The Weavers of Saramyr by Chris Wooding
Gollancz HDCVR: ISBN 0575074418 PubDate: May 2003
Review by John Berlyne
400 pages List price £17.99
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Chris Wooding is living proof that the British "new wave" of extraordinarily talented young writers is still going strong. Already a renowned author in the young adult market, his published books already number into double figures, and his most recent, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray netted the Silver Medal at the Nestle Smarties Awards and also a Hollywood film deal to boot. Not bad for a writer just coming up to his twenty-sixth birthday!
Leading UK genre publisher Gollancz know a good thing when they see it, and they have snapped up young Mister Wooding who now debuts in the adult market with a hugely energetic, flavorsome fantasy entitled The Weavers of Saramyr, the first novel in the trilogy of The Braided Path. Whereas so much of our fantasy stems from Celtic or European medieval roots, Wooding sets his story in a world with a distinctly Eastern flavor - a very welcome change.
In the epitome of an in media res opening, Kaiku, the daughter of a scholar is brought back from the brink of death by her handmaiden to find her entire family has been wiped out by the Shin-Shin Ė insectile demons who know no mercy. Asara, the servant girl, manages to get herself and her mistress to relative safety whereupon it becomes clear to Kaiku that there is more to her companion of two years than meets the eye. But this is true of Kaiku as well Ė the trauma has awakened something inside her, a hitherto untapped well of tremendous power. Unable to control this font of magical energy, it surges up in a moment of impulse and blasts out of her. The resulting force kills her saviour and knocks herself unconscious.
In the city of Axekami, the people are ruled over by the Empress Anais, her power dependent on the support of the feudal Blood Clans that make up her court and also on the mysterious magic of The Weavers. This male sect are the key to rule, able to use their weaving to communicate with each other over vast distances. They are also a law unto themselves, unsavory, treacherous and inherently dangerous. They seek to kill any child in the land who manifests a sign of magical power, calling them Aberrant and claiming it is their existence that is causing the blight prevalent in the land, a blight manifesting itself in failed crops, extreme weather conditions and political unrest. It is on this shaky powerbase that the Empress sits, hiding a secret that could be the end of her and her bloodline Ė for her own child is one of the fey, an Aberrant, perhaps the most powerful aberrant ever born.
Kaiku too is Aberrant Ė a surprise to her. Racked with guilt and confusion she must find a way to both control her devastating power and satisfy her desire for vengeance. In pursuing these goals, she makes some startling discoveries that will shake and shape the very foundations of her society.
It is clear from The Weavers of Saramyr that Chris Wooding is destined to make as a serious mark on the adult genre market as indeed he has on the children's. I've not read any of his other work, but I can only imagine that he is here allowing himself to flex an altogether different set of writing muscles. There are some descriptive passages of truly stomach-churning unpleasantness Ė stuff that could give grown-ups a nightmare or two!
The Eastern setting has prompted the invention of a hugely rich mythology which runs through the fabric of the novel. Gods and monsters abound and the magic involved here is weighty and dense, capable of cracking the very earth itself Ė not here the sprinkles and twinkles of a wand in the hands of J. K. Rowling. There is also no shortage of action Ė whether it be set-pieces of civil unrest with explosions and clanging swords or revelations of betrayal and courtly intrigue, things happen to Wooding's characters. Underlying this is an intelligent examination of the roots of fundamentalism that gives the novel a topical feel.
Predictably The Weavers of Saramyr is not without fault Ė there were times when the engine of the novel idled for a chapter or two and at times it did seem to stall a little, particularly when trying to keep track of all the various parties involved. It is a large cast, after all. At times also, I was aware that because this book is deliberately aimed at a grown-up rather than a young adult market, Wooding is consciously making it a "serious" work. There are few, if any, moments of light relief, and readers do need and deserve them on a journey such as this. But these are small criticisms given the over quality of this novel. Wooding's writing is really top class, his turn of phrase and choice of words often surprising the reader in their effect. I also hugely admired some of the brave choices Wooding makes with his characters, defying both the wishes and expectations of the reader much in the way that George R.R. Martin does in his A Song of Fire and Ice books.
