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May 1

The Stone Dance of the Chameleon

Posted on Sunday, May 1, 2011 in Books, Review, World-building

Opening lines of the Song of the Earth

I’ve mentioned Pinto’s trilogy previously on this blog but felt it was appropriate to revisit since I’ve now finished the third volume, The Third God.

First of all, check out the front cover of The Third God at Pinto’s website. Great artwork! In fact, someone I showed the book to even said, “I want to read it just from that!” Those huimur with their flame-pipes a-blazing look very cool. In fact, Pinto has a section on his site devoted to some concept art by Jim Burns who painted the covers for the most recent editions of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy.

As a world-builder, Pinto has created a complex, fully-developed world. The level of detail is absolutely stunning and can be glimpsed throughout his work. His website gives some glimpse into the background he created in which to situate his characters and is well worth exploring. Here’s a link to the Sitemap of the Stone Dance material. I would easily put Pinto up there in the pantheon of world-builders. He’s not Tolkien, but he’s provided a world almost as detailed as Middle-earth.

Not that I’d want to visit Pinto’s world. Middle-earth would be an interesting place to visit, and one (okay, I) could fantasize about rummaging through the archives of Minas Tirith or Rivendell, taking metallurgy classes from the Dwarves in the Glittering Caves or the restored Khazad-dum, or lifting a pint in the Prancing Pony or The Green Dragon.

Visiting The Three Lands (as the Masters call their world in Pinto’s work) on the other hand would not, in all likelihood be a pleasant experience. Astonishing, awe-inspiring, and intriguing; but also harsh, brutal, and (in all likelihood) fatal. One false move or a glimpse of an unmasked Master and – boom – you’re dead. Hanging out with the Ochre or one of the other Earthsky tribes – boom – you’re conscripted into the legions or part of the flesh-tithe. Enslaved within Osrakum – boom – chances are your eyes are gouged out and replaced by precious stones. Hmm, given those choices, I’ll stick with Gaffer Gamgee at The Ivy Bush, even with the lush detail of The Three Lands.

You may have noticed I haven’t much mentioned the plot and characters of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Let me say that, as a novelist, Pinto is a first-class world-builder. He’s obviously in love with and proud of his creation (and for good reason). However, we are repeatedly encouraged to gaze in wonder at the details of his world within the story. While his characters are interesting and his plot is wide-ranging; there seemed to be a number of themes that seemed to be repeated throughout. A couple plot twists were never explained (at least to my satisfaction). I found myself (unfortunately) skipping entire paragraphs near the end of The Third God to keep up with the story and find out what happens to Carnie, Osidian, Poppy, Fern, and the rest of the cast. I’m still not sure about the ending, but I won’t give it away for those who may have not read the trilogy.

I recommend Pinto’s trilogy highly with the caveat that the plot of the books themselves take some slogging through at times. That being said, The Three Lands is an absolutely amazing location and well worth exploring. I was just hoping for some Appendices. Pinto’s website obviously just provides a tantalizing glimpse of the details of the world of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon.

Mar 22

Conlanging and Conworlding Are &%$#@ Hard!

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 in Conlanging, Rant, World-building

The first reaction of most everyone who reads this will most likely be "Duh!" To this, I’d add "I know, but sometimes it just hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks." And by hard I don't simply mean difficult. What I'm specifically referring to is the urge to be original or unique in one's conlanging/conworlding efforts.

Over last weekend, I was out at our local Borders buying some gifts for my son's birthday. I was picking up the Strategy Manual for the new Pokemon Black and White game for him when I noticed the manual for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm on the shelf nearby. I'm not a WoW player, but I can appreciate good artwork and fantasy-type creatures so I picked it up and started looking through it. When I got to the Tauren, I have to admit my heart sank. I’ve been aware of them, but their general resemblance to my Tylnor was suddenly much more disheartening than previously felt. (Oh, and the resemblance between the names Tylnor and Tauren is coincidental. The word Tylnor actually had a voiced stop at the beginning, but I liked the sound of the unvoiced one after all.) You be the judge on looks. Here are some images of Tauren; here is an early version of one of my Tylnor. The Tylnor originally (literally almost thirty years ago) began as my world's gnomes or dwarves and evolved since then into the horned critters you see here. The most recent version came about, originally, when I thought it would be cool to have them with horns, sort of built-in (stereotypical) vikings. Turns out there’s lots of fantasy creatures with horns, so that’s not that original after all. Okay, I thought, no problem. I thought some more and thought maybe I’ll pattern them after my favorite animal: the muskox. So, recently, I’ve added a large, hair-covered boss on their heads from which their horns sweep down on either side. Tylnor arms, legs, and backs also have long, shaggy guard-hairs. I haven’t decided if they’d need to be combed annually. That might set up some interesting cultural features. In any case, the Tylnor are humanoids patterned off a bovine or caprine form (muskoxen are actually related to goats), and that picture of the Tauren just made me think %$#@&! Do I have to entirely revamp the Tylnor? I’ve even gone so far as to investigate Tylnor skeletal structure, and I think I’ve determined they have a characteristic natural hump on their back from something that might be considered kyphosis in humans along with some spines on their thoracic vertebrae to hold up their massive heads and horns. Anyway, that’s all in the planning stages. Plus, of course, the Tauren themselves aren’t even original: Minotaur anyone?

