Analysis, inspiration, Reading

Book Review: God Stalk

God Stalk is a rambunctious and vibrant fantasy novel that was a delightful surprise to me.

“Very well. With your permission, I hunt there tomorrow night…”
“Don’t say it,” Dally pleaded.
“…in the Tower of Demons.”
Men-dalis’s brother put his head on the table and groaned. Outside, bells began to ring, people to shout, fireworks to explode. Inside, everyone except those at his table stood up and, to the horror of the innkeeper, began with great solemnity to smash the furniture.
The Feast of Fools had begun.

-God Stalk by PC Hodgell

Part 1: Who’s going to love this book

If you would like diving deep into a wild fantasy city, full of inventive religions, factions, and characters…

If you want some awesome urban fantasy that is not modern, that could have been set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth if Minas Tirith was less a shining idealized white city on a cliffside and more of a dirty, sprawling middle ages New York, then yeah, you’re going to love this.

Honestly, this book delivers on the promise of its back cover more than most so here’s the back cover:

Welcome to the Holy City of Tai-tastigon, overrun with thieves and lousy with gods. Welcome to the House of the Luck-Bringers, where the ale flows, the jokes are ribald, and if you’re lucky, you can see the Kencyr girl dance. She’s a thief apprenticed to the Master Thief, the only living being who knows the secrets of his ways. Why, she stole the very britches off the Sky King himself! And if you want to hear a tale even wilder than that, just listen…

God Stalk by PC Hodgell

Part 2: What’s not to like?

There’s no strong central plot. It’s more a knot of subplots. There are a lot of characters and names and they can be difficult to remember. It’s messy, so if you don’t like mess then you’re not going to like it.

This is the sort of novel that would make an amazing TV series, but a crappy movie. Each chapter has multiple little subplots, but the whole book has little in terms of an overall arc.

So if you’re looking for something organized and focused, you should look elsewhere.

Part 3: My opinion

God Stalk was published in 1983. I picked up a copy from a library book sale with zero expectations, started reading, and…

There are treasure hordes guarded by demons that will eat whatever bits of your soul they can lay teeth on. A poor thief is withering away without his complete soul. You can see it in his shadow which is missing its head. There are outrageous holidays like the feast of fools during which the gods sleep and men cannot be seen or judged by their eyes. And there’s almost always more than one thing happening at a time.

The tone of the book is adult, but not overly graphic or dark. There’s a lot of whimsy in the presentation and the ideas, but it’s not geared toward young adults. It’s closer to Tolkien in tone than it is to GRR Martin, but it’s not either of those things and it’s not Harry Potter and it’s not like anything I’ve read before.

I want to compare it to The Promise of the Child, because even though both books are accomplishing a lot simultaneously and can be confusing, I find God Stalk much easier to understand.

God Stalk is confusing in its many names, many subplots, and lack of an obvious primary plot, but that’s it. In every other way, it’s straightforward. God Stalk follow a single character chronologically in one city. The Promise of the Child by contrast is not only many plots and names, but also many characters, across many locations and it’s not all even in chronological order! So if I gave ratings I would rate God Stalk above The Promise of the Child, and that is a huge complement.

Gold Stalk is like an open world video game in novel form, a fantasy world that never leaves a single city, but explores that city with a depth that convinces you of the reality of it and also drops so many hints of the broader world that the reader comes away with a feeling of immensity and wonder.

And of course I’m always a sucker for nice language, which it’s got:

It was getting dark. Silence clung batlike to the charred rafters, swelled up out of the shadowed hollows in the heaped debris. A rat scratched and snuffled in the ruins, claws scrabbling briefly on a bone-white board. To go back or forward-return to the heart of lower Town or press on toward the deadly circle of her own temple? Night breathed in her ear, waiting to pounce.

God Stalk by PC Hodgell

Part 4: What writers can learn from it

Two things in particular:

  1. how to control the speed of the narrative, and
  2. how to control the perspective.

Let’s start with perspective.

