The Perfect Chaotic Worlds of Diane Duane

In all her genres, Diane Duane is one of my favorite writers.

She spreads her talents around, too. She writes in multiple genres and forms—scripts to novels, tie-ins to original fiction, young adult urban fantasy to historical fantasy to science fiction to second-world fantasy. And whether she’s writing Y.A., as with her Young Wizards series, or Star Trek media tie-ins, she always brings an inimitable playful voice and a startling sense of “Yes; that’s right; that’s just like people.” to her work.

Some spoilers for The Romulan Way and The Door into Sunset.

She hits several of my reader kinks perfectly—her characters snark, and struggle, and have relationships that feel extremely authentic. I don’t just mean romantic relationships, though there’s that. But she’s a good enough writer, and confident enough in her characterization, that she doesn’t feel constrained to force fictional people to be consistent. Real people aren’t consistent, after all. They have trends, certainly; but very few people are completely predictable.

If we were, there would be no murders.

Likewise, her worlds are very like the real world in that they’re contradictory and chaotic. The people in them are products of their cultures, but never stereotypes, and never one-note. Her mad inventiveness makes me think she must be a hell of a player to game master for—the sort who weasels a way out of every trap that’s so damned clever you let them get away with it.

And the way her sense of whimsy informs everything she does, from fight scenes to love scenes to cultural studies of made-up people (Her original series Star Trek novelizations Spock’s World; My Enemy, My Ally; and The Romulan Way are generally considered among the best of the bunch, in part because of their insights into the histories of the alien races they address—which are also suitably confounding).

So I’d like to talk about one particular example of that wonderful chaos, which is my single favorite battle scene in fantasy literature. It’s in Diane Duane’s The Door into Sunset (1992), book three in the Middle Kingdoms tetralogy. (A sadly unfinished tetralogy; I believe Book 4, The Door into Starlight, is probably the current epic fantasy record-holder for Being Unfinished. And you know as well as I do that that’s saying something.)

The scene I love—the scene I often go back and study when writing battle scenes myself—is the literary equivalent of the storming Normandy sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Except it was published six years before Saving Private Ryan was released, and it’s high-medieval warfare with sorcery. And there’s no irritating steadicam shaking.

The scene, in cinematic terms, would be a single tracking shot. It follows the point of view of one of our protagonists, the usurped prince of a kingdom our heroes are trying to win back through a combination of sneakiness, politics, and force of arms, as he leads his forces into a pivotal combat. The scene is written in tight limited third person, stream-of-consciousness, as Freelorn fights, marshals his forces, retreats, charges, suffers under the fog of war, dodges frantically from one near-death experience to another, and discovers that he and his honor guard have been cut off from the rest of the army only when he hears his allies calling the order for troops to go and support him at bay.

If you like the way Joe Abercrombie writes fight scenes, it scratches the same itch, but it’s funnier.

And then there’s the scene in The Romulan Way where McCoy has to filibuster the Romulan senate until a horta eats through the floor to rescue him. And the most perfect talking shark in all of fiction, in Deep Magic.

Just read her stuff. You won’t be sorry.

Originally published in April 2014 as part of our Writers on Writing series.

Elizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts, with her husband, novelist Scott Lynch. Stone Mad, the sequel to her novel Karen Memory, is available now from Publishing.


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