Additionally, a year or so ago, I posted an image of my Drushek on ZBB and someone astutely noted "That looks like a Bothan." And, sure enough, if it didn’t, which led me at the time to say %$#@&! So, I’ve also gone back and redesigned those guys a bit, too. They now have a different hair-style, ears, and long thing tendrils on the corners of their mouths and chin. I haven’t decided whether their hair is more cilia-like or actual hair. They’re still hopping creatures though. I’m keeping that.

And then we come to language. This is a conlanging blog after all. The shorthand for this urge to be unique/original but you’re not, is ANADEW as used on CONLANG-L. For those who don’t know, ANADEW stands for “A natlang’s already dunnit, except worse” (See here.) Even my own Dritok has parallels in reality (whistled languages, sign languages, etc.). My only claim to fame may be that I insisted on including the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill as a regular phoneme. Even those who try to create an a priori conlang are often constrained by what their own mouths can produce. Notable exceptions to this are Rikchik and Fith. I’m in the process of formalizing Dritok and Umod (the Tylnor’s language) and eventually Elasin (another race’s language living in the same conworld), but it gets disheartening sometimes. I’m toying with the idea of using a bilabial trill in Umod. This is a stereotypical sound a horse or cow makes, so I felt it would fit the physiology. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to go too overboard on the exotic phonetics. But, on the other hand… Well, you get the idea.

In some ways, I’m hoping my having concerns like this makes me a better conlanger. At least, I’m thinking.

Thanks for listening. Whine-fest over. Back to the notebooks and drawing pad!

Mar 2

The Stone Dance of Ice and Fire: A Double Review

Posted on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, World-building

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

I’ve read all four extant volumes of Martin's (unfinished) series (beginning with A Game of Thrones) and the first volume of Pinto's work (The Chosen) and just picked up the second.

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&#39.

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!

Aug 21

New World-Building Resource!

Posted on Saturday, August 21, 2010 in Books, World-building

What If the Earth Had Two Moons?

I just began reading a book that appears to have much to offer in the way of world-building ideas: What If the Earth Had Two Moons? And Nine Other Thought-provoking Speculations on the Solar System by Neil F. Comins. I’ve just finished the first chapter and even there I’ve already found the following “thought-provoking” ideas:

  • “Perhaps the first sentient creatures on Dimaan [Comins’ name for the Earth with two moons] will evolve from nocturnal hunters rather than arboreal creatures, as occurred on Earth.”
  • “…challenges caused by high tide cycles would lead to differences in the way coastal civilizations developed on Dimaan from the way they have on Earth.”
  • And this is just the first chapter! Granted, there are a number of interesting web sites in which to get similar information (e.g., World Builders), but Comins’ book provides an easily-digestible way to get the creativity flowing. He also includes new names for the alternate Earths and their moons (or lack thereof) like Dimaan (“Earth”), Kuu (“Moon”), and Lluna (the 2nd captured moon in the first chapter). He also includes brief narratives introducing each new chapter’s concepts, like a Dimaanian Galileo Galilei getting arrested by the Dimaanian Inquisition in the first chapter.

    Although not a conlanging resource per se, this book has the potential to serve as a jumping off point for those who want to lend the environment in which their conlangs are spoken a firm footing in (an alternate) reality. I’m already thinking of the implications of the two quotes I mentioned above.

    Fiat Mundos!

    (Note: That’s supposed to be “Let there be worlds!” in Latin. I’m open to corrections ;-))