Two weekends ago, I was in California for the ALA Annual Conference (as part of my day-job not as Secretary-Librarian of the LCS) and had the chance to hang out a couple evenings with my friends David Peterson, his wife Erin, and Sylvia Sotomayor. Yes, that David Peterson. It had been well over a year since I saw David and Sylvia, and I hadn’t seen Erin since LCC2 back in 2008. It was great, and I’ve been remiss about thanking them all for a wonderful time. The first evening, after dinner at a nice little sushi place, the four of us stopped at the grocery store and picked up various sorbets, ice cream, and “chocolate covered honeycomb.” Decadent! Unfortunately, Sylvia had a long drive back home so I only got to see her one evening.
David and Erin, once they found out that I had never partaken of the experience that is In-N-Out Burger, offered to go out to supper the following evening with me. So, the next evening, David, Erin, and I piled into David’s natural-gas-powered car and rode over to In-N-Out Burger to order our repast. So, back at Erin and David’s then I experienced my first Double Meat, Animal-style, “Lemon-Up”, and fries. None too shabby (although Erin and David gave the meal a “B”… They’re In-N-Out connoisseurs) although I think I’m still a Five Guys guy, which is good since we don’t have any In-N-Out’s where I live.
It was great to hear stories from David and Erin about meeting Jason Momoa and his wife, Lisa Bonet, and other Game of Thrones tales.
I don’t get to hang out with my California conlanging cohort very often, but I have always been welcomed and feel fortunate to be able to be involved with them in the LCS. So, once again, thanks for a great time, for introducing me to In-N-Out Burger, and for sharing some of your valuable time with me. Dothras chek!
I’ve recently been reading two fantasy series that, on reflection, have both parallels as well as sharp contrasts. The two series are:
- A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
- The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto
What I found interesting right away is that both are concerned with what Martin calls "the game of thrones," the intrigue and political maneuvering (not to mention bloodshed) that goes with the choosing of who will have power in a certain time and place. I like both series, so let's take a look at them.
A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely a ripping yarn full of fully-rounded characters, lavish set pieces, and enough detail to provide a reader with page-turning enjoyment. Martin's strength is, without a doubt, his ability to engage the reader emotionally, to make him or her care about the fictional characters. This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that fans are so passionate about Martin "finishing" the series. They care what happens to Arya, Brandon, Jaime, Cersei, and the rest of them. Did Sandor Clegane survive? Does Daenerys get to ride her dragons? What becomes of Brienne the Beautiful? I’d like to know, too.
On the other hand, as a world-builder, Martin is a little less successful. One person I know described Westeros as the perfect stereotype of what a fantasy world should be. Granted, the idea of winter lasting years is an intriguing fantastical feature, but the idea of why this happens is always nagging at me. No satisfactory (or any) explanation is ever given. It just is. Also, Martin insists on providing measurements for at least two edifices that would be better served by just saying they’re really, really big. First, The Wall is always 700 feet tall. Second, one of the pyramids that Daenerys rules over is 800 feet tall. For comparison, the Arc de Triomphe is 164 feet tall, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet tall, and Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall. Just imagine the sheer volume of structure like the Wall that is 700 feet tall and miles and miles long. From the description in the book, it would appear that The Wall has been extremely tall for ages and ages, and the pyramid Daenerys sits on is even taller than the Hoover Dam? I like my fantasy’s fantastical, but sometimes less detail is more.
Another nitpicky pet peeve (Yes, I realize I'm being nitpicky) is Martin's insistence on detailing many of the meals people eat. For example, "They broke their fast on black bread and boiled goose eggs and fish fried with onions and bacon…" Lampreys seem to be popular fare in Westeros as well. Dany nibbles "tree eggs, locust pie, and green noodles…" In some ways, it appears Martin wants to avoid the clichéd non-descript stew of some fantasy worlds, but, from my perspective, veers a little too far in the opposite direction.
Finally, since this is a conlanging blog, we come to language. Martin himself freely admits that "I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will." (Of course, now we can thank David Peterson for breathing life into Dothraki.) So, we really can't fault Martin for not creating an entire Dothraki or Valyrian language and including it in Appendices. He acknowledges that particular shortcoming. However, my beef with him is his sometimes completely random-seeming choice of names for characters and places, even within the same family: Cersei and Jaime; Robert, Stannis, and Renly, etc. Martin also has an annoying habit of combining a first-rate fantasy name with an English-sounding one: Davos Seaworth, Balon Greyjoy, Robert Baratheon, etc. The "almost" names and titles are somewhat annoying as well: Eddard = Edward, Joffrey = Jeffrey, Ser = Sir, Maester = Master, Denys = Dennis, Walder = Walter, Yohn = John, etc. He has somewhat better imagination with the Targaryens and when he gets out of Westeros (although his non-Westerosi names can appear a little unpronounceable): Xaro Xhoan Daxos (I ended up pronouncing x as [S] and xh as [Z] in my head), Jaqen H’ghar, the Dothraki names and words, Illyrio Mopatis, Mirri Maz Duur, etc. Those names sound and look consistently exotic and fantasical.
In the end, I don't have HBO making a TV series of anything I've ever written, and Martin's books have sold millions of copies; so who am I to pass judgement on the above shortcomings. I will say that for all their high-quality entertainment value, A Song of Ice and Fire does exhibit a lot of the tropes of fantasy literature (See the TV Tropes entry for the series here). I'm just sayin'.
