Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: The Last Words of Will Wolfkin

Title: The Last Words of Will Wolfkin
Author: Steven Knight
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 3

The Last Words of Will Wolfkin is the story of Toby Walsgrove, a boy who has been paralyzed since birth, unable to move or speak or smile; fully dependent on the care given to him by the nuns of a London convent. His closest companion is cat named Shipley, who enters his dreams and takes him on to magical adventures, battling fierce enemies on the distant moon. For Toby, this is his only freedom.

Then Shipley starts talking to him, offering Toby the chance to make his dreams a reality, if only Toby will come with him to the hidden world of the Fel. Because, see, Toby is the descendent of their last great king and, despite being human, his ancestor’s will gives him claim to the throne of a magical realm buried deep inside a glacier.

In his adventure, Toby meets a girl named Emma who has also been brought to this strange new world of magic and shape-shifting, where nothing is as it seems and one must always expect the unexpected—a place where people want kill them. Together, and with the aid of those Fel loyal to the late King Wolfkin, they must brave the dangers, the magic, and a battle to the death at the Swearing of the Oaths.

The Last Words of Will Wolfkin, by Steven Knight, is a fascinating story filled with magic and mystery and friendship. Its lighthearted manner mixes with the darkened chaos of a world filled with magical exiles.

I have two problems with this book. One, language. Although nothing too obscene, several foul words are employed in the writing, and none of them are at all necessary—they don’t even come at times when something is wrong or serious, but usually pop up in the realm of a joke.

My second problem is that the type of ‘magic’ used (a thing called Jerlamar) becomes more of a sentient being than a tool. This magic is like a mystic spirit. And, although it is interrupted, there is one point in the book where a character is seen in a state of worship before a symbol of this mystical power. Quote: “Forgive me—it is traditional when passing the volcano to give thanks to the Jerlamar,” Egil said, and he stepped a few yards away from us and fell to one knee, staring in the direction of the volcano. This and other hints at the spirit-like Jerlamar gave a rather mystic ring to the whole story. Although a fantasy, there were several places where the mentions of the Jerlamar and the types of power it gave resembled spiritualist legends, with each character having a ‘kin creature’ into whose form they could shift.

I must say I was a bit disappointed in the main villain, for all the tension that was created building up to the point where the reader meets him. To use an old phrase, the descriptions of his character seemed to be ‘larger than life’. There was nothing inherently wrong with the villain, a man who thirsted for power and kingship and would turn on anyone standing in his way. But he just seemed, well, half-formed and the description I just gave is about as deep as any offered in the story.

Story-wise, I enjoyed the book. As I already mentioned, it blended suspense and humor quite well, especially with the character named Egil. With both friendship and betrayal threading through the whole, it was a pleasurable romp in a land of ice, gold, and volcanoes. A twisting, winding plot served to keep me guessing—which might not be saying much as I rarely have a book figured out by the time the twist comes—and a bitter-sweet ending took me by surprise.

My opinion of this book is that I enjoyed reading it…and that’s all. A fairly decent book with mostly thoughtful storytelling and a good amount of depth, I liked The Last Words of Will Wolfkin. It is not, however, a book I plan to reread or one that I would recommend to others.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tales of Goldstone Wood~ Shadow Hand

The Tales of Goldstone Wood, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl are by far some of my favorite Christian Fantasy out there and I would encourage any of you to pick up a copy of the first (which is titled Heartless) and try them out. Although I have only read up to the third book in the series (Moonblood), a fourth is available (Starflower), a fifth is coming this summer (Dragonwitch) and the author has just announced the title of the sixth:

I admire Stengl as an author--and as a blogger--for she seems to get done in a matter of months what it takes me many years to accomplish. A wonderful talent, I'd encourage you to go check out her blog at

Besides news from her stories, YA Fantasy author Stengl occasionally posts writing tips, fan contests, and a lot more--including a recent read-along of Heartless.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go officially add Starflower to my reading list so that I might eventually get around to it sometime this year.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

Title: Who Could That Be at This Hour?
Author: Lemony Snicket
Genre: Children's Mystery
Rating: 5

I must admit that this is the first Lemony Snicket book I have picked up to read. Despite having considered his much-acclaimed Series of Unfortunate Events on more than one occasion, I have yet to read them because they seem a bit too depressing for my taste—which, I suppose, is exactly the point.

