I don’t normally write book reviews but today I feel compelled, having just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. It was initially recommended to me as a fantasy book which doesn’t treat the existence of the gods as a provable fact. For the most part that’s true – divinity and faith is seen through human eyes, though without any atheism or debate on the god’s existence in evidence. There’s some tension between church and state, but not a great deal and more could have been done with it. Of course, that might just be my own particular interests talking.
The thing is, Kay breaks the rules. He changes tense from past to present, and sometimes even future, between or even in the middle of paragraphs. He constantly switches primary viewpoint between a large host of characters. He gives things away, like the fact a character is going to survive when that is by no means certain from the immediate story (with with statements like ‘X said in his much celebrated chronicles later than he always remembered this moment, when he became a man’). More, he outright states when a major character is about to die, before then going on to write the death scene in detail. It ought to remove all tension and cohesion in the storytelling.
I nearly missed more than one train because of these books. The tension that he builds, even when he’s plainly stated what the outcome will be, is astonishing. The web of inter-character relations is a thing of beauty. I’ve no idea how. Keeping a consistent viewpoint and tense are some of the most basic warnings we get as writers, subverted only to make a particular point through the subversion. I thought at the beginning that that was what Kay was doing, but if so then it’s a very subtle point indeed because it’s escaped me so far.
The raptor thinks I should find it liberating – proof that anything goes provided your writing is good enough. But, as with all freedoms and many sources of inspiration, it’s also rather daunting.