Information Density Pt. 2, or, let’s try an example
I said before that it’s hard to talk about certain issues in writing without specific examples. Since I just finished reading a book that I think illustrates the challenge of information density and scale very well, I’m back for a follow-up round.
Before I get into the example, though, an anecdote. One of the archaeological sites I worked on has reconstructions of period houses as part of a public display. Several are very well-constructed, and one is a mess. But I’ll never forget what one of the archaeologists said about that one: “We’ve learned more from our mistakes here than we have from the ones we did right.”
The book I want to discuss is one I think failed to manage the kinds of issues that don’t fit easily into fiction. It tried, but it didn’t succeed. I think well of the author for trying, and am not here to mock or belittle her effort; in fact, as the author in question is Tamora Pierce, she’s someone I think fairly well of overall. But I think you can often learn more from an ambitious failure than a success.
Oh, and just in case anybody didn’t see this coming: there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you haven’t yet read Mastiff, the third and last of the Beka Cooper books, I will be discussing the main conflict (though I will try to stay away from spoiling some of the other important things that happen along the way).
For those who haven’t read any of the series . . . it’s about the Provost’s Guard, aka the Provost’s Dogs, who are the police force for the medievalish kingdom of Tortall. (Aside: yes, it’s odd for a setting like that to have an organized police force. But whatever; it’s the buy-in for the story.) The protagonist, Beka Cooper, starts off as a “Puppy” or new Guardswoman, and becomes more experienced as the series goes on. Each book deals with a different type of crime: in the first one, it’s smuggling; in the second, it’s counterfeiting; in the third, it’s slavery.
. . . sort of. Slavery is actually legal in Tortall; the actual crime in this book is treason. But slavery is more central to the plot in many ways, and if you follow me behind the cut to spoiler territory, I’ll start to unpack that.
I think one of the problems with Mastiff, which complicates both the “information density” question and the success of the story in other respects, is that there are three components to the central conflict, and they don’t hang together well.
The moral and emotional center is slavery. It may be legal, but it isn’t nice, and a lot of the narrative focus is on the various aspects of the institution: the slave-trading caravans, the jobs done by slaves, the way they’re treated by their owners, etc. This is a topic that has been present in the series from the start, but it doesn’t become the focus until the third book.
The actual threat, however, is treason: a coalition of noblemen and mages have banded together to murder the king, queen, and young prince, and place someone more to their liking on the throne. This is connected to slavery in that a lot of the nobles involved earn money from that trade, and furthermore a slave caravan is used as cover for the kidnapped prince . . . but their treason isn’t Because Slavery.
In fact, it’s actually Because Mages. The motivation for the plot is kind of muddled, but appears to largely be driven by the fact that the king has decided to tax mages, oversee their accreditation, require a certain amount of service from them, etc. This offends some of them, and so they decide to join up with some nobles who are likewise offended that King Roger (who used to be a feckless womanizer) has decided to shape up and run the country like he should.
There are some clear structural problems with this, starting with the fact that the mages are the ones with the strongest — albeit still weak — motivation, but they aren’t the ones spearheading the plot; that’s in the hands of a nobleman. But I don’t think you can separate out the basic structural issues from the kinds of difficulties we were talking about in my previous post.
We generally expect the third book of a trilogy not to be wholly self-contained, but to draw on things established in the first two volumes. But Mastiff doesn’t really do that. Not only is the leader of the rebellion not a prominent character from the rest of the the series, he doesn’t even show up until maybe the last third of this book. (I felt this was also a weakness in a more personal strand of the plot: new character, not enough investment.) And on a thematic front, a similar thing happens: slavery is present as a nasty thing in Terrier and Bloodhound, but it isn’t a crime within the setting, which means it isn’t presaged as a conflict that must ultimately be addressed. (Again, I felt a similar thing happened on a more personal front, too.) And the whole business of taxing mages . . . if that got mentioned anywhere in the preceding books, I missed it entirely.
Whether it did or not, the problem is the same. Beka isn’t a mage. Nobody very close to her is a mage, either; there’s one minor secondary character who recurs, but she’s not important to the plot. In fact, Beka doesn’t even like magic: she avoids it whenever she can. So the Big Issue that’s supposed to be sufficient cause for regicide and high treason comes out of her blind spot. One of the ways to handle complex issues is to position a character where the impersonal will become personal for them, but that doesn’t happen here.
