Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE METHADONE LIST: The Tome of the Undergates

I don’t know that one could really say that any author or book is the “opposite” of any other author or book—but by contrast to A.S. Byatt’s THE CHILDREN’S BOOK, a literary novel by an old master at the height of her craft…here’s an epic fantasy by a young debut author—though equally crafty, it couldn’t be much more different in either style or structure.

Sam Sykes’s TOME OF THE UNDERGATES _is_ what’s called “epic fantasy.” It’s not, however, anything like the classic “You know…boy/scroll/prophecy/dragon/sword…” description I once heard from a fan at a con. [g] In fact, one way in which Sykes’s work resembles Byatt’s is that nobody would _ever_ mistake either one of them for someone else.

Now, TOME is definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach. One review of it I saw described it (approximately) as “a slaughter-fest that makes “300” look weak.” It does feature head-eating fish-demons, and it had one scene (involving thumbs, and that’s all I’m going to say about it) that even _I_ thought was disturbing. You have been warned.

On the other hand, it’s absolutely hilarious, with some of the most engaging—if obnoxious—characters I’ve ever met, and that rarest thing in literature, a unique voice. The basic story is a quest, involving the aforesaid Tome—a mysterious volume that can (or so it’s said) open the doors to heaven or hell. Not that any of the characters can agree on just which heaven—or hell—that might be; all of them are followers of different gods. But they’re being paid to find the book, so it’s all good.

I won’t even try to describe the plot, other than to say there’s plenty of it, but I can give you a brief look at the book’s voice:

Copyright 2010 Sam Sykes
‘So,’ Denaos spoke loudly to be heard over the sound of hammering, ‘why the sudden interest in the fairer sex?’
Lenk paused and looked up from his duty of nailing wood over their wrecked boat’s wound, casting his companion a curious stare.
‘Sudden?’ he asked.
‘Oh, apologies.’ The rogue laughed, holding up a hand. ‘I didn’t mean to suggest you liked raisins in your curry, if you catch my meaning.’
‘I . . . really don’t.’
‘Well, I just meant you happened to be all duty and grimness and agonising about bloodshed up until this point.’ Denaos took a swig from a waterskin as he leaned on the vessel’s railing. ‘You know, like Gariath.’
‘Does . . . Gariath like raisins in his curry?’
‘I have no idea if he even eats curry.’ Denaos scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘I suppose he’d probably like it hot, though.’
‘Yeah, probably.’ Lenk furrowed his brow. ‘Wait, what does that mean?’
‘Let’s forget it. Anyway, I’m thrilled to advise you on the subject, but why choose now, in the prime of your imminent death, to start worrying about women?’
‘Not “women”, exactly, but “woman”.’
‘A noble endeavour,’ Denaos replied, taking another swig.
There was a choked sputter as Denaos dropped the skin and put his hands on his knees, hacking out the droplets of water. Lenk frowned, picking up another half-log and placing it upon the companion vessel’s hole.
‘Is it that shocking?’ the young man asked, plucking up a nail.
‘Shocking? It’s immoral, man.’ The rogue gestured wildly off to some direction in which the aforementioned female might be. ‘She’s a shict! A bloodthirsty, leather-clad savage! She views humanity,’ he paused to nudge Lenk, ‘of which you are a part, I should add, as a disease! You know she threatened to kill me back in Irontide?’
‘Yeah, she told me.’ Lenk began to pound the nail.
‘And what?’ He glanced up and shrugged. ‘She didn’t actually kill you, so what’s the harm?’
‘Point taken,’ the rogue said, nodding glumly. ‘Still, that’s the sort of thing you’re lusting after here, my friend. Say the Gods get riotously drunk and favour your union, say you’re wed. What happens when you leave the jam out overnight or don’t wear the pants she’s laid out for you? Do you really want to risk her making a necklace out of your sack and stones every time she’s in a mood?’
‘Kat doesn’t seem like the type to lay out pants,’ Lenk said, looking thoughtful. ‘I think that might be why I . . .’ He scratched his chin. ‘Approve of her.’
‘Well, listen to you and your ballads, you romantic devil.’ The rogue sighed, resting his head on folded arms. ‘Still, I might have known this would happen.’
‘How’s that?’
‘Well, you’ve both got so much in common,’ he continued. ‘You, a grim-faced runt with hair the colour of a man thrice your age. And her . . .’ Denaos shuddered. ‘Her, a woman with a lack of bosom so severe it should be considered a crime, a woman who thinks it’s perfectly fine to smear herself with various fluids and break wind wherever she pleases.’ His shudder became an unrestrained, horrified cringe. ‘And that laugh of hers—’
‘She has her good points,’ Lenk replied. ‘She’s independent, she’s stubborn when she needs to be, doesn’t bother me too much . . . I’ll concede the laugh, though.’
‘You just described a mule,’ Denaos pointed out. ‘Though you grew up on a farm, didn’t you? I suppose that explains a lot. Still, perhaps this particular match was meant to be.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
I mean you’re both vile, bloodthirsty, completely uncivilised and callous people and you both have the physiques of prepubescent thirteen-year-old boys.’ The rogue shrugged. ‘The sole difference between you is that you choose to expel your reeking foulness from your mouth and she from the other end.’
‘Glad to have your blessing, then,’ Lenk muttered, hefting up another log. ‘So, what do you think I should do?’
‘Well, a shict is barely a step above a beast, so you might as well just rut her and get it over with before she tries to assert her dominance over you.’
‘Uh . . . all right.’ Lenk looked up, frowning. ‘How do I do that?’
‘How’d you do it the first time you did it?’
‘What, with Kat?’
‘No, with whatever milkmaid or dung-shovelstress you happened to roll with when you first discovered you were a man, imbecile.’
Lenk turned back to the boat, blinking. He stared at the half-patched wound for a moment, though his eyes were vacant and distant.
‘I . . . can’t remember.’
‘Ah, one of those encounters, eh?’ Denaos laughed, plucking up the waterskin from the sand. ‘No worries, then. You might as well be starting fresh, aye?’ He brushed the dirt from its lip and took a swig. ‘Really, there’s not much to it. Just choose a manoeuvre and go through with it.’
‘What, there’s manoeuvres?’
‘Granted, the technique might be lost on her . . . and you, but if you’ve any hope of pleasing a woman, you’ll have to learn a few of the famous arts.’ A lewd grin crossed his face. ‘Like the Six-Fingered Sultana.’
‘And . . .’ Lenk’s expression seemed to suggest a severe moral dilemma in continuing. ‘How does that go?’
‘It’s not too hard.’ The rogue set down the waterskin, then folded the third finger of each hand under it, knotting the two appendages over themselves. ‘First, you take your fingers like this. Then, you drop a gold piece on the ground and ask the woman if she wants to see a magic trick, then you—’ He paused, regarding Lenk’s horrified expression, and smiled. ‘Oh, almost got me to say it, didn’t you? No, no . . . that one’s a secret, and for good reason. If you tried it, you’d probably break something.’


