Fiction Friction: Absurd Blurbs and the Riftwar Cycle

By Tom Anderson

Regardless of the aphorism that we should not judge a book by its cover, we invariably do. This is not terribly fair on the author, of course, who often has little creative control over what the cover artist does (we at SLP are privileged to have a cover artist in Jack Tindale who does actually listen to authors rather than doing whatever the editor feels like). Much the same argument applies to films and their trailers, where the filmmakers rarely control what goes into the trailer, and therefore are not responsible for the common complaint nowadays of ‘thank you for that 30-second summary of this film including all the plot twists, I now have no reason to actually go and see it’.

I could do many articles on cover art, and maybe I will; the very startling differences in style between the same fantasy books in the US and UK, for example, or Josh Kirby vs Paul Kidby on Discworld (do you prefer a unique and iconic style or stricter accuracy to the books?) I could also talk about taglines in films, and how they often take on a life of their own that survive in the language even among people who have never seen, or heard of, the film in question. But for this article I’m going to talk about synopses or blurbs on the backs of books, also something which many authors don’t have input into. Sometimes they are written by people well familiar with the book in question, other times rather less so. To go back to Discworld, one thing I always enjoyed about there being both hardback Victor Gollancz and paperback Corgi editions of Discworld novels is that they had different, but equally enjoyable, synopses. The Gollancz editions had a much longer space on the inside front sleeve which allowed for more text, and I particularly remember that of Maskerade and Feet of Clay when I first read them in my school library, while the Corgi ones were shorter and more punchy. I don’t know if Pratchett himself had input into these, but they were certainly written by someone who had captured his voice – for example, the Gollancz Feet of Clay one includes the line “Nobby Nobbs is hobnobbing with the nobs”.

One doesn’t have to leave the Discworld series to find out how badly synopses or blurbs can go wrong, on the other hand; one merely has to go to other countries. In the 90s, America (or, to be fair, American publishers and filmmakers) were particularly infamous for misunderstanding anything that didn’t involve the Chicago Cubs shooting apple pie out of a legal assault rifle into an unopposed state legislature election, and this inward-looking tendency impacted on attempts to sell the Discworld books on the other side of the Pond. The original Discworld quizbook, The Unseen University Challenge from 1996, even features the challenging question: “Identify the Discworld book which was advertised as follows by its American publisher: ‘Who in this world, or any other for that matter, would write a novel about a football team that falls victim to a group of wily elves?’” The answer reads: “Lords and Ladies. Clearly it has to be, since this is the only Discworld novel [at time of writing] with a strong elvish presence… But how did publishers HarperPrism hallucinate the football team? Can this be evidence of a deep American inability to comprehend Morris dancing? Is it relevant that hardened Pratchett fans tend to refer to Americans as Merkins? [do not look up this word in the dictionary] Probably not.” Somehow, despite all attempts by American publishers to the contrary, the Discworld novels did eventually manage to establish a fanbase in the United States.

The odd part about that example is that the sequence in question with the Lancre Morris Men is quite late into the book, so at least the confused individual penning the advertisement must have read or skimmed that far. But there are also plenty of examples of Absurd Blurbs which clearly reveal that the writer of them has not read any further than the first chapter (the same is true, as JRR Tolkien observed, of many reviews of The Lord of the Rings). But a blurb writer is supposedly trying to actually sell the product. Sometimes there might be caveats we’re not aware of, like the blurb writer being rushed to pen it while only having an incomplete manuscript to work from, but the odd part is that, if so, this is often not corrected in any future edition.

