Monday, November 22, 2010

Zeppelin at Avadon Hill

Another not-a-NaNoWriMo-post. Isn't this fun? It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm probably not going to in NaNo this year... nothing at all.

After Mur Lafferty's interview with P.G. Holyfield, I decided that I should finally suck it up and check out Murder at Avedon Hill. The news that Murder at Avadon Hill was published as a real live book (much like Shadowmagic, which I reviewed last time I posted) I just finished listening to the podcast version of the novel, and my final impression is of a deeply fascinating, deeply flawed book, one that I am very glad I got the chance to experience and you should definitely consider checking out.

First of all, the basics. Murder at Avedon Hill takes place in the world of Caern, a fantasy world distinguished by one of its pantheon's unique habits. The world's gods - the Children of Az, a paternal creator-deity - are periodically born into mortal bodies, to live out mortal lives and die mortal deaths. This is pretty much the Children of Az's only way of influencing events in Caern, as Az has (say that ten times fast) forbidden them from visiting the world in person, ever since the after-effects of divine tourism turned the walls between the worlds into swiss cheese and nearly destroyed Caern. Most of the world's supernatural stuff can be traced back to either something that crept into the world through one of these holes or the after-effects of a Child of Az's life as a mortal.

Against this backdrop, we have Avedon Hill, a small town that survives by guarding  pass between two of Caern's major nations: Yew and Grozh (Dragon snot? Yew, Grozh!). We also have Gretta Platt, Lord Avedon's beautiful house-mistress (that's a secretary and bookkeeper, you filthy-minded weirdo). Unfortunately for Gretta (and everyone else), Gretta is killed in the prologue and her body nearly drained of blood, throwing Avedon Hill into all kinds of chaos.

Into this Cuisinart of greed, lust, and deception walk Arames Kragen, a martial-arts-wielding psychic advisor, and his valet, Arrin, who is actually a prince of the nation of Yew. All Arames and Arrin want is to use the pass that Avedon Hill guards to continue into Grozh for a conference, but what they get is a murder mystery.

In tone, Murder at Avedon Hill resembles the medieval monk mysteries of Ellis Peters and the like, with the addition of familiar fantasy elements like elves, dwarves, magic-wielding priests, shapechangers, glowing rocks, and magic potions made of moths (your guess is as good as mine).

I really enjoyed Murder at Avedon Hill  - and I'll get to the good stuff soon - but I think it's flaws bear closer scrutiny. Murder at Avedon Hill is based on notes from P.G. Holyfield's attempt to create a module for BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, an interactive D&D-based game that was, for its time, incredibly versatile. Murder at Avedon Hill's characters have all weathered the transition from D&D clone to novel fairly well, but I don't think the same can be said for the world of Caern. As I've said before, translating roleplaying into writing isn't always easy.

My problem with Caern is, ultimately, that the world has a lot of unnecessary nods to the D&D basics. There are dwarves and elves and monks and magic and even half-orcs, and it all behaves more or less as you'd expect it to. There are no surprises in the setting, just things that Holyfield doesn't bother to tell you upfront. Worse, many of these things don't really matter to the story. Elves and dwarves exist - and we hear all about them - but we don't actually get to meet any (well, one character is a half-dwarf, but it doesn't end up mattering to the story). The story's half-orc could just as easily have been a big, bluff dude known for a short temper. The setting's one truly unique and fascinating setting element - the gods and the aftereffects of their lives as mortals - gets buried in a wave of business-as-usual fantasy.

The writing itself has a few notable flaws as well. Perhaps its a side-effect of the story's past in D&D and video games - and perhaps it's not - but Holyfield's lovingly detailed blow-by-blow narrations of the story's combats are a little too much for me. I love a good battle, but I don't need fight scenes that stretch on for entire chapters. The mystery itself is also a little bit clumsy. I enjoy mysteries that come down to human motivations, and I get frustrated by mysteries that fall back on madness and irrationality. Unfortunately, Murder at Avedon Hill proves to be the latter. There were also a few awkward and frequently repeated constructions - "he shook his head from side to side," for example (as if anyone ever shook their head up and down as opposed to simply "nodding") - but I'm sure Holyfield or his editor caught those before the creation of the print edition.

