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How Close to Darth Vader is Too Close to Darth Vader?

Stephen Erikson, author of enormous Malazan series, wrote a blog post about the uses of psychic distance from a character. Or, to put it another way, he started writing Gardens of the Moon from Andomander Rake’s perspective. Then he restarted it from the perspective of other people around Rake. Result: Anomander Rake comes across as a massive and terrifying badass.

Being in Rake’s head would humanise him. You’d see his doubts, his faults, his hesitations, all tamping down the awesomeness of him being an immortal warrior with a sword that devours souls.

Darth Vader is like this.

I’ve been watching and reading fiction featuring Darth Vader my whole life. My view of him has evolved as the experience of watching him has expanded. Most recently, I experienced Vader through Keiron Gillen’s excellent comics series, Paul Kemp’s novel Lords of the Sith, and Rogue One.

Especially that corridor scene at the end of Rogue One. Oh my, yes.

From Afar

At first, Darth Vader is a stark figure in black armour, stalking through the white hallways of the Rebel ship in A New Hope. He is merciless. He is relentless. He is an inhuman monster with a cold and lethal temper.

We close in on Vader through the course of the original trilogy, but not much. The reveal at the end of Empire Strikes back makes him more horrifying, not less. Yes, he’s human enough to be a father, but he cuts off his own son’s hand. And in Return of the Jedi, though leashed to the Emperor, he is still a terrible force of death. (And makes the Emperor more frightening for that reason.)

In Close

The prequels were not the story we expected.

Instead of the tale of a great man falling into darkness, we had a lost and petulant boy. This is, I think, the great failure in the writing of Anakin Skywalker: that he is not great.

It is hard to imagine that terrifying black mask ever housing a petulant thought.

Imagine instead a rift forming between Obi-Wan and Anakin. As the Republic totters, Obi-Wan holds to the ideals he’s always held. Anakin, with the Chancellor whispering in his ear, comes to believe that far more drastic measures are necessary. This would be a perfect reflection of the greater struggle between democracy and authoritarianism playing out across the Republic. Some final act shatters the bond between the two men, a line Obi-Wan cannot cross, a line Anakin thinks they must cross.

And then, lightsabers on Mustafar.

Unfortunately, we got petulance.

But About That Novel

I will say that I loved the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith. It goes some way to making Anakin and Obi-Wan epic heroes. The fall is therefore much harder. That book hooked me from the first page. I devoured it.

But it’s still working with the same storyline.

Lords of the Sith

Paul Kemp has a tricky job in Lords of the Sith. As I’ve proposed above, Darth Vader is best viewed from a distance. But a novel is all about the interiority of its characters. You have to get in Vader’s head.

And in this novel you do, but…

This, I think, is the clever trick of Lords of the Sith. You’re in Vader’s head plenty of the time, but when you are, he’s mostly thinking about his master. The Emperor is there, with him. The Emperor is the power Vader measures himself against and knows, for now, that he is inferior to. And the Emperor knows this calculation is running through Vader’s mind. He knows his apprentice is looking for the right opportunity to turn on him.

When you do view Vader from outside, its from the point-of-view of the unfortunate resistance fighters who find they’re up against him. Then the novel’s interiority works well. Because yes, Vader is terrifying. Watching him cut his way through your team of tough true believers is going to give you the willies.

Kemp treads the line well. This is still Vader partially humanised, which I’m not sure is ever to the character’s benefit. But you don’t come away from the end of the novel thinking Darth Vader is anything less than a badass.

Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader – Masked Again

In Gillen’s comic series, we’re on safer ground. Vader is once again an inhuman mask of blank eyes and an immobile grill instead of a mouth. Gillen gives us flashbacks to moments of Anakin Skywalker, but these are few and far between. Usually you, the reader, are left to remember these past moments yourself.

Watching Vader cut off someone’s hand? Ride a lava flow on a plate of steel? Vader makes no comment. But you know he’s been here before.

Gillen does an excellent job of distilling Darth Vader down to the core of what makes him tick without sacrificing anything. I loved reading these comics. I go back to them when time allows.

