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[Reading Group] August 2014 - The Elfin Ship

Discussion in 'Novels & Stories' started by Steerpike, Aug 2, 2014.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This month's book is The Elfin Ship, by James Blaylock. The author has been around for quite some time and is well known in some circles, but not among those authors who are household names. Blaylock started in a writing group with colleagues Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, both of whom have gone on to have successful careers. Jeter actually coined the term "steampunk" to describe some of the early work he, Blaylock, and Powers were doing.

    I want to thank those of you who decided to join us this month. The Elfin Ship is not so much a conventional fantasy narrative, and copies of it can sometimes be hard to come by, though it looks like the paperback is found online readily enough.

    I thought we'd break the book down into four weeks:

    Week 1: Chapters 1 through 7
    Week 2: Chapters 8 through 14
    Week 3: Chapters 15 through 21
    Week 4: Chapters 22 through 28

    Here are a few preliminary discussion questions for those who have started the book and are maybe a chapter or two in:

    1. The Elfin Ship has a narrative style that is uncommon in modern fantasy, particularly in employing a narrator that is omniscient at times and at other times fixed more closely in the mind of the protagonist. What do you think of Blaylock's writing style in this novel?

    2. Jonathan Bing is not a stereotypical fantasy protagonist by any stretch of the imagination. What do you make of him?

    3. Blaylock gives you detail of the world as it immediately effects the story, and then occasionally adds brief bits about the greater world. What is your view of the setting so far?
     
  2. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Steer, thank you so much for picking this book. After just finished the dull, dull, desperately boring and drab and awful book Witch World, this is like a breath of fresh air, and I'm only on page 7 so far.

    Blaylock's voice and style was strong from the beginning and I love it. It feels a bit like the beginning of The Hobbit and a bit like Lud-in-the-Mist, which I also loved. I can't wait to really get immersed in this story.
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I'm glad you like it so far, and I'll be interested to hear what you think as it goes on. I have to admit I gave up on Witch World, probably before getting halfway through.
     
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I remember reading this more than once a long time ago.
     
  5. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I've been on the fence about this one because the opening didn't really draw me in, but I'm going to give it a shot. I need something to cleanse my palette anyway. I do wish I could get a cheaper version though.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Glad you'll be joining us, Phil. I suppose I could have gone with something more commercial/conventional if that's what people seem to want, but there is only so much of that stuff I can read before I start looking for something out of the ordinary :)
     
  7. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I read more of it yesterday and I'm starting to like it more. It is good to try something not so conventional, so I'm glad you chose something different. A lot of our other choices have mostly been mainstream fantasy novels. The beginning is very reminiscent of The Hobbit for me. While I eventually got into that book, it took me ages as I'm just not accustomed to books that are slow to get going with the main conflict. I think that's a common issue for modern readers, but I try to break myself of that when reading something older.

    To answer the discussion questions:


    1. The Elfin Ship has a narrative style that is uncommon in modern fantasy, particularly in employing a narrator that is omniscient at times and at other times fixed more closely in the mind of the protagonist. What do you think of Blaylock's writing style in this novel?


    I don't mind it so far. It's mostly jumping from Jonathan to Ahab. It's not as jarring as I expected it to be, but I just read Legend by David Gemmell and the POVs are all over the place in that (to good effect). It actually gives a little more flavor to the reading and Ahab is probably one of the more interesting dog characters I've ever read. I can't quite put my finger on it though.


    2. Jonathan Bing is not a stereotypical fantasy protagonist by any stretch of the imagination. What do you make of him?


    Maybe I haven't read enough yet (on Chapter 2) but I like him well enough so far. I'm guessing he's a reluctant hero sort, which makes the comparisons to The Hobbit even more apt. Not that it's a bad thing. Having a cheesemaker as main character is definitely interesting. I just wrote a story from the POV a woman who collects bizarre furniture, but she's actually the villain of the story. I find unconventional POV characters more interesting than the typical fantasy fare.

    3. Blaylock gives you detail of the world as it immediately effects the story, and then occasionally adds brief bits about the greater world. What is your view of the setting so far?