Most modern novels are either written in first person or third person.

First person uses I, me, and my pronouns and the reader only knows what the perspective character knows or perceives.

Third person uses he/she, her/him, or they/them pronouns, but has a few options in terms of what the reader knows about.

Third person close is a limited perspective focusing on a single character (at least per chapter) and like in first person, the reader only knows what the one character knows or perceives.

In third person omniscient the reader may know about any character’s knowledge, emotions, secrets, or perceptions, or even things that are perceived by none of the characters!

Most movies and TV are a form of third person omniscient. This perspective works fine in movies and TV because there are a wealth of audio and visual cues that can help the audience understand what they are seeing even after a sharp cut to a new scene…

…but that’s not true of written media. Every cue has to be delivered word by word. Jumping between character thoughts and perspectives even within a limited time and location is difficult for the writer to execute and jarring for the reader if done poorly.

And yet! the point of view in God Stalk is third person omniscient.

This works because the parts that are outside of the main character’s perspective are brief and gracefully executed so that it feels more like the camera sweeping around before settling on the protagonist much more than it feels like a confusing teleportation from one set of eyeballs to the next.

Pay attention to how perspective is managed in the following excerpt, but also the speed of the narrative. Think about how much time is passing in particular sentences:

Dawn surprised Jame, with no decision made. The widow, coming down early on a baking day, found her already up to her elbows in dough and pummeling away at it with all the frustrated energy of a mind at war with itself. Wise Cleppetty (the widow) set to work without a word, and between them they soon plunged the kitchen deep into a floury fog that did not lift until late morning. Then came the baking, then the scrubbing, all in silence, all at a pace that even the tireless widow began to regret. She was just beginning to wonder, rather desperately, if she was about to be launched into spring cleaning two months early when Jame suddenly put aside her apron and left the inn.
The widow collapsed into a chair. “Don’t ask!” she told a startled Kithra.

God Stalk by PC Hodgell

Holy shit! This is what it’s like to have a montage in a novel.

First perspective:

“Dawn surprised Jame, with no decision made.”
This is Jame’s perspective. No one else even knows she has a decision to make.

“She was just beginning to wonder, rather desperately, if she was about to be launched into spring cleaning two months early”
This is in the widow Cleppetty’s perspective.

Because the “camera” pulls back between the switch in perspectives to the more general view of the work in the kitchen (from both their perspectives,) and because the reader knows that Jame has a tough decision on her mind, whereas Cleppetty is simply industrious and always willing to take advantage of a helping hand, there’s no confusion about whose perspective we’re in.

And then there’s the fine control of the passage of time.

“they soon plunged the kitchen deep into a floury fog that did not lift until late morning.”
This is lovely description of the morning’s events, the hours zipping by, then suddenly everything stops in a moment:

“The widow collapsed into a chair. “Don’t ask!” she told a startled Kithra.”

We don’t need to see all the details of baking all morning, but then by showing a brief action “collapsed into a chair”, the pace is slowed from a blur to immediacy.

There are many more examples throughout of this masterful control of language, but not every reader is going to like this. The perspective and the changes in speed can cause confusion.

Where the hell did Kithra come from at the end of the scene? It’s not explained. My imagination paints a picture of “startled Kithra” walking down the stairs into the bewildering scene of Jame storming out and the Widow Cleppetty already exhausted though it’s only midday, Cleppetty reading the curious expression on Kithra’s face, but neither woman knows Jame’s thoughts, so Cleppetty, demanding a moment of peace, yells out “Don’t ask!”

And I find that to be delightful. Maybe your imagination painted a different interpretation of that little interaction, if so, great! Providing opportunity for the reader to participate in the creation of the story, even only in filling in small gaps, is a beautiful possibility realized in the written word in a way that is not possible in other media.

In conclusion, God Stalk was one of the happiest book discoveries I’ve ever made. It’s marvelous in its conjured wonder and creativity and a writer who is reading closely can learn a lot from this master of perspective and pacing.

So until next time, Good luck and good writing.


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