In conclusion, this is an admirable and original fantasy from a young writer who clearly has a long and successful career ahead of him. Recommended.
SFRevu : The Weavers of Saramyr is your first book for the adult market. How does it specifically differ from other Chris Wooding novels? What tools did you employ in the writing to ensure these differences?
Chris Wooding: Weavers is more ambitious in scope than any of my earlier stuff. I had a much bigger canvas to work on and a much bigger cast to play with than any of my previous books. The most obvious difference, though, is that itís about adults. In the YA market thereís a pressure to keep the age of the protagonists down, which naturally means they behave a certain way; in Weavers, that wasnít the case, and it makes for a very different kind of story.
I also had much more latitude with Weavers to paint in the background, since thereís not such a need to keep up a breakneck pace as adultsí attention spans are assumed to be longer (not that thatís necessarily trueÖ) Slowing down a little helped with the atmosphere of the book, though I still think it shifts pretty well! I spent a lot longer on the setting - the mythology and the geography and customs of Saramyr - than I had on any of my YA fantasies. And thereís no chance Iíd have got away with some of the things the Weavers do if the book came out in the YA marketÖ
SFRevu : Did you find it more enjoyable / easier / more difficult than writing your young adult fiction? Why or why not? Are you now planning to produce for both markets equally or will you be doing more adult stuff from now on?
CW: Itís not that much different, really. My last couple of YA books were nudging towards adult fantasy anyway, and I never really simplified my writing style or toned down for teenagers. Nowadays I donít really think about the market when Iím writing a story. With Weavers it was possible to shuck off the (very minor) constraints imposed by the YA market, but it took me much longer to write because I was fretting about the need to produce a really good debut novel. I actually rewrote the entire thing from scratch because I thought I could do better than the first incarnation. But in the end, writing for both markets is pretty much the same for me. I do intend to write for the adult and the YA market concurrently, but I couldnít tell you in what proportion. Iím not thinking about it until Iíve finished the Braided Path trilogy. One thing at a time.
SFRevu : Who is your ideal reader? For your YA fiction? And for your adult fiction?
CW: Someone with a goldfish memory span who buys the book, forgets theyíve bought it, and buys it again ad infinitum.
SFRevu : Why genre? Chris Wooding has been writing fantasies for young readers for a good while - why not some other more mainstream area for adult readers? What is it about fantasy and science fiction that makes you want to tell these kinds of stories?
CW: In a word, escapism. Iíve always had this omnipresent sense of vague dissatisfaction with the way things are, and most times Iíd rather be somewhere else. Thatís why I think itís so important in fantasy/SF to create a believable and immersive background to set your story in. Books to me have always been a window out of the real world, and the best part about writing is fashioning somewhere new to go. I enjoy world-building more than any other part of the creation process, and thatís where the genre really shines. Fantasy/SF is limitless in potential; you can be fearlessly creative in a way that I donít think you can with genres that are grounded in a world the reader already knows. But in the end what it all really boils down to is this: the reason I write fantasy is because then I get to make monsters, and monsters are cool.
SFRevu : What was it you first read that turned you on to genre fiction? What works do you regard as formative in your early reading? Which titles made you a genre fan? Do you still find time to read within the genre?
