A Threat of Shadows, by JA Andrews (13:26)

IOD score cardToday we see that Fantasy Capitalization Syndrome can ruin a good story.

What I gleaned about the story: Alaric is racing to consult the Keepers at the Wellstone, which is hidden behind the Wall, at the top of the Stronghold. This is beginning to look more like High German than English.

Find this book on Amazon.

Note: The book looks very well designed. A sumptuous, professional cover, but when I hit the legal page, I had a brief flash of, “Oh, yeah. Self published.” All it contains is a copyright declaration, an ISBN number, and a promo for Vellum. That’s it. No mention of an editor. No credit for the cover designer. No “any similarity to persons living or dead” disclaimer. And no library catalog information. I’m not saying that these things are all essential, but in their absence, I realized that I have a strong subconscious association between those kinds of legal details and my assumptions about publishing professionalism. This may speak more about my own hangups than about the book, but I note it here for the benefit of those listening. Apparently, some readers make assumptions about you by the appearance of your legal page. And it appears that I’m one of them.

Note: The story opens with our protagonist, Alaric, riding through the woods. It’s an entirely appropriate image for a fantasy novel, but I couldn’t help stumbling over his name. Haven’t I seen it somewhere before? Was it in the Shannarah books? No, that was Alanon. Moorcock? No, his was Elric.

Finally, I paused to check Wikipedia (because these things nag at me if I try to just move on). And there he is. No, not the Visigoth kings, nor the Swedish king, and not the character in the Vampire Diaries. The resonance I was remembering was with Alaric the Minstrel, from Phyllis Eisentstein’s series. It’s not quite as big an issue as if you’d named your character Bilbo, but I do find it a bit distracting to read about namesake characters like these. When a name is distinctive, and especially when it stands alone, without apparent support of a surname, this kind of overlap distracts me. Not a WTF, but food for thought when naming your characters. We’re perfectly accustomed to running into a dozen different people named Jason or Henry, but when a name is more like Garnok the Flayer, encountering his namesake in a different tale feels entirely disruptive.

Note: I’m seeing traces of Fantasy Capitalization Syndrome. You know what they call the stronghold Alaric is heading for? “The Stronghold.” You know what they call the keepers who tend the place? “The Keepers.” I’m guilty of this tendency myself in my earlier work, but now that I’m sensitized to it, I’m almost hyper-sensitized.

WTF #1: Fantasy Capitalization Syndrome

Analysis: I held off for a few paragraphs, but at the top of page two, Alaric tells us that “We’re almost to the Wall.” Sure, we might later learn that the full names are the Stronghold of Steadfastness, the Keepers of Garnok’s Flame, and the Wall of Unpassingness, properly documented as place names on the Map of Naming Places that hangs in the Grand Duke’s Official Library of Official Maps, but it’s distracting. A stronghold is a stronghold, a keeper is a keeper, and a wall is a wall. Even if it’s an important one, it would be sufficiently aggrandized by calling it “the keep.” Using the definite article is all the emphasis you need to signal its importance.

As a quick test, ask yourself how you and your siblings would refer to the all-important cottage or farm of your childhood. A very important place, to be sure, but would you be going to the Farm? Of course not. Even if it were officially known as Windbridges Farm, to you and your siblings, it would be “the farm.” All the emphasis is in the definite article. You’re not just going to some farm, or to a farm. You’re going to the farm, and everybody who needs to know which one you’re talking about already knows which one you’re talking about. So if that’s how it works for you and your sister, the same psychology would work for any dirt-kneed fantasy peasant.

Kudos #1: Magic has a cost

Details: Several times during the first chapter, Alaric uses simple spells to help him find his way, open locked doors, etc. But each time, he pays a price: pain in the hand he uses to direct the energy. I like this. Very quickly, we’ve established that magic in this world will not be all get-out-of-jail-free-ish. We don’t yet know that bigger spells carry more pain, but at the very least, we know that it has limits. And magic with limits provides for stronger drama.

Note: Can I talk about a pet peeve? Let me check. According to international law governing content on web sites, I can. So let me tell you about a phrase I see a lot in indie fiction that really, really bugs me. It’s a class of phrases really, in which feelings are attributed to the mind of the protagonist, rather than to the protagonist.

Case in point: The memory of Evangeline’s hollowed face flooded his mind again.

To me, this connotes a strange dissociation between the character and his feelings, as though he doesn’t actually feel things himself. Instead, he observes dispassionately as the feeling washes through, floods through, races through, invades, overwhelms, overturns, electrifies, or assaults that thing over there, that “mind” thing. It seems to me that in their very effort to amplify the feeling they’re trying to express, these authors are in fact muting them, by introducing this emotional distance. The mind and the self are not distinct entities.

WTF #2: Conflicted echoing headwords

Analysis: I think this might be the first time I’ve seen this happen. Consider this simple paragraph:

He held that idea for a long moment. The way she had looked. The way she had been. The way she would be again.

That triple repetition is an example of what I’ve always considered to be the correct use of echoing headwords; an echo that heightens our awareness of a passage by calling attention to it with rhythm. But see that first sentence? The one that begins with “He”? Unfortunately, it is the second in a string of three successive paragraphs that start with that same word. So here we have a rhetorical echo buried inside the corpse of an accidental one. For me, the effect was confusing. I had already noticed the visual pattern of repeated paragraph heads and was girding myself for the mental echo when suddenly, another echo rose up from its midst. My first instinct was to focus on the echo itself so I completely missed its intended rhythmic effect.

Note: The Wall was more than enough defense for the Stronghold. To anyone but a Keeper, the Wall would appear to be just an odd bit of wall sitting right against a cliff face. That’s three uses of “wall” in two sentences. A bit dense for my tastes, with a little jab of FCS thrown in for good measure.

WTF #3: Fantasy Capitalization Syndrome redux

Analysis: My intention when I charged the first FCS flag was that I would throw it and then let it stand for all the future occurrences I found as well. Recall that Alaric is going to visit the Keepers in the Stronghold, which is behind the Wall. But now, when he gets there, he sees a light on at the very top of the tower. A room known as the Wellstone.

At this point, I’m struggling to maintain the illusion of immersion. I find myself asking if he will eat in the Kitchen from the Plate, perhaps sleep upon the Bed or shelter his horse in the Stable. As I said, I have suffered from this problem myself, so maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive to it now. But to me, capitalization only works as an aggrandizement if it happens infrequently. If every part of a building carries its own name of reverence, then none of it is special.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Dark Corners, by Kelsi Summers (1:30)
Cheer Up, Jimmy: 3 Melancholy Short Stories, by Dania Sonin (1:31)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.