Rogue One

And then there’s that corridor scene at the end of Rogue One.

This is the monster of my childhood. The inhuman silhouette. The blood-red glow of his lightsaber. The pause to let the Rebel soldiers see, to be afraid. This is the armoured demon I remember watching stride through A New Hope when I was little.

Even his earlier moments, in which you see what’s left of him floating in a bacta tank, don’t detract from him. You are reminded that he is monstrous to behold. And then, when he almost chokes Director Krennic to death, you are reminded of his temper. That lethal temper.

Rogue One gets Darth Vader right.

Other Applications

Anomander Rake is the better for using this technique of distance from a character. I’ve used it as well. In my second novel, The Mortal Edge, you never step into the point of view of the primary villain, Mitch Longfield. Mitch is a mastermind, moving different factions of London’s shadow world this way and that, manipulating the book’s heroes, always striving towards his own goal. But you watch him do it from the point of view of the vampire Dean Mawson. And Mitch doesn’t tell Dean everything.

Novel offer us, the reader, something no other form of media really can: a look inside the heads of its characters. But sometimes, just sometimes, we’re better off looking from nearby.

Which leaves you with the question: how to Darth Vader is too close to Darth Vader?

Bad Soul by David Bussell & MV Stott

Erin Banks is a woman with an acid nature, a self-destructive streak, a bare minimum of morals and magical tattoos that boost her strength. When a demon approaches her with a deal, he offers her the one thing she won’t say no to: information on how her little brother disappeared when they were both children.

This was a short, fun read. It hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. Erin is foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, barely ethical and simply fun to follow around south-east England as she works the demon’s job. I particularly enjoyed when the story hit notes of horror. The authors come up with some creatively gruesome imagery.

This book was my introduction to the Uncanny Kingdom. I’ll be reading the sequel, and checking out some of the other denizens of this darker England.

Collected Links – 11 January 2019

No maps, this time. Fictional worlds and fandoms instead.

Orbital interior by Hill

Why the Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks: I may never know if it was intentional or not, but there was an argument of sorts across the body of Banks’ work. The Culture might be what you imagine as the ultimate endpoint of cultural evolution if you’re a socialist. But he doesn’t go straight to it. Certain stages of culture go hand-in-hand with certain levels of technology. When the Culture intervenes in a primitive species’ development, they just nudge them along to the next level. Not “Here, abandon government and scarcity and become near-immortal.”

This is a very long post and I’m bookmarking it here so I can read the whole thing and find out if it says anything about this.

The Only Good Online Fandom Left is Dune: By contrast, a far-future feudal society with giant deadly sandworms. I re-read the first novel a few years ago, after not looking at them since high school. I did not appreciate the sheer cold-bloodedness of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program. I mean, blimey.

Dead Fandoms: The link is to part 3, but it contains links to parts 1 and 2. Fascinating discussion of fandoms that were once alive and vital, but have fallen by the wayside. Were any of these yours? Can you see their influences in later works? Or is a reboot on its way?

The revamp of the Star Wars franchise has, I think, relegated one of my favourites to a slow decline. The Expanded Universe has thousands of years of history fleshed out before the movies. I found it all far more interesting than what came afterwards.

The 2018 Retrospective

In software engineering we do two-week sprints, in which we commit to two weeks of work. At the end of it, we have a retrospective, where we assess what went well and what didn’t. I borrow a lot of my day job’s workflow management practices for my writing. The retrospective, I’m sure, will be as valuable as the rest.

In the retro, we start with four things: what we liked, what we learnt, what we lacked and what we longed for. From these, we develop actions to undertake during the next sprint. Or in this case, what I’ll take from this year and apply to next year.

This is my 2018 retro.

Liked

On January 7, Ghost Electricity went out into the world. It’s my first published book. I like this one heck of a lot.

In 2018, I also published the sequel, The Mortal Edge, and The Clock Strikes, a novella that slots in between them.