I’ve said before, and sort of meant it, that I want to give this series to people who think the be-all and end-all of “grittiness” and “realism” in fantasy is people dying horribly and women being raped. It was Bloodhound that made me say it, because that book delves into how counterfeit coin can destroy a nation’s economy — not exactly an issue that often gets addressed in our genre. In general, I like the fact that Pierce is using the cop’s-eye view to tackle fresh topics.
But I think a different character could have helped more. Beka’s weakness as a protagonist, from the standpoint of being able to wrangle the bigger picture, is that she doesn’t want to engage with things outside her immediate job. She likes arresting criminals and helping people: that’s great, we like that in a heroine. But she doesn’t like dealing with mages, as I detailed above, and — most crucially — she doesn’t like dealing with nobles. Put her around people who outrank her, and she just wants to go back to the streets. Ask her to speak in public, and she begins stuttering. So she avoids the higher-level aspects of being a Provost’s Dog like the plague . . . and that means we lose a window we might have otherwise had into the larger issues.
Some of this may be Pierce’s weird positioning with respect to the YA genre. I don’t know how old Beka is at the conclusion of Mastiff, but I think four years pass between the start of the series and the end; she’s not younger than nineteen, and I suspect she’s at least twenty. She has a job and lives on her own. She’s been engaged. She isn’t a girl; she’s a grown woman, and if Pierce weren’t established as a YA/children’s author, I don’t know that the Cooper books would be in that category. As they are right now, they can skate by — but if you did some of the things I think might help strengthen the story, they very well might not.
See, if Beka were politically engaged, you could tell the story of how she became Lady Provost. She’d be a naive Puppy in the first book, get involved in the bigger picture in the second, and have the information she needs to really address the top-level issues in the third book, culminating in the emotional payoff of her being put in charge of the Guard. That version of her would know the nobles involved in the treason, and would understand the kingdom-wide stakes in the changes Roger is making. Unfortunately, that version of her would also be much less of a YA-type protagonist.
I also think it would help if slavery were made, not the cover for the rebellion, but its cause. As it stands, the emotional payoff is the abolition of slavery: at the end of Mastiff, because of the way his son was mistreated as a slave, and because of the way slavery financed and aided treason, Roger announces a plan for phasing it out, and Beka, as a reward for her service, gets to sign the Act as a witness. Emotionally, it works — but structurally, I think the tension around slavery should have been building through the first two books, and then have the third one start with abolition. It would make it more obvious who the rebels are — since they’d be the ones who stand to lose a lot from that change — but that isn’t a bad thing; then they’d be present in the story as characters from a much earlier point. And the driving force of the conflict would be much more apparent and believable.
Instead, most of the book is locked into the four-person manhunt pursuing the kidnapped prince, with very little understanding of what’s causing it all. There’s literally a point near the end where Beka and her companions have retrieved the prince, and see as they’re fleeing the bad guy’s castle that the army has shown up to squash the rebellion . . . but they ignore that and keep on riding, because their orders are to return the prince to his family, and by then everything is so muddled they don’t know if they can trust whoever’s leading the army to help them. It’s like Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book: the first-person viewpoint is too restricted, to the detriment of the narrative’s ability to show the plot in full.
(So I guess that’s a useful tip to bear in mind: if you want to deal with society-scale problems, third person is your friend.)
If you want to deal with big issues — slavery and its abolition; the regulation of mages in a fantasy society — you have to make sure your canvas is big enough for the painting, and that the reader can stand somewhere that allows them to see it properly. In other words, it behooves you to lay the groundwork for your third book in your first, and position your viewpoint character(s) such that the key components aren’t left off-screen. Both of those were lacking here, and so there wasn’t nearly as much force behind those punches as there could have been.
I’ll refrain from speculation as to why exactly Mastiff ended up shaped like this — I can think of circumstances that might have produced these results, but I know it gets up my nose when other people publicly opine about why I wrote things the way I did, so I try not to do the same — but I think it’s instructive to imagine changes that could have made it more successful in handling its attempted scale. Sometimes it’s easier to see why something didn’t work, and how it could have, than to see why it did.