I espied this little novel, perched as it was among a hundred other books in the center of a crowded bookstore shelf. As usual—and highlighting a rather common fault of mine—it was the book’s cover which got my attention. This is the first in a proposed series called ‘All The Wrong Questions’, and I plan on reading the sequels.

My first impression upon reading the opening chapter was this: Mr. Snicket is a fast-witted, clever writer. His jokes come quick and subtle, just so that you can hardly begin to smile before he whirls you onward. But they come so frequently that you end up grinning from ear to ear.

This is, presumably, the story of Snicket himself as a thirteen year-old Spy. Or Detective. Or both, or neither one at all. And maybe he’s just bored. (In which case, I, as a writer, would definitely love to be a Detective or a Spy, both of which are decidedly not boring.) Snicket is a boy full of secrets, a boy learning more secrets, and a boy who has been without a root beer float for far too much time. When he becomes entangled with a case that might not be a case, involving a statue which may or may not have been stolen, and two strange girls who might be his friends or his enemies, Lemony works the whole project around the confines of his position as an ‘apprentice’, outmaneuvering his chaperone by leaps and bounds.

This is a quirky tale on the whole, although many things surrounding Snicket’s work and background are left up to the imagination, and there is one section in which the author—or the character, take your pick—delves into a rather melancholy and depressing view of the meaning and results of life.

Intelligent, full of word-plays and clever quips, this is a fabulous little mystery. I must also add that the main character appears to be quite the book reader himself, and is frequently found discussing the merits and faults of a variety of well-known stories. (One in particular, I must say, I disagree with him on entirely.) I would heartily recommend Snicket’s mystery to all willing readers of any age.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Casting a Novel~Scenery Characters

It is not enough to merely have a Main Character, a Villain, and some Helpers. A story needs Minor Characters as well. Besides Minor Characters, a story needs what I like to call Scenery Characters. Here’s why:

He walks in, buys a teddy bear, wishes the clerk a merry Christmas, and walks back out.

You have just laid eyes on a minor character. Not just any minor character, but a particularly minor character. He has one scene. One line. One purchase. And no name. Whenever—if ever—we feel the need to make a reference to him, we will simply call him ‘The guy who bought the teddy bear’. It’s a long title, sure enough, but there’s no reason to shorten it. After all, if we start calling him ‘Phil’, then how is anyone going to know who we’re talking about? Even if we added into the story that the clerk says ‘Have a nice day, Phil’, most recipients of the tale would miss or forget the introduction. So there’s no call to name him. He’s just a guy out buying a stuffed animal around the holidays.

But he is a necessary part of the story we are telling.

What if, after all, the Main Character has forgotten to get her little brother a gift until that very moment? The simple act of this strange man—named Phil—buying a teddy bear will remind her. Or what if the writer of the tale needs the MC to have a sudden childhood flashback? Think teddy bears. The memory itself doesn’t even have to include teddy bears, but the simple fact that teddy bears are a familiar item of childhood is enough.

I like to call this type of character a ‘Scenery Character’.

Now Phil is an exception to a general rule because, in the examples I have given above, he is needed to make a point. Many Scenery Characters are not so useful. We just need them to fill an empty street or coffee shop. We don’t know where they are walking to or what they are drinking in their steaming mugs, but they must be there or else MC and Co. are wandering about in an otherwise empty universe.