The novella was a change in plan. I had planned to get the third book, Immortal Make, out by mid-2018. When that proved impossible, I switched to the novella in order to publish something in the second half of the year. I think that was a good move.

The books have had some pretty good reviews. Not perfect, but good. That readers want to read about people I made up in my head is just the most amazing thing to me.

I was greeted by some wonderfully supportive authors. I’d heard the attitude in indie publishing was positive and supportive, but it exceeded anything I could have expected. I’d like to make special mention of SPFBO judges Dyrk Ashton and Lucasz P, and my old friend and fellow author Peter M Ball, all of whom offered me encouragement and support in different ways at different times. You guys rock.

The Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off was tremendous fun. I’m glad I joined it. I had the bad luck to get knocked out in the first round by a book that is a strong contender for winning the competition, but Dyrk Ashton gave me a great review. I’ve had a lot of fun following the competition on Facebook and Twitter.

Learnt

I learned that I wasn’t thinking of my books as an indie author whose job it is to market those books. This was the biggest surprise for me. I couldn’t think of where my books sat in the market until they were actually out there.

I’ve learned a lot from the reviews I’ve received on Amazon and Goodreads. I mentioned before that I’m amazed there are readers who want to keep reading about Rob, Julian, Fiona and Jessica. I like all these guys myself, of course, but the degree to which other people like them and their relationships was a welcome discovery.

Lacked

I lacked time. I lacked it all the way through the year. I note this not as a complaint, but as something to think about. Balancing a day job, a life with my partner and writing is a tricky act. It will require continued work.

There were a bunch of things around author presence and marketing that I was aware of, but hadn’t started in on. In part, this is because I’ve been following the indie world for years while writing and many of the practices have changed. I parked the development of these areas until I was published. I didn’t want to learn something and have it obsolete by the time I was ready to use it. But I’m out there now. I have a lot of work to do on the fundamentals of marketing as an author.

I lacked an appropriate reader magnet. I like The Clock Strikes. But the feedback on it has been a) a lot going on for a novella and b) it doesn’t really work as a stand-alone, which it really needs to do.

Longed For

Time to write. Time to upskill my writing.

Time to market. Time to upskill my marketing practices.

Oh, and for the bloody Crossrail to open, which will significantly cut my commute time. Nothing I can do about this one except try to work with what I’ve got. But damn, delayed by more than a year?

Actions

2019 isn’t going to be a quieter year for me. My objectives for the year are to continue writing and publishing, to continue learning and growing. But I’m going to have to get smart with how I use the time available for me.

This year, I think, will need to be a year of sorting out the fundamentals of being an author. Make a plan on what I want to achieve and what I want to learn. I will also need to plan out what I can write and publish this year. My friend Peter, who I mentioned earlier, wrote in his newsletter than he’s planning to spend the next few years building up his catalogue. For me, 2019 will need to be a year of the same.

And With That

2018 was a good year for me. Hard work, but good. I feel like it gave me a reasonable feel for where I am as an author and what actions I need to take to get where I want to go. Thank you for joining me for it.

See you in 2019.

Collected Links – 14 December 2018

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ainulindalë: A stunning visual adaptation of the first chapter of the Silmarillion, in which Tolkien’s world is created. I first came across this a couple of years ago and recently found it in my inbox while digging through old emails.

World Axis Cosmology: Sticking with cosmologies, this one belongs to the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. When a new edition comes out and there are drastic changes to the rules, they create an in-story cause for it. From third edition to fourth edition, it was the Spellplague. It means that all the planes where the gods lived were … redistributed.

I like to think this cosmology covers my apparent requirement to always have a map link in these posts.

God Checker: Your Guide to the Gods: When I was probably about eight years old, I pulled every volume of my family’s encyclopedia set down from the shelf and read about every Greek god there ever was. Got all the way down through the demigod heroes to the kings before I called it. I should really dig into other mythologies some time.

Collected Links – 30 November 2018

The Railway Mania of the 1840s: Railway company after railway company, a speculative bubble that eventually burst. All the usual foolishness and ruin of a financial bubble, but unusually with one tangible result: an extensive British railway system.