Finally, Holyfield doesn't write the mystery as tightly as he should. Mysteries are hard to write because they must written so tightly. Magic, on the other hand, is usually quite sloppy. Unless you're Brandon Sanderson, magic can easily become an excuse for stuff to happen, and stuff just happening is the antithesis of a tightly written mystery. Alas, I don't feel that Holyfield rises to the challenge of mixing magic and mystery in Murder at Avedon Hill. The final solution of the mystery depends upon unique and unforeshadowed magical phenomenon, making the final explication a bit of a cheat.

But I did say that I ultimately enjoyed the novel, didn't I? Enough of the negative, let's get positive!

First of all, as I mentioned above, I really enjoyed the Children of Az and their earthly (Caernly?) day-tripping. I like the themes of ordinary humans (and dwarves and elves and half-orcs, I guess...) struggling against vast, uncaring, and disruptive powers. Although it wasn't as strong a theme as I would have liked, I enjoyed that a great deal of Caern's supernatural stuff came from the Children and their misadventures. Also in the world of setting, I enjoyed the well-done and realistic blending of religion and politics in Holyfield's portrayal of Caern's various organizations and how they have dealt with the legacy of the Children of Az.

More importantly, I enjoyed Holyfield's characters and their relationships. Murder at Avedon Hill hits a few personal high notes of mine: complex love triangles, smug mentors and eager students, complex antiheroes, and characters who want something done or a secret revealed but can't bring themselves to do it themselves thanks to their prior commitments and are forced to manipulate others to do it for them.I found the love triangle particularly fascinating, for all that it was merely a footnote in the larger story. The relationship between Arames (smug mentor) and Arrin was much more central and equally enjoyable.

In closing, I think that Murder at Avedon Hill is something you should check out for all its flaws. I also recommend considering checking out the print edition - I know I am. I'm curious to see which of the traits I believed to be flaws Holyfield and his editors chose to change and which they chose to leave alone.

Until next time, remember: the tunnels beneath your city are always more extensive than you think they are, monk!


Scattercat said...

There is no force on this Earth that can stop me from reading that as "Avalon Hill," purveyors of fine wargames.

P.G. Holyfield said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for taking the time to listen and to write such a thoughtful (and thorough) review of MaAH. If you do end up getting the novel and reading it, please let me know what you think of it compared to the podcast version of the novel. While most of the issues you had with the “world” were not changed, I feel the novel is a lot tighter and hopefully addressed some of the concerns you had with the writing itself.

I did make a conscious choice to use common fantasy tropes (races especially), to provide the reader a sense of the familiar while telling a different kind of story within that type of world. As you mentioned as well, I did allude to many elements of the world that did not directly impact the plot of the novel. This was my attempt to lay the groundwork for more “epic” novels in the future, and it was also an attempt to make the reader feel this was a “small” story taking place in a world where much “larger” events are in play.

I would attempt to write more about some of the choices made re: plot and use of magic in the climax but I don’t want to risk spoiling the end of the novel for your readers. I also don’t want to come across as defensive, because I really appreciated your post and review. If you’d like to continue the discussion, please feel free to email me. You mentioned listening to the interview I did with Mur, and as I stated there, I certainly see feedback and criticism as a way to improve my writing. Hope to hear from you.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Hi P.G.

Thanks for taking the commentary like a pro. I'm definitely interested to read the tighter new edition of the novel, and I'll give it a shot.

I do respect the choice to use familiar fantasy elements, even if it's not a choice I'm likely to ever make in my work. I'm getting over a bad case of Elf Rage, you see... I don't have a problem with elves any more, but it's important anything that might trigger a recurrence until the doctors have cleared me.

I'd love to take the conversation off-line. I'll send you an email when I get a chance. Thanks for reading!