For example, let’s consider the first book in Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn Trilogy” of Star Wars books, Heir to the Empire, which helped reignite interest in the Star War setting when it debuted in 1991 and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. This book has what may be the dubious honour of the vaguest blurb I have ever read. In the US Bantam edition they do at least imitate the look of the iconic Star Wars opening crawl (they didn’t bother in the UK version) but the blurb is, in its entirety, this:

It is a time of renewal. Five years after the destruction of the Death Star and the defeat of Darth Vader and the Empire. But with the war seemingly won, strains are beginning to show in the Rebel Alliance. New challenges to galactic peace have arisen, and Luke Skywalker hears a voice from his past. A voice with a warning. Beware the Dark Side…

I suppose one can argue that this does capture the feel of that opening crawl text from a Star Wars film (I didn’t realise what it was going for until now because, as I said, my UK edition didn’t try to imitate the look of it). It’s still a bit dubious though – for a start, the Rebel Alliance doesn’t exist anymore (it’s the New Republic) and I don’t think that term was so iconic to Star Wars that they felt the need to put it in here. It doesn’t have anything about the interesting new threat that our heroes face in the book, or indeed anything about said heroes being in it other than Luke Skywalker. What is really striking, however, is that this text is based entirely on a few paragraphs at the start of Chapter 2 (not Chapter 1, oddly) of the book, where Luke has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi warning him he is leaving him to be one with the Force, and that the dark side (not capitalised) is still powerful. This sequence, though memorable, basically just serves the plot purpose of making it clear that Obi-Wan’s spirit won’t be back to be a deus ex machina in this or future Star Wars books, and has almost nothing to do with the actual story.

There are two things that make me feel this was a screw-up rather than being deliberately vague or open-ended; firstly, the other two books in the trilogy (Dark Force Rising and The Last Command do have proper detailed synopses that tells us about the new villains, the specific threats our heroes face, the fact those heroes include Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, etc. The other thing is that more recent editions of Heir to the Empire swap out the synopsis for a much more detailed one (truncated to the relevant part here):

Five years after the Death Star was destroyed and Darth Vader and the Emperor were defeated, the galaxy is struggling to heal the wounds of war, Princess Leia and Han Solo are married and expecting twins, and Luke Skywalker has become the first in a long-awaited line of new Jedi Knights. But thousands of light-years away, the last of the Emperor’s warlords – the brilliant and deadly Grand Admiral Thrawn – has taken command of the shattered Imperial fleet, readied it for war, and pointed it at the fragile heart of the New Republic. For this dark warrior has made two vital discoveries that could destroy everything the courageous men and women of the Rebel Alliance fought so hard to create.

Note that this does not spoil anything compared to the first one (all the events described are still covered in the first two chapters of the book) but it comes across as written by someone who actually knows what the book is about, and that the Rebel Alliance is a thing of the past, etc.

There are many examples of such absurd blurbs I could talk about, and many examples where they were actually corrected and changed in later editions like this one. But in this article I particularly want to talk about a ludicrously comic example I ran into with Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar books, which I’ve previously written about at times. Again, it is unfortunate that I will always associate the idea of bad blurbs with Feist, because Feist himself most probably had no input into or control over any of these. Please note there will be some plot spoilers here.

The first Riftwar book, Magician, was written in 1983 but I first read an expanded edition that was published by HarperVoyager in 2009. The synopsis for this book itself is perfectly fine; it even gets the name ‘Kingdom of the Isles’ right for the place where most of the action happens, which is slightly impressive considering it is only rarely used in the book itself (usually it is just called ‘the Kingdom’).

In the back of the book, however, could be found some rather confusing synopses for the other two volumes of the original trilogy (Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon) as well as ones for some other ones in the wider setting. I’ll mention the latter ones first. The blurb for Talon of the Silver Hawk (the first of a trilogy you may recall me praising in my article “The Fake Trilogy”) says that our protagonist is ‘woken by the sharp claws of a rare silver hawk piercing his arms, though later he is not sure if it ever happened’. It then goes on to describe the rest of the plot. This is a really bizarre statement, because (a) at no point in the book does he doubt that the event took place, and (b) even if he did, why would you add a strange, bathetic aside like that in the blurb to undercut the drama?