    I like this style myself as I don't feel like I need to be bombarded with all the setting info right out the gate. The mentions of Christmas and such makes me think this is actually our world, but with elfin airships and goblins being mentioned, I guess it's a fantasy version? This was one issue I think people had with Prince of Thorns was that you had mentions of Plato and historical figures, but no real complete immersion in the setting. I personally found this more intriguing.

    Learning about the setting as I go along makes me feel like I'm discovering the world bits at a time. I prefer this instead of "Here's everything you need to know about my world" right at the beginning.

    So far, I'm enjoying it a bit more since he's starting on his journey and I'm looking forward to see what he's going to run into.
     
  8. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    Well, I'm up to Chapter 4 now. It's going along pretty well, but the comparisons to The Hobbit are even more apt than I expected in the beginning. The story's clicking with me a little more, but that's mostly because I like the way the characters interact with each other. The plot is pretty slow, but I guess I can forgive that because of what kind of story it is. I quite like Professor Wurzle's oboe gun or whatever the hell it is. :)
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Phil:

    The book certainly retains a measured pace throughout. I like the actual narration itself, as well as the interactions between the characters. Also, I find Blaylock to be pretty funny, though his humor is extremely dry. I'll have to think about the Hobbit comments a bit. It never occurred to me.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    To answer my own questions:

    1. The Elfin Ship has a narrative style that is uncommon in modern fantasy, particularly in employing a narrator that is omniscient at times and at other times fixed more closely in the mind of the protagonist. What do you think of Blaylock's writing style in this novel?

    The writing is quirky, and uses a very dry sense of humor. I like it, and an omniscient narrator doesn't bother me in the least. It is the style of narration and Blaylock's word choice that makes me enjoy the book as much as anything else.

    2. Jonathan Bing is not a stereotypical fantasy protagonist by any stretch of the imagination. What do you make of him?

    I like Bing. He's a pragmatic individual, and what you might describe as downright sensible for the most part. He takes small pleasures in life, and isn't interested in wealth, power, or extravagance. He'd just as soon sit on his porch and smoke his pipe than get involved in the doings of the world, but when it comes down to it he'll act when he must, and do the right thing.

    3. Blaylock gives you detail of the world as it immediately effects the story, and then occasionally adds brief bits about the greater world. What is your view of the setting so far?

    I find the setting interesting. I like the fact that a lot of it is left open to mystery. There are references to places never described, and so on. I have never viewed the setting as taking place in our world, or an alternate version thereof. I believe the world the story is set in is known as Balumnia. I found the inclusion of Christmas interesting, particularly in that the author employs it as a secular tradition. There is feasting and presents for kids, but there is no indication that I've seen of any Christian religion in the world.
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    How far have you both made it so far?

    I think the Professor's elfin device is pretty funny, and the goblins crack me up too. They're not so much a terrifying threat as they are bizarre little creatures. The trip downriver has been fun so far. I continue to enjoy the narrative style, and I like that the book departs from most fantasy stories in that you don't necessarily have a lot of battle scenes and the like, and when the main characters do get into scraps they're kind of humorous, because none of them are fighting men.
     
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I haven't had a lot of time this week to read so I'm only in chapter 5, but I'm certainly enjoying it. More comments to come when I have time to think about it.
     
    Steerpike likes this.
  13. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'm on Chapter 5 as well. I can't say this is a book I would normally read, but one thing I like about the reading group is that I get to read stuff, well, I normally wouldn't read. I do think the characters are funny and that's the main thing I've latched onto at the moment. Plot-wise there's not really much going on, but I suppose that's the appeal. It's a simple story about a ragtag bunch going down a river. I can appreciate that. Most books I read would have had at least twenty people murdered by this point. :)
     
  14. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Well, thanks to this book I've learned that the Axolotl is a real thing. I'd always thought it was a word Frank Herbert made up, but apparently it's a kind of salamander. (Kind of gives the Axolotl tanks a new level of creepiness.)