So, what if Phil’s purchase of a teddy has no effect on the story whatsoever? We might write:
Clarence turns away from Jesse for a moment, allowing his friend’s words to sink in before he replies. A man slips past them, holding a fluffy brown teddy bear in his arms. He makes his purchase and he and the store clerk trade ‘Merry Christmas’s before the man leaves with the little bear. Clarence at last refocuses on Jesse and sees her eyes waiting for his answer. “Well, then, we’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?” And the two set off with purpose.
In this case, Phil’s entry into the tale has no consequence whatsoever and is only useful for distracting the character and garnering impatience in the reader as we await Clarence’s story-changing answer to whatever it is Jesse has just told him.

Scenery Characters are important, some admittedly more so than others. Like with Phil, the Teddy Bear Buying Man.

Or like Captain Joe, my favorite obscurity in the film White Christmas. (This post, really, is a follow-up to my last one about favorite obscure characters.) Scenery Characters are very obscure. Unremarkable. Virtually invisible. Incredibly important.

There is no need for us to give a backstory on Phil when all we need him to do is purchase a cotton Kodiak. There is no need to give backstory to Captain Joe, either. They are what they are.

I don’t hold this as an absolute, but one can almost always make the case that there are at least two categories for ‘Scenery Characters’. In one, we have Phil. In the other, we have Captain Joe. Phil is the poster child for the term Scenery Character, while Joe falls more into the minor-minor-minor category of characters. Too minor to be labeled a Minor Character, and too major to be a cardboard prop.

So let’s look at Joe. He needs to be a slightly more authentic prop. He is present frequently enough that we feel justified in giving him a name and a title: Captain Joe. Joe has a lot more depth than ‘Phil’. Why? For one thing, his scenes are longer and his job more important. For another, he is the result of some ideal, yet subtle story-crafting. We don’t know if Captain Joe has a family, a home, a car. We aren’t told how old he is or what he likes to eat. We know very little about him at all, but we take him to be a good soldier, a man concerned with upholding the honor of his country, his leader, and his position. A good guy, but so far nothing special.

We find out that Joe has more character than we bargained for: He obviously cares for his leader, he has a somewhat reluctant and crooked smile, he sings along with everyone else at the end of the film, and he plays a major—if seldom noticed—role in the picturesque climax. Suddenly he has depth. Why? Because he cares. We do not necessarily need to care about him, it is enough that he cares about the characters of the story.

Consider this: your best friend has a teacher you have never met and know nothing of on a personal level. But that same teacher sends birthday cards to your friend, stops to talk with them, and admires your friend’s work. You will almost inevitably begin to like this teacher for the simple reason that they like your friend. Besides that, a Scenery Character who cares brings more to the table than a character who doesn’t know there’s anything to care about.

Like Phil. Phil walks in and out of one store. Does he purchase the bear because he cares for his five year-old son? Is it a get-well present for a coworker’s child? A little something sweet for his wife? A means for smuggling a baseball-sized ruby out of the country? We don’t know. Therefore, we don’t know what Phil cares about, or even if he cares about anything at all. What’s more important is that he has no reason to care for our story. He has no reason to car for our characters Clarence and Jesse. Does Phil need depth? Do we need to give him a gleaming white smile, a favorite football team, and a size 13 pair of blue Nike sneakers? No. We don’t. Because we don’t need him to care.

Captain Joe is written as a bit of ‘reader help’. You know those guys who would stand on the sidelines of live radio and television shows to prompt the audience? That is Captain Joe. He’s not so much of a prop as he is a prompt. We don’t even have to genuinely notice him caring in order for him to help us to care.

And Phil? Well, Phil is a member of that same audience. He claps when he’s supposed to and that is the extent of his usefulness. We needed to get some applause from somewhere and he contributed.

A single person clapping does not often inspire others to clap with them. A person whose job it is to get people to clap at the right time usually gets those people to clap at the right time. We may never notice either one. Both are important. The man directing the audience requires an audience to direct. A man in the audience needs a director and a bunch of other people just like himself to be the audience. His part is significantly smaller, but still important.

So when you are crafting your characters—whether you are writing Speculative or Suspense, Historical or Romance, remember your Scenery Characters. Your MC cannot walk through a forest without there being trees to make up the forest. You need the scenery for the scene itself to work. You need a group of Scenery Characters in which to insert your Main Character for us to care what that character does or does not do.