[Sykes is doing a signing for TOME OF THE UNDERGATES at 7:00 PM on May 12th at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale (www.poisonedpen.com). The PP says they’re happy to take and ship orders to anywhere—which I mention because they told me the book was just released in the UK and will be out in the US later this year, but they will have UK copies in stock. Further information at www.samsykes.com.]

The "Dr. Who" Connection

Frazer Hines (the actor who played Jamie MacCrimmon, a companion to the second Doctor, on “Dr. Who”) sent me these photos this morning—they were taken last summer in Edinburgh (by a nice journalist named Jean Brittain—thanks, Jean!) while I was appearing at the Gathering there. You can’t see any of it, alas, but we’re on the grounds of Holyrood Palace here, talking with fans who’d come to my reading.

Now, I’ve known Frazer on paper for years; when my first book was published, I sent him a couple of copies, with a letter explaining that it was a “Dr. Who” episode in which he’d appeared that caused me to set the book in eighteenth century Scotland, and he’d kindly replied to me. But we’d never met in person. (The long version of the story is (or shortly will be) posted on my website – www.dianagabaldon.com.)

Last summer, though, a BBC reporter, seeing my name on the list of guests for the Gathering, had a brainstorm, and called to ask whether I’d be willing to do an interview with Frazer for a radio program. I said I’d love to, and was expecting to meet him at the hotel that evening. As I was working my way toward the end of the enormous signing line, though, I looked up and smiled at the next person, thinking, “Well, he looks familiar; did I see him in the bar…oh. Oh!”

Oh, indeed. [g] Anyway, we had a lovely chat, with each other and with a few fans, and then did our main interview the next day as planned (more or less interviewing each other while watching snippets of “War Games”—the episode in which Frazer---er…well, Frazer’s kilt, at least [cough]—had caught my attention).