What did the Earth look like X million years ago? See the continents shift across millions of years. I always thought it was just a couple of basic big moves, the supercontinent Pangaea, which broke up into Laurasia and Gondwanaland, then kept breaking up into the continents we know today. But the shifts are cyclical, with many supercontinents and break-up cycles before Pangaea.

You should always be careful when you give me a map.

Artist Illustrates His Battle With Depression as a Mystical World of Spirit Animals: Beautiful and haunting. Also on Instagram.

When the Treasure Chest Tries to Eat You

I pummelled the bandits with bolts of ice. Jander, my companion, slashed and hacked at them with his sword. When the bandits were dead, we strolled into their rundown shack. They had a treasure chest. I tried to open it.

A giant tongue lolled out of the chest. It tried to kill me. I yelped so loud my girlfriend asked me what was wrong from the next room.

The treasure chest was not a treasure chest.

*

This is the game Neverwinter. I’m playing a control wizard named Talos, which means I shoot ice spells around and try to either freeze or slow my enemies. Jander is a computer-controlled warrior who stands around flexing his biceps when I’m not in combat.

Neverwinter is a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. It is, perhaps, not quite on the scale of World of Warcraft. But if you’ve ever played the pen and paper version of Dungeons and Dragons, if you’ve ever adventured in the world of Faerun, it can be a fun return to a world you know.

Despite having next to no spare time, I’ve managed to play a little of this game over the last couple of months. At first it was a pleasant nostalgia. The names of familiar gods. Cities I know, like Baldur’s Gate, where I adventured long ago as a different kind of mage with Minsc and Boo and all the others.

But the stories themselves began to pull me in. Orcs festooning one part of the city. Wererat gangs in the sewers. A weird but enjoyable storyline that pitted me against a wizard trying to open a portal to dimensions full of Lovecraftian horrors.

At Halloween, some kind of illusionists were running around the city. I got to see gelatinous cubes ooze by. Everyone should see a gelatinous cube oozing by. Preferably away, as well.

And then, the Mimic in the bandits’ shack. A treasure chest with a giant tongue and an appetite for adventurers. A favourite of Dungeon Masters looking to catch their players off-guard.

It isn’t the same as playing across the table from my old Dungeon Master, Peter Ball. But it’s a fun game to play.

In those odd moments when I have a sliver of free time.

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A Victorian aristocrat warlock. A dangerous artefact. A crack driven in the very fabric of time.

When Rob and Julian stumble across a crack in time, they fall into a battle between two factions of Victorian warlocks. A battle that follows them back to modern London.

Pursued across the city by Sebastian Crow and his horrifying minions, aided by a tattoo witch, Rob and Julian must decide who to trust as they race through time and space itself.

Because if Sebastian Crow succeeds, the world will be plunged into endless darkness.

The Clock Strikes is a stand-alone novella and part of the Hawthorn House epic urban fantasy series.

I value your privacy and would never spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of any email, or emailing sean@seancunningham.co.uk.

Collected Links – 19 October 2018

The Real Reason Women Love Witches. (Requires sign-in.) The witch is a survivor.

Monster Monocles. See the world through the squamous eyes of Cthulhu.

‘Goblin’ world found orbiting at the edges of the Solar System. Ever since I started reading Lovecraft, I enjoy imagining cold, alien intelligences watching us from silent, icy worlds, far out in the dark. At 65 AUs, could you even see our Sun?

Medieval Fantasy City Generator. I really am just a sucker for maps and map generators.

Collected Links – 28 September 2018

A map of London as it was during the era of the Tudor monarchs, which I could basically play with all day.

The Volcano That Shrouded the Earth and Gave Birth to a Monster: Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death.

Quotes on Mental Health and Mental Illness: “Don’t make a permanent decision for your temporary emotion.”

On the psychological value of “griefbots”: Replacing the empty chair in the empty chair technique with a bot given a script of things the person you’re imagining yourself talking to might say.

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