Chess v. Chutes and Ladders

Holy Epiphany, Batman!

I’m on the third book of a fantasy series that I started reading a few months ago on the recommendation of some friends. Which friends, and which series, is not important. What is relevant, however, is how reading a book or books I don’t particularly like often gives me insight into myself as both a reader and a writer.

I know I’m entering tricky territory here. When I worked as a music reviewer, I took great pains to explain, objectively as possible, why I felt a particular album or concert failed to meet–or exceeded–expectations. Regardless of how carefully I wrote, I’d get hate mail excoriating me for “hating” Band X or “being jealous” of Diva So-and-So or being an idiot for failing to see the artistry of Whatever Act Spin Magazine Told Aspiring Hipsters To Worship That Month. I know people develop strong emotional ties to bands, books and movies they like–the gods know I do! At the same time, however, I think it’s important to see there’s a big difference between saying “this book sucks” and “this book fails to meet the expectations I had for it for these reasons…”

So, if you know the series I’m reading and love it and disagree with me entirely, that’s cool. Just don’t mistake my dislike of the series as some kind of judgment on your preferences. As a French chef I adored once told me, when I had–once again–failed to season poached apples to his high standards, “Ah, eet eez, how you say… eet eez just not to my taste.”

Okay, back to the epiphany.

The whole reason I keep reading the series even after realizing it is, how you say, just not to my taste, is its popularity. It’s sold zillions of books, made the author an icon in the fantasy world and, perhaps most importantly, inspired passionate devotion from fans around the world. I write first to please myself (hey, I’m just being honest), and second in the hopes of telling others a good story, something that draws them in and stays with them long after the last page is turned.

As I finished book one and delved into book two of the series, I felt frustrated. Bored. Confused, not about the storyline, but about its appeal. Now halfway through book three, I realize some of my negative feelings were leaking over from my editing of The War’s End. Though I’m reading this series technically for pleasure (though small lot of that I find!) and, more accurately, for research about What Readers Want, I’m still in Brutal Editor mode, so the typos and clunky bits stand out and I’m forever seeing ways the author could have made the damn paragraph half as long while telling twice as much.

Not that wordiness is ever my problem. Ahem.

For those of you who have figured out what series I’m reading and are among its passionate fans and are now scouring this post for proof I am the arrogant know-nothing you want me to be, the previous paragraph was sarcasm. I’m jus’ sayin’. Having received death threats over a less-than-glowing review I wrote of The White Stripes once (The White Stripes, fer gods’ sake!), I know people can miss what I might think are obvious cues to tone in the heat of the moment.

Setting aside the Brutal Editor issue, I realized a couple days ago that my main disconnect with the series is that it is, to my taste, too big, too sprawling, too much forest and too few trees. There are too many characters, and too many of them are sketched out only as much as they serve to advance or obstruct the schemes of another character, who is herself only another chess piece on a game board the size of a football field.

When one of only two characters I kind of liked was killed off at the end of book one, my reaction was “eh.” That bothered me, because when a character I’ve followed for more than 800 pages gets his head lopped off, I want to feel more than “eh.”  When I find myself skimming the series’ byzantine power struggles the way I once skimmed painfully dry textbooks in college, that’s a sign.

I don’t want to read about chess, where characters are treated as game pieces in convoluted strategies. I want to read about Chutes and Ladders.

Now, dear reader, perhaps you are groaning. Chutes and Ladders is a kid’s game. Yeah. So? The Hobbit is a kid’s book. Are you going to dismiss that, too?

Aside: Chutes and Ladders, I learned recently, has roots in an ancient Indian board game (really) that was also partly morality instruction. Would you climb a ladder of virtue or succumb to the slippy-slide of vice?

There is not much strategy in Chutes and Ladders. It’s not about that whole Survivor culture of cross/double-cross and feigned alliances. I find that tedious, quite frankly (another big reason why the series I’m reading is not to my taste. I have to deal with enough backstabbing in my workplace. I don’t need to read about it when I kick back in my pj’s at the end of a long day).

Perhaps because it appeals to my Taoist nature, I like to read, and to write, tales of characters finding their own way, their struggles as internal as they are external. I like small stories where the focus is the character, not the political storms tossing him to and fro.

The main reason I lost interest in reading and writing historical fiction was, in fact, because I felt the genre focused too much on the high and mighty and the societal chess games of the period. I wanted to read, and to write, about the guy chopping wood and trying to figure out how to feed his family.

All that said, I love The Lord of the Rings, even though you could argue there is no greater scope or stakes-higher intrigue than the one Tolkien devised. But you know, my favorite things about LOTR are the moments that give us insight into the characters, whether it’s the hobbits’ awe at the sight of oliphants or Boromir and that guy Aragorn manly-manning a way through deep snow for the rest of the Fellowship.

I think it speaks to Tolkien’s skills as a writer that he could deliver the huge, epic chess game while never forgetting to send his characters up and down chutes and ladders and pull the reader along for the ride.

And no, I do not compare myself with Tolkien.

[That reminds me of my favorite quote from the kooky martial arts cult classic Circle of Iron:

Blind flute player: Buddha once sat before a wall, and when he rose, he was enlightened.

Cord the guy with ridiculous Hair Metal hair: Do you compare yourself to Buddha?

Blind flute player: No. Only to the wall.]

Anyway… I wrote The War’s End because it was the story I wanted to read. As I edit it, I worry there is not enough Dynasty-style scheming or a big enough chess game. The entire cast of named characters in The War’s End could fit comfortably in your average pub. And some of them, it must be noted, would really like that. Especially if I’m the one buying.

The War’s End is, after all, the fairly simple story of two very damaged people thrown together by events. Yes, there is chess game plotting from afar that impacts their lives, and the two main characters spend a good deal of time trying to kill each other. But ultimately, it’s the story of two once-great but now broken warriors searching for the pieces they need to rebuild their lives and find a greater purpose.

I know The War’s End will not be, how you say, just to the taste of everyone, but I believe there are readers who want the chutes and the ladders, and not the leviathan chessboard. Now I just have to find them.


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