As ‘describing things in blurbs that never happen in the books’ go, however, this very much takes a distant second to the example we’ll come to. Going back to the two other books in the original Riftwar trilogy, the Silverthorn synopsis is also basically fine except that it refers to the ‘King of Midkemia’, when Midkemia is the name of the planet, not any state on it. But this sort of thing is a common mistake in fantasy (don’t get me started on Blizzard and ‘Azeroth’) so it’s not a big deal. And then we come to the synopsis for A Darkness at Sethanon. And this is where the wheels really start to come off.

The synopsis for A Darkness at Sethanon reads as follows:

As Prince Arutha and his companions rally their forces for the final battle with an ancient and mysterious evil, the dread necromancer Macros the Black has once again unleashed his dark sorcery. Now the fate of two worlds will be decided in a titanic struggle beneath the walls of Sethanon, as the link between Kelewan and Midkemia is revived.

OK. Well, I suppose this one at least gets that Midkemia and Kelewan are the names of planets, probably. But remember, this is found in the back of Magician. And Magician ends with our protagonist, the titular magician Pug of Crydee, going to the island of the wizard Macros the Black and discovering the secrets he left for him. Macros appeared repeatedly throughout Magician as a mysterious presence, saving the Elves from invasion at one point and, impossibly, being glimpsed in the distant past of Kelewan saving it from a force known only as the Enemy. (Yes, as I’ve previously mentioned, the first Riftwar trilogy could have made a lot of money for Tolkien’s lawyers if he was still around). Near the end of the book, Macros actually sabotages a peace attempt between the Kingdom and their invading foe from Kelewan, the Tsurani, and it makes it a little ambiguous about whether he’s actually good or evil. On his island at the end, Pug discovers that Macros acted because the peace deal would have led to continued trade through the rift, and that would have inevitably attracted the Enemy. Macros’ ploy led to the rift being closed, but it came at the cost of his own life.

Now with all that in mind, how do you think I reacted when I read these synopses? “Oh, thanks for spoiling the fact that Macros comes back and he’s actually evil after all, blurb writer, I didn’t want to discover that myself as a big plot twist!” I was Not Happy, to the point that I almost didn’t bother to read the other two books in the trilogy. The second book does feature a mysterious evil force and the dead rising to fight, so it did feel like it might be building up to a revelation that the secretly evil Macros was indeed a necromancer and was behind it all.

Then in the third book, we find out what the evil force was (a slight cop-out I might add) and Macros indeed reappears – he is alive so yes that was a spoiler – and…he’s still a good guy? I read right up to the last page of A Darkness of Sethanon waiting for the inevitable plot twist and betrayal, but it never happens.

And then it hits you: the blurb writer made it up. Lacking familiarity with the book, they just saw the name ‘the wizard Macros the Black’, assumed all wizards with ‘the black’ in their name must be evil (does that count as racism?) and that because fighting the undead is involved, therefore he must be a necromancer? So I read through the whole thing not only spoiled, but fake spoiled. This is mind-boggling stuff. And it’s not like this is even the first edition – my copy is of an edition that came out in 2009! Surely they had previous synopses they could have pulled from? Who on earth was on duty at the office that day that that was allowed to happen?

But the ‘best’ part of all this is it isn’t even just in the back of Magician. They went straight ahead with releasing the new editions of Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon (and the later books I mentioned) with those blurbs, completely unchanged. Oh wait, no, not quite; the blurb on the actual print copy of A Darkness at Sethanon changed ‘Macros’ to ‘Marcos’, because it wasn’t quite wrong enough yet. (Or more probably, autocorrect to a real-life name). I’m glad the proofreader was on duty that day paying attention to the important things.

This is probably an incredibly specific occurrence that didn’t even affect that many readers, but I do wonder how many, like me, still have their view of this series distorted by those corrupt synopses. Imagine if that happened with something higher-profile. It was bad enough that the trailer for The Two Towers spoiled that Gandalf was returning, but what if it had also implied he was evil and going to betray them for no reason? I think heads would have rolled.

More of these articles on the way!

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.