Every scene needs a focal point and every focal point needs a scene.
Likewise, every cast needs a lead and every lead needs a supporting cast.

What do you think about minor characters? Do your minor characters have depth and, if not, do they need it? Does your tale include both ‘props’ and ‘prompts’?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Obscure Heroes

As part of my family’s traditions around the holiday season, we sat down one evening this past Christmas around the sparkling tree with pizza slices in hand and watched White Christmas, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. (Aside: the pizza is not actually part of the tradition.)

It was as the first scene opened amid crumbling structures in a World War II scene that I began to notice the obscurities of the story. The little things. I commented on them, but felt that my interruptions were not well-received. So had to satisfy myself with being the only one to spy the inn housekeeper and the General’s granddaughter step back out of a spotlight—for the second time, without having stepped back into it. And I chuckled to myself when the General skipped shaking one poor soldier’s hand. Obscurities.

Now, those familiar with the classic film will realize that both things I mentioned happen at the end of the film. So what was at the beginning? Well, most noticeably to me, it was a character. A very specific character who barely had a name; appeared in a grand total of two separate scenes, and was given very few lines. But I liked him. A lot. And I wanted to know why.

I went back to the film to bleed it for insight.

Unfortunately, very little information is given about him in the film. His first line is in defense of a holiday party one of the army divisions is holding: ‘A little entertainment for the men, sir. Tonight’s Christmas Eve.’ He’s addressed as ‘Captain’. In the memorable bit where General Waverly sends his replacement on a roundabout way to headquarters, this captain points it out, to which Waverly replies: ‘Joe, you know that and I know that, but the General doesn’t know it. At least he won’t, for about an hour and a half.’ So this character, we may presume, is named Captain Joe. An internet search yields that he is Adjutant Captain, meaning he is General Waverly’s right-hand man, his assistant so to speak.

(Captain Joe, pictured standing to the right of General Waverly. This character is so obscure that it took me absolute ages to find any pictures of him, which is why this post comes so late...or, early, depending on your point of view.)

In some scenes, the captain looks like he might be more comfortable in a Western somewhere (Indeed, the actor, Richard Shannon, was more well-known for general roles as a cowboy.), but it’s amazing to me how so small a character has so much, well…character. He follows the General about and has comfortable conversations with him. When Waverly sits in the back row to enjoy some of Bob’s singing, Captain Joe stands behind him. When Waverly is walking away from his outfit, the captain follows. When Waverly, who walks with something of a limp, climbs into a jeep, Joe is there to support him. He seems like a good soldier, a good man. But what caused him to stick out to me? I’m afraid I don’t have a solid answer.

The captain does not appear again until the very end of the story, when the 151 Division shows up to honor their General. Once again, Captain Joe is there, right behind him. And when General Waverly’s eyes well up with tears, Joe is watching him…and smiles. A careful observer will note that, after seating his General, Captain Joe takes a seat on the opposite side of the table to watch Wallace and Davis perform “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”. But his chair is conspicuously empty when the crowd applauds at the end of the song. Why? Because he is outside looking at the snow as it falls around the Vermont inn. So he reenters to lean down and whisper something into Waverly’s ear. And then General Waverly, Wallace and Davis, Betty and Judy, and all the rest get their White Christmas.

So, there it is, my obscure favorite character of the film. Why this ‘Captain Joe’ grabs my attention, I cannot now guess, but he isn’t the only one. Often, it seems, there are minor characters in the stories of both film and page that become stars in their own right, sometimes to only a few people.

The king in Disney’s Tangled, for example, is quite possibly the best character of the entire story. He doesn’t even say a word.

Hawkeye appearing briefly in Thor is one of the foremost reasons I love that movie—and also, quite possibly, the best part of The Avengers.

In what stories do you find a favorite character who sits in the midst of the background noise and relative obscurity? What is your favorite character or part of White Christmas? Or your favorite Christmas film?