    So I'm onto chapter 9 now and thoroughly enjoying myself. I have to say, it's nice to read a book with chapter titles. It seems like no chapter titles is the modern fashionable thing, but I think they really add to the reading experience for me. It occurs to me that they're an easy way to get the reader to ask some story questions that you can answer immediately which is always a satisfying thing. For instance "Ahab Adrift" is one chapter title. The reader immediately wonders "Why is Ahab adrift and how will he be saved?" And then the author answers those questions within the chapter. I think this helps the reader to become involved more in the story.

    1. The Elfin Ship has a narrative style that is uncommon in modern fantasy, particularly in employing a narrator that is omniscient at times and at other times fixed more closely in the mind of the protagonist. What do you think of Blaylock's writing style in this novel?


    I'd call this a pretty standard example of omniscient done well. Somewhere along the way, people became fixated on examples of omniscient done badly (which is very, very boring, as boring as limited 3rd done badly but not more), and completely forgot home much the voice of a pseudo-narrator can add to written storytelling. This story is told in a style that I could imagine myself sitting in a village square and listening to a traveling storyteller performing for a crowd. As such, it is excellent. It's the kind of storytelling that is being abandoned, and I keenly wish it wasn't.

    2. Jonathan Bing is not a stereotypical fantasy protagonist by any stretch of the imagination. What do you make of him?

    I've said before, he reminds me a bit of Bilbo and a bit of the protagonist from Lud-in-the-Mist and a lot like many a hapless protagonist I've read about in well told folktales. I wouldn't call him the most interesting character, but I've often found that some of my favorite stories have solid characters at their center who are not all that fascinating by themselves and then have lots of interesting and unique secondary characters around them. Jonathan is a good, solid foundational protagonist. Professor Wurzle is a fascinating gentleman. Dooly is a bit annoying to me, but his old grandpa is a man I really want to meet and I suffer Dooly so that I can hear more bizarre anecdotes about him. I also found Meelays the Magician very interesting and I hope he comes back later.

    3. Blaylock gives you detail of the world as it immediately effects the story, and then occasionally adds brief bits about the greater world. What is your view of the setting so far?

    The setting so far has been strongly reminiscent of Middle-earth viewed through The Hobbit. I like this. There was a wonderful, fairytale-esque charm to Middle-earth in The Hobbit that was, in a way, lost in LOTR when the world was opened up to the reader in greater detail. As a Middle-earth fanatic I can't really complain about that, but I do sometimes miss it. This book feels like it is providing such a world again, which I applaud.
     
  15. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    My in-laws took me out of town for a week to see a baseball game, so I've already finished the book. :p

    1. I can't say the book overall is what I'd usually read, but I think his writing is a treat and I like a well-handled omniscient POV. My thoughts are mostly the same as Mytho's, and I'd add that I found it just that much more narratively interesting due to the style. The more... omnipresent omniscience that is common often makes a story boring in its lack of surprise or depth of character. This novel avoids that. (This is particularly noticeable to me as I'm watching my husband play a video game right now that suffers greatly from its choice to show the villain's POV between cut scenes, since it spoils a good couple of potential twists.)

    2. He's not someone I'd like to know, but he's not a bad character. A slightly dull man in a more interesting world. Although I do have a fondness for a man with a craft for cheese - for some reason, about a third of my own protagonists are at least cheesemaking hobbyists. Serves the narrative well at times, but at others I craved a more cohesive cast. Either by having the others be a little more mundane or by giving him something extraordinary - either could work in the right hands, I think. Dooly's my favourite.

    3. Nothing strong at the point in the story where we should be. I like it more later on, but I'll expand as the reading group gets further on in the book.
     
  16. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'm up to where they meet Meelays (Miles) and I'm not sure what chapter that is. The story is fun, but I guess I'm used to more conflict driven fiction. This kind of feels like they're just floating along and stuff is happening to them rather than them actually trying to achieve something. I guess they're trying to get down the river, but it seems pushed in the background.

    I agree with Ophiucha that Dooly is my favorite character. I just have a soft spot for goofy idiot.

    While I am enjoying it, it's not a story I'm really eager to read every day. I'm just sort of reading it, snickering a bit, then going on with my day. Which is fine, but I can't say I'm engrossed or anything.
     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I'm glad there are people liking this book. If you enjoy it enough The Disappearing Dwarf has some of the same characters (including Bing). I agree that the narration and style are a big part of what makes the book good, in my view.