Martin's series is interesting to see in juxtaposition with Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Where Martin's Seven Kingdoms and beyond are in many ways very familiar with their kings, knights, lords, and ladies, Pinto paints a thoroughly-detailed completely new creation for us: The Three Lands. This is not a thinly-veiled medieval European setting, but a world full of unfamiliar places and cultures where the simple act of forgetting to don one's mask can result in the deaths of scores of people. While Pinto cannot match Martin for sheer page-turning lively action, he does outmatch him for sheer ingenuity and attention to detail in world-building. Where Martin's sers ride horses, Pinto's Chosen mount saurian aquars and ride along horned huimurs. Where cloth-of-gold is popular in Westeros, it's usually cut into a tunic, doublet, or elaborate gown. In the paradisal seclusion of Pinto's Osrakum, the Chosen dress in elaborate court-robes, stilt-like shoes, and utilize slaves whose eyes have been replaced by precious stones. Pinto's website testifies to his detailed world-building when you see images from his notes with captions like "Detail from Notebook 18, Page 22". He even gives credit to someone in the acknowledgments for helping him with "the equations to calculate the lengths and directions of shadows." Whew!
Of course, all this planning and detail sometimes get in the way of telling a good story. Carnelian, the viewpoint character of the novels, is often staring, marveling, being overwhelmed, and having other superlative experiences while we're provided with a litany of detailed descriptions of the wonders Pinto has devised for us. It (usually) stops just short of being tiresome, and then the story resumes.
In one way, Martin and Pinto do have something in common in some of their naming practices: the "almost" names. For Pinto, they're based on gemstones or other precious materials: Osidian = obsidian, Jaspar = jasper, Aurum = gold (Latin), Opalid = opal, Molochite = malachite, etc. I believe I read that Pinto had at first almost used names in Quya but later decided against it.
Quya? What is this Quya? Here is where Pinto and Martin firmly part company. Pinto has an entire language and writing system for his world although, sadly, this does not show up very much in the books themselves. For those interested, he has extensive notes and a grammar on his website. According to the Acknowledgments, he had help with the language from David Adger. The writing system obviously has a debt to pay to the Mayan glyphs but has a beauty all its own and provides chapter heading glyphs from the first two books. There is only one extended text example, so it's a shame we don't see more of the language in the books themselves given Pinto's love of dazzling the reader with details.
Both series have something to offer and are well worth reading. If you like fast-paced storytelling, well-rounded characters, and cliffhanger endings, you can’t go wrong with A Song of Ice and Fire. If you like a more leisurely reading experience, very interesting characters, first-class worldbuilding (with (online) Appendices), try The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. See you in Westeros and Osrakum!
As many of you may be aware, David J. Peterson has posthumously awarded his annual ~:D Smiley Award to David Bell’s Tolkien-inspired conlang ámman îar. Being that we just commemorated the anniversary of Prof. Tolkien’s death, it seemed appropriate on this blog to also highlight the work of David Bell.
I had been dimly aware of ámman îar for some time, but the Smiley Award got me to take another look at it. Evidently, previous looks were cursory at best. I had no idea of the depth of detail that had been included. One page that caught my eye this time was the script which David Bell created for his language. Many conlangers are familiar with Tengwar clones. Bell’s is definitely not a clone but rather a well-thought-out evolution of the scripts of Middle-earth into a cursive form. At first glance, his tal-eglar looks like cursive letters in any Roman-script alphabet. However, on closer inspection, they are firmly based in the tradition of the script of Feanor.
The Smiley Award write-up does a great job of highlighting some of the finer points of Bell’s creation, but to truly appreciate it, one needs to delve deeply into his web site, now preserved at graywizard.conlang.org. You will not be disappointed.
(For past Smiley Award winners, click here)
David J. Peterson posted the first version of his Conlang Manifesto to the CONLANG-L listserv in January 2002. It has stood the test of time (10 years is a long-time in the conlanging game) as a reasoned, coherent piece of conlang apologetics. One of my favorite portions is:
[Conlanging] gets one thinking about the multifariousness and beauty of language, and one who can appreciate this is less likely to misunderstand, deprecate and stereotype those speaking other languages, which is one of the main causes of racism and ethnocentrism. In short, language creation is one of the keys to social harmony and world peace. If one is going to take anything seriously, certainly world peace is it, and if so, shouldn’t language creation be given some credit too?
The conlanging community had a taste of that “world peace” recently with the experience of John Quijada. John was invited to present a talk on his well-known and well-respected engelang Ithkuil at a conference in Kalmykia in early July. Some will remember the article in the Russian magazine that mentioned Dzhonom Kikhadoy and his language, demonstrating the interest in Ithkuil in that area of the world. John has posted a brief summary (and photos) of his trip to Kalmykia on his website. John’s last line on that page, I believe, echoes the passage in David’s Conlang Maniesto:
I was humbled to discover so many people interested in my work, and whose work in turn I found quite fascinating (to the extent I was able to understand it through my interpreters). I now have several new friends halfway around the world.
John has promised to share more details about his experiences. It sounds like a fascinating adventure. He has also posted the slides from his session online. For anyone interested in an astounding exposition on what you can do with Ithkuil, this is a don’t-miss link.
As an aside, I had the pleasure of making John’s acquaintance way back at LCC2 (even having the honor of standing beside him at the official photo. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the guy who created Ithkuil!”. He also graciously contributed to the CPL conlang exhibit. John is a man of many talents and interests, and I’m grateful to have met him. He is humble, personable, good-natured, and an all-around conlanger’s conlanger. The community couldn’t ask for a better international ambassador.