straight and end up narrow and twisting, that someone wanted it to be a big city but it never made it.  The first section I came to was one of the new parts, with a lot of wood houses where tradesmen lived and had shops, but as I got closer to the docks the buildings got smaller and older, and were made of good, solid stonework.  And the people of Northport seem to have this attitude—I’m sure you’ve noticed it, too—that wants to convince you what a great place they’re living in.  They spend so much time talking about how easygoing everyone is that it gets on your nerves pretty quickly.  They talk so much about how it’s only around Northport that you can find the redfin or the fatfish that you end up not wanting to taste them just to spite the populace, you know what I mean?”
--from Orca, Chapter 2, by Steven Brust

This may seem loosely written, but consider all that Brust accomplishes in this paragraph.  His protagonist Vlad is describing to Kiera--a legendary thief--the town he’s currently visiting.  He does this by comparing it with his former home, the great city of Adrilankha.  He quickly sketches the outlines of Northport, draws in its major industries, darkens and shades the town with suggestions as to its history, and finally colors it with his initial impressions of its inhabitants.  In this way, Vlad reveals some of his own attitudes, we learn about him through the types of things he notices (as well as all that he doesn’t), and the manner in which he relates his experiences to his friends.  It’s a great paragraph, and I don’t know about you, but reading it makes me smile.

Now, consider the structure of the novel.  The Prologue for Orca takes the form of a letter in which Kiera responds to a letter from Vlad’s former wife Cawti.  Even though they’re estranged, Cawti still cares for him.  Kiera thus promises to tell her a little about her recent adventure with Vlad, but no more than she thinks Cawti should know, or Vlad would wish her to.  Chapter 1 transports us back into the past, as Kiera tells us how she met Vlad in Northport, relates how they reconnect after a year apart, and describes the mission Vlad then sends her on.  After she completes this task, she asks Vlad why he sent her on it, and so, in Chapter 2, he relates the experiences that led him to Northport, and why he then felt the need to call on her.  At the end of Chapter 2, Brust gives us a short Interlude in which Kiera and Cawti drink tea in a restaurant in Adrilankha, and the master-thief is relating some (but not all) of what occurred during her adventure with Vlad.  

My description in the paragraph above may sound complicated, but from the snippet of Orca you can sense how Brust bundles everything into an intriguing narrative that keeps you turning the pages, and wondering what will happen next.  Take into account further that this is a mid-series novel, and over the course of the books Vlad continually undergoes character maturation and transformation.  By the end of Orca, Brust will wrap up the novel’s plot, while stunning long-time readers with a major revelation about a particular character, which will explain…well, I hadn’t questioned that particular situation before, but suddenly, everything about Vlad’s life is undergirded with an additional layer of meaning! 

Needless to say, all this goes far beyond the ordinary.  If, by now, I haven’t convinced you that you need to run out to your local bookstore and buy a novel by Steven Brust, that only demonstrates my deficiencies as a storyteller, and how much I still need to learn from the master.

Dragon Dave

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