CW: I do read a lot of fantasy and SF. I spent most of my teens reading around the Ďmainstreamí and so Iím still in the stage where I come across brilliant authors Iíve never heard of and go: ĎHow did I miss him/her?í Formative works were the obvious ones: Tolkien and CS Lewis. I think I was into fantasy even before I could walk; my mother used to read me fairy tales when I was an infant and they put hooks in that never came out, and since she was a fantasy fan there were always books lying around the house. Iíd pick them up and be found malnourished in a cupboard six days later just finishing off the last few pages. I seem to remember reading Douglas Hillís Last Legionary series when I was really young, and the Tripods trilogy and a bunch of John Wyndham. That got me into SF, Iím pretty sure. I used to love Terry Brooksí Shannara sequence, too. Then there was Clive Barker with Imajica, Stephen Kingís The Stand, Orson Scott Cardís Enderís GameÖ Thereís just too many, different books I liked for different reasons at different times.
SFRevu : What are your thoughts on the new wave of British genre writers that are coming up. It seems like a boom time all round at the moment - particularly for the Brits - do you agree with this? Who do you rate and why?
CW: It does seem that way, and I think itís great. I have been struck by how inventive a lot of the newer titles are. I donít know whether thatís a case of the publishers being more daring in what they publish or that authors are more consciously avoiding the well-worn genre ruts, but itís certainly a lot more exciting when you pick up a new author and you donít know exactly what youíre getting. Too often you can judge a book by its cover, but nowadays the more rigid strictures of genre are getting increasingly blurred, and Iím all for that. Especially in fantasy, it seemed that there were only a select handful of authors who were straying off the beaten path; but over the last few years thatís become less true. I rate most of the new crop of British writers, to tell you the truth Ė by which I mean the ones that have come through in the last five years or so - but standouts are Roger Levy for his prose, China Miťville for raw creativity, and Richard Morgan for the body count!
SFRevu : Tell us a little about how your first book deal came about? You have impressive list of published titles and accolades for someone your age. How do you keep it from going to your head?
CW: I got picked up by an agent when I was eighteen, after about two years of writing novels, submitting them to publishers and having them rejected. I was getting absolutely no feedback off the publishers, which was frustrating but understandable in retrospect, so eventually I started sending my books to agents instead. I think it took me about six rejections before I thought to include my age in the covering letter, and then I was picked up straight away. My agent told me later that she didnít really have much of a hope of selling the book Iíd sent her, but that sheíd taken me on to see what Iíd do next. It was her who persuaded me to try writing a teenage book, since I was obviously in the prime position to write one, being still a teenager myself. Scholastic signed it up pretty much immediately, and that was it.
As to going to my head, I donít think thereís much danger of that! In the end, Iím just making up a story; itís not like Iím curing cancer or anything. No, I just feel lucky that I get to write books and other people like to read them. Either that or itís because they make handy coasters and doorstopsÖ
SFRevu : Describe your writing process. How do you plot a novel? What are your working disciplines? Are you strict with yourself or does it come to you easily?
CW: Iím a very steady writer: I do it pretty much nine-to-five (well, more like fourish because after that I really canít be botheredÖ) and forget about it on weekends. Iíve no idea where this workmanlike mentality came from Ė itís not as if Iíve ever had a job to instill that nine-to-five ethic. But I feel guilty about doing nothing if Iím not writing during the day, and I am pretty conscientious about it. I have up and down days, like any writer does. Sometimes I thrash through pages and pages, other times I end up steadily head butting my keyboard because of my inability to produce more than a paragraph in a week.
Each book comes out a different way, but generally when I have an idea I plot it to the point where I can confidently start writing it, and then I plot a few chapters ahead of myself, write them, plot ahead again and so on. I always know the general arc of the story and characters, and then fill in the details as I go. But I find thatís a necessary part of the way I write; I donít plot everything out rigidly, because if I think of a better ending halfway through the book I can always change it. It makes the process a little more dynamic.
Iím big on re-edits, though; for me, finishing the first draft is only half the work done. I spend a lot of time going back over my books and changing bits, smoothing out the rough edges and tightening the plot. My first draft is usually full of inconsistencies, set-ups for situations that donít actually happen, things like that. Iím pretty sloppy in the actual writing process; itís in the edits that I get strict on myself.
Chris Wooding was talking to John Berlyne.