This is the fifth in a series of articles in which author Steven Erikson deconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, an excerpt from his most recent novel, Forge of Darkness
He understood why death and stillness were bound together. In stillness the inside was silent. The living conversation was at an end. Fingers did not move, the world was not painted into life, and the eyes, staring unseen, had lost sight of the gods of colour. When looking upon the face of a dead person, when looking into those flat eyes, he could see the truth of his convictions.
Now, this a curious little paragraph, since it seems on the surface only to reiterate K’s secondary thesis, the one about “nothing inside, nothing outside.” Why repeat it? But of course it’s not repeated; it’s actually slightly tweaked, as we move from “death” in the abstract to “death” in the face of a dead person. Hmm, why would I do that? Also, we now have another curious detail: the binding of “faith” to life, and its opposite to be found in the eyes of a dead man. Ever seen the eyes of a dead person? Take it from me: it can be hard on any kind of faith.
It was midday. The sun fought its way down and the gods fluttered, dipped and filled patches of brilliance amidst gloom and shadow, and Kadaspala sat on his mule, noting in a distracted fashion the thin wisps of smoke curling round his mount’s knobby ankles, but most of his attention was upon the face, and the eyes, of the corpse laid out on the ground before him.
So, back to setting, going so far as to actually repeat that opening line from paragraph nine. But now he’s not riding. He’s stationary. The sun’s still doing its thing (also in the second sentence, same as in paragraph nine). Revisiting the transition to setting in this way (in this first sentence and first clauses of the second sentence) reinforces that looping return I habitually use when constructing a narrative. But in that revisiting a few minor changes have been made. Where before, the sun’s light was passive in its “gifts,” now it’s fighting its way down. Also, having set up colours as gods, I feel it’s safe to transpose the two words, so that where “colours” should be in sentence 2, I use “gods” instead. This reminds us of our POV, among other things. The “fluttered, dipped and filled…” clause retains something of that melodic play, though less of the careful brush-strokes and more of a wilder “splashing” of brilliance. The painting hand has become oddly loose, careless. This is reinforced by the “distraction” described in the rest of the sentence. It might also suggest birds, as in carrion birds. Also, we now find out that he’s on a mule (recall that “plodding, stutter-stepping pace” earlier? Here’s why. It’s the pace of a man riding a mule down a narrow forest trail). And at the end of that long, disjointed, distracted, sloppy sentence, we see the reason for all that looseness. We also link straight back to the paragraph preceding this one. Death in the abstract to the body lying before K. and his mule. Another hint of discord is given in the mention of “smoke,” and that detail and mention of the mule’s ankles directs us to the notion that K. is looking down.
You can do a lot in one sentence.
There had been three huts on this narrow trail. Now they were heaps of ash, muddy grey and dull white and smeared black. One of the huts had belonged to a daughter, old enough to fashion a home of her own, but if she had shared it with a husband his body was nowhere to be seen, while she was lying half out of what had probably been the doorway. The fire had eaten her lower body and swollen the rest, cooking it until the skin split and here the gods sat still, as if in shock, in slivers of lurid red and patches of peeled black. Her long hair had been thrown forward, over the top of her head. Parts of it had burned, curling into fragile white nests. Recall the bird imagery. The rest was motionless midnight, with hints of reflected blue, like rainbows on oil. She was, mercifully, laying face-down. One rupture upon her back was different, larger, and where the others had burst outward this one pushed inward. A sword had done that.
POV: eyes register, mind interprets. There is fragile objectivity in the tone, but the gods of colour are present (even if in shock – but of course they’re not the ones in shock. Kadaspala is the one in shock, and part of his shock is to externalize his shock, setting it instead upon his imagined gods: classic disassociation). But it’s the colours that reveal those details, and so colours feature in every description. By this point, K’s POV should be absolute in the reader’s mind. He really is painting his world into existence.
We are in a postmodern world: even the Fantasy genre, for all its traditional tropes and innate conservatism (how many fucking medieval settings can you stomach?), can be tackled in a postmodern way. I tend to place what I call “ciphers” into my novels (or, in the case of my ten book series, the entire eighth novel was the cipher). These represent the key to a postmodern reading of the overall tale.
In this trilogy, Kadaspala is my cipher. The frame of the books is a poet telling the tale to another poet, but this poet has extracted himself from the tale. Kadaspala paints his world into existence, and this assertion will drive him to a terrible act, since the world he paints is one of horror. The poet narrator uses words to do the same. The two are linked in other ways, physical ways, but we need not get into that here, except to point out that those shared details confirm the linkage. Suffice to say, I always like offering up alternative ways of reading my stuff.
The body directly before him, however, was that of a child. The blue of the eyes was now covered in a milky film, giving it its only depth, since all that was behind that veil was flat, like iron shields or silver coins, sealed and abandoned of all promise. They were, he told himself yet again, eyes that no longer worked, and the loss of that was beyond comprehension.
For the first time, I throw in a linking clause: “he told himself yet again.” Why? We’re already tight in his point of view, after all. It should be entirely unnecessary. So why do it? Because what it’s saying is that he’s trying to convince himself of something he does not believe, or, in this case, does not want to believe. K. is an obsessive character. By now we should have a sense of that. How obsessive?
He would paint this child’s face. He would paint it a thousand times. Ten thousand. He would offer them as gifts to every man and every woman of the realm. And each time any one man or woman stirred awake the hearth-gods of anger and hate, feeding the gaping mouth of violence and uttering pathetic lies about making things better, or right, or pure, or safe, he would give them yet another copy of this child’s face. He would spend a lifetime upon this one image, repeated on walls in plaster, on boards of sanded wood, in the threads of tapestry; upon the sides of pots and carved on stones and in stone. He would make it one argument to defy every other god, every other venal emotion or dark, savage desire.
This obsessive. A word or two on the language of this paragraph. One tends to avoid using passive future constructions, like “would,” in a fictional narrative, unless there’s good reason for it. In here, there’s good reason. K. is making promises, to himself, to everyone. He is making a vow, and he means it. So I repeat that word, each time, throughout the paragraph. Recall the use of “gifts” earlier. Recall the use of “lies” and “violence” and “venal.” Note also the media described and how they fit into the tech level of the setting (no acrylics here), and how “hearth-gods of anger and hate” evoke the cultures of Ancient Greece (chthonic cults), which was most assuredly a violent, brutal time and place. All of this seethes with rage. It sets out, in vivid language, Kadaspala’s state of mind. POV (it’s all about POV!).
Photograph published with permission of author
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (8)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (7)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (6)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (5)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (4)