    I disagree, Phil, that it is not conflict driven. In fact, the whole thing is plot driven, when it comes down to it. I thought their goals for going down river were pretty clear from the outset, and as those goals change over the course of the story it isn't hard to see why they do. Everything that happens is a consequence of events and conflict, in my view. It's just that in modern novels writer tend to feel the need to bash the reader over the head, repeatedly, with conflict, so by contrast an older work that goes back to a more understated approach may seem like the conflict isn't being reinforced enough. But I think you'll find a lot of older fantasy works that have a similar approach.
     
  18. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'm only on Chapter 7, so maybe I'm not seeing the big picture yet.

    It could be that I don't read much older fantasy for the very reason you mention. Although I definitely want to read the classics, it takes me longer to get through them. I grew up on D&D books (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms), video games, and cartoons rather than Tolkien or his contemporaries. If I do read older works, it's usually from faster paced sword and sorcery or weirder stuff. I tend to shy away from quieter fantasy. Maybe it's because I grew up in the 80s and I liked hair metal and over the top pop music. :)

    I don't want to be a one dimensional reader though, so I'm trying to broaden my horizons a step at a time.

    So maybe the issue for me isn't the conflict, it's the pace? It's not that I need to be bashed over the head with external conflict the whole story (the good guys must kill the evil warlord!) or that it needs to be constant fighting, it just feels like the story is more about them talking to each other and making jokes.

    Perhaps having Bing as the main character is one issue. Like Ophiucha said:

    It's not that he's a cheesemaker, I actually think that's cool instead of the typical knight or warrior, but it's just that he's the least interesting person in the group. Ahab is more interesting to me than Bing is. Perhaps he changes through the course of the story, but so far he feels more like a straight man for the sillier characters. Which I guess is needed.

    So maybe my issue isn't conflict, but just the pace. Like I said, I enjoy it for what it is, it's just not something that's clicking with me on all cylinders.

    I'm glad I'm reading this book though because I want to expose myself to different kinds of fantasy fiction. I think it's important for us as writers to see what our predecessors did so we can decide which approach we want to take. Plus it's good for the Reading Group if some us see the books differently because it gives us something to discuss.

    I don't think there's been a book picked yet that everyone loved in fact. The ones I really liked (Prince of Thorns, Gone Girl, Swordspoint) some other people didn't like at all. While the one I didn't click with (His Majesty's Dragon) had its share of supporters.
     
  19. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    It's interesting that Phil and Ophiucha don't much like Jonathan and like Dooly, whereas I'm the other way around. I find Dooly pretty annoying (I dislike idiot characters in general) but I like Jonathan. I find the way he thinks amusing and interesting. I like his frequent mentions of G. Smithers of Brompton Village. I like his humility, even when the people he meets all know him and his cheeses are famous. He reminds me a lot of Bilbo, which was probably the intent.

    Though I admit, I like Professor Wurzle more than Jonathan. The juxtaposition of a Man of Science in a world with Dwarves and Elves and fairy tale-like "magic" is very amusing. When he keeps going on about the gyros in the Elf ship it's hilarious.

    And I like Theophile Escargot most of all. I'm glad my intuition that he was even more interesting than he seemed from Dooly's stories about his Old Grandpa proved true. Adventurer, Rogue, Trader and sometime Thief, and Old Grandpa. It's wonderful characterization.

    I doubt I'll go on to read the others in this series when I'm done. The Kindle editions are just priced too high and I'd rather read ebooks than paper. But I found that Blaylock's steampunk series is priced very affordably and I've already picked up Homunculus.
     
  20. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    I think I own Homonculus, but I've never gotten around to reading it. Let me know how it is if you read it, Mytho.

    The professor is fun, too, and as far as comedic fantasy goes, few things tickle me more than scientists in 'high' magical worlds. Or atheists in worlds where the gods clearly exist. The attempted reasoning midst madness is nonsensical, but highly amusing.
     
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