The BBC has finally finished all its editing—boiling down three or four hours of material to half an hour—and is broadcasting the interview this week. There are two scheduled broadcasts on the BBC proper, but they also have a podcast version, available for listening anytime during the next seven days. So I thought I’d put up a link for those who don’t want to try to figure out the time changes:


And for those who are interested, the Whole Story of the Dr. Who connection is available on the website.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

THE METHADONE LIST: The Children's Book


I love A.S. Byatt’s work. She writes “literary fiction”--this being on one hand a catchall phrase for any book that doesn’t fit conveniently into a genre designation, and on the other, a term that generally implies particularly good writing, often accompanied by unique insight and acute perception. Byatt’s got all of this, in spades. (Some of you might remember her earlier book, POSSESSION: A Romance. (One British friend told me he’d picked up a copy of this in the library, to find that an earlier reader had penciled a helpful message on the title page: “They finally do it on page 572.” I mention this in case you too might find it helpful.))

She also writes books in which terrifically interesting things happen—not always a hallmark of literary fiction [g]. THE CHILDREN’S BOOK is a wonderful creation, set during the transition between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, which encompasses the flowering romanticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England (I found this part particularly fascinating, as my great-great-grandfather was an artist who was part of this movement), the political upheavals of suffragism, socialism, and anarchy, and the onrush of the First World War.

Now, whatever the theme, setting, and plot of a book, the really important thing is the character(s) who carry it out. And I tell you what: few people do better characters than Byatt does. Her people are remarkably multi-faceted, complex, interesting, and _real_. She knows what artists are like, and captures a range of them—the central egotism and ruthlessness of character that makes a good one, the helplessness of a failed artist, the mutual jealousy between the commercially successful and the unsuccessful but “pure” artist.

The story—or stories; there are many of them—center on an unorthodox family and its friends. [ ] is a writer—a very successful writer, whose huge family provides her with both impetus and material. The “children’s book” of the title refers not to a single book, but to the private stories—one for each child—that she maintains in notebooks, adding to each one as inspiration comes. The way in which love works—supportive, exploitative, pragmatic, idealistic, romantic, familial, jealousy, selflessness, free love, marriage—is at the core of the novel (as it is at the core of most great books).

At the same time, it’s a wonderful exploration and dissection of a society—the British middle-class—in a time of intellectual ferment and unprecedented political change. AND written with an exquisite eye for detail and tremendous lyrical energy. Here’s a brief excerpt of the text:

Copyright 2009 A.S. Byatt

“ Hedda lay in the long grass, with her skirt rucked up above her knickers, and her lengthening brown legs stretched out. She was fortunate not to have hay fever, as Phyllis did. She was not exactly reading _The Golden Age_. I am a snake in the grass, she thought, a secret snake. Violet was sitting on the roughly mown grass in the orchard, at some distance, in a low wicker armchair, sewing. Hedda spent a lot of time spying on Violet, as a revenge for the fact that Violet spied on her, going through her private drawers and notebooks. Hedda, like Phyllis, was perpetually agitated by being left out of the group of older children, Tom and Dorothy, Charles and Griselda, and now Geraint. But whereas Phyllis was plaintive, Hedda was enraged. She was the traitor in all tales of chivalry and in myths. She was Vivien, she was Morgan Le Fay, she was Loki. She despised the cow-eyed and the gentle, Elaine the lily maid, faithful Psyche, Baldur’s weeping wife, Nanna. She was a detective, who saw through appearances. No one was as nice as they seemed, was her rule of judging characters. She was the darkest of the children, with long black hair and very solid black brows, drawn in a frown more often than not, and long, black lashes which in themselves were beautiful, especially when she was asleep. She had no one to talk to about her investigations. Phyllis was an idiot. Florian was a baby. She had had hopes of Pomona, but Pomona was an idiot, too, of the same kind as Phyllis. Dorothy was who she hated, because she was older, and in the way, and got things Hedda didn’t get. And because she had Griselda, and they were together, and Hedda had no one. But Dorothy didn’t know what Hedda knew, or partly knew. “

Much as I love series, with the possibilities of ever-evolving characters and the charm of renewed acquaintance, I love one-of-a-kind treasures like this just as much. Highly engrossing, highly recommended!