Unsung Stories, 320 pages
Essay: Iain Maloney
Regular readers of my reviews will know that one of my hobby-horses is world building. A film director whose name escapes me once said that if a scene is set in a hotel corridor, a good director knows who or what is behind every door. It’s never shown on screen and the audience don’t need to know, but the director knows. Too many writers think the reader does need to know and so we get paragraphs, pages, sometimes entire chapters that do nothing more than point out the details in the background. I understand that for many these details can enhance their favourite films and books. I regularly engage in discussions about tiny details of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels and classics such as Star Wars and Blade Runner have been poured over frame by frame to extract every possible nugget of information. But this is only done years later, once the work has achieved cult status or has slipped into the canon. Nobody is introduced to Tolkein through the Silmarillion or The History of Middle-earth, rather we begin with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and our love of the characters and stories motivates us to step outside the original frame and learn more.
The writer must go through the process in order to build a world. They must know the climate, the geological and geographical make up, the system of government and the main thrust of economic activity. What is the same and what is different? This is what notebooks were invented for. Few authors ever achieve the kind of fame where their notebooks can be published verbatim and bought by fans. All that is scaffolding, and when the building is finished, the builders take the scaffolding away. If they don’t, the people who paid for the building (the publisher, represented by the editor in this tortured analogy) call them back and make them tidy up. Occasionally when faced with a particularly recalcitrant builder, they are forced to do it themselves. Yet it’s surprising how often the tidying up is left undone. It’s a failure in writing and an even bigger failure in editing.
I think this is one reason science fiction and fantasy readers like a good long series. Every time I pick up a new book by a new writer set in a new world, I am apprehensive about the first fifty pages. Am I going to be swept off into a gripping story or am I going to have to wade through a Wikipedia entry describing wildlife, population, transport and language before I get to anything resembling a story?
One of my favourite books is Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I came across it as a teenager on my father’s shelf. He has a beautiful UK first edition and the picture by Alan Tunbridge of the Magister Ludi resplendent in his green robes on the spine cries out to be taken from the bookcase. I asked my father what it was about.
‘It’s supposed to be really good but it’s really dry and boring. I couldn’t get beyond the introduction.’
Being a pretentious prick at that age I clearly took that on as a challenge. No story would defeat me, and I would make it to the end, come what may. I struggled bravely through the introduction, acknowledging that my father was right but also refusing to give in. And I was rewarded. The introduction is just that, and is probably the best example of world building done badly. Once the story begins however, it’s so compelling and immersive that you can’t help but get lost in it.
All this negativity and complaining is but the b-side of a more positive broken record. When world building is done well, when writer and editor come together to tidy up properly and leave the new edifice clean and crisp and even, it is a joy to behold. Just so here.
The world of Metronome is potentially as complex as any yet invented, but Oliver Langmead must be commended for his restraint. Descriptions and explanations are kept within the dynamics of the plot and character interaction. Sure, we enter the world on the coattails of someone just as new to this world as us, a technique so familiar it was old when Dante used it, but when the character is as engaging as Manderlay, all is forgiven.
Manderlay is an old man living out his winter days in an Edinburgh care home. He is a delightfully mischievous retired seaman and musician who passes his time playing illicit games of poker and exchanging banter with his friend Valentine. He is also the dreamer of vivid, lucid dreams. Each time he sleeps he passes into a dream world, where the bulk of the story takes place.
Langmead posits that doors connect dreams. Over time these networks have developed into something of a civilisation centred about a city: Babel, replete with tower. Manderlay meets March, one of twelve nightmare-hunters known as Sleepwalkers (each named after a month), one of the Virgils who guides Manderlay through the dreamworld.
The novel is essentially a chase, a race between the good guys on the good ship Metronome, and the bad guys, led by renegade nightmare-hunter June (points awarded for not calling her April, the cruelest month). At the heart of a storm, at a place called Solomon’s Eye, resides something mythical which June wants to release, a plan everyone else thinks is a pretty bad idea.
Metronome is packed with fabulous ideas and humour. By creating a dream world, Langmead gives himself the scope to pull in inspiration from literally anywhere, and we could play the references game for hours, but despite having a potentially infinite palette, his world is coherent and never self-indulgent. It’s also strong enough that once the story is underway, there is no need to keep skipping back to the ‘real world’ to diversify the action or remind readers that it’s all ‘just a dream’. Rather the world of the awake gently recedes into the background. This gives the threat of violence – resulting in waking up rather than death – a stronger bite than it would otherwise have. I always found the ever-present knowledge of the ‘real’ side of the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s books weakened the insistence of danger. With a simple narrative choice, Langmead neatly side-steps that problem.
I said earlier that we tend to love a good series. That usually means writers, but for me, Unsung have quickly developed into a publisher that I trust, and that trust is consistently rewarded. There are very few publishers whose books I will read regardless of author or blurb, but Unsung is definitely in that group. In amongst all the hideousness of 2016, Unsung have had a very good year. With Metronome, 2017 is starting out just as well.