So, one thing you don’t hear a lot from someone finishing up a fantasy novel is, “Damn, that book had a great glossary.” Like all appendices, the glossary is usually considered (by writers and readers alike) an afterthought, a necessary evil, a way of passing the time when you’ve finished the book but your flight is still twenty minutes from landing.
Today, however, as I sat down with great anticipation to begin N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon (the start of her Dreamblood series), it occurred to me that perhaps we’ve all been giving the glossary short shrift. Jemisin, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a master of world-building. Not for her the hoary tropes of medieval Europe trotted out once more, armor dented, swords dulled. In this new series she looks more to ancient Egypt than to Europe, while the religion and the fascinating system of magic that accrues from that religion is all her own. Of course, world building involves, you know, a new world, and with new worlds come new words. Enter, the glossary.
I consulted the glossary at least twenty times in Jemisin’s opening chapter, always finding intriguing definitions such as the following:
“Dreamseed: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from erotic dreams, it is useful for stimulating growth that ordinarily occurs only in the womb (e.g., new limbs).”
So, clearly, this is going to be a book that kicks ass. And there are lots of entries just as exciting. It is possible to read the opening chapters without the glossary. My wife, who detests all textual apparatus (maps, glossaries, family trees, etc.), did exactly that, and she says the first chapter reads just fine without it. No doubt. Jemisin is a great writer, skilled enough to provide adequate context for her neologisms; haters of glossaries can plow ahead without missing much. It would be hard to convince me, however, that they’re missing nothing. The chapter is not richer for some scrutiny of the glossary, which brings me (finally) to my point:
There are really only three methods of handling the new words so necessary to world-building, each with its strengths and weaknesses.
First: The contextual method. This is probably the most common and certainly the easiest to read. Whenever a new term is introduced, the author bends over backwards to ensure the reader understands the meaning. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World furnishes us with plenty of suitable examples. For instance, the first time someone mentions the Dark One (which, by the way, seems pretty self-explanatory already), we get this little bit exposition: “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time.” Someone actually says this, right there, just like that, in the middle of the action. So that settles that.
The advantages of this method are clear: the reader is never confused and there is no flipping back and forth to the glossary. The Jordan passage just quoted, however, should reveal the major disadvantage. Often the new words and concepts introduced in the process of world-building are complex. Contextualizing them takes time and diverts us from the central thrust of the unfolding narrative. There are ways to mitigate this problem, but the fact remains: a sentence (or paragraph) spent on definition is a static sentence (or paragraph).
Second: The Glossary Method. I don’t want to put Jemisin firmly in this camp because, as I noted above, she’s done such a nice job with the first chapters that you don’t really need the glossary. Nonetheless, she’s not willing to go as far as Jordan when it comes to filling in the background details, at least not right up front. I think this is a strength of her writing. She tells the story first, and readers can decide whether to check the glossary or wait for further context. The central disadvantage of this method, however, is also clear: readers like me, that is to say, anal-retentive readers who want to understand everything the first time through, will be forever flipping back to the glossary, which can be, in its way, just as distracting as the Jordan method, although I think it’s important to note that Jemisin (by including the detail in the back) makes the distractions optional. In Jordan they are mandatory.
Third: The Fuck You Method. This is used to spectacular effect in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. The book (sci-fi, not fantasy) hits you in the first sentence with a new concept: the Warmind. What’s a Warmind? Fuck you. No immediate context that proves particularly useful. No glossary. “Hang on, asshole,” the book says, “and try to figure it out as we go.” And there’s a lot to figure out. Gevulot? Fuck you. Sobornost? Fuck you. Tzaddikim? Fuck you. Starting to get a feel for the method? And you’ll notice these aren’t gimmes like “the Dark One,” either.
It may sound as though I dislike this book/method, but nothing could be further from the case. I found Rajaniemi’s novel one of the most imaginative I’ve read in years, and, by the end, you do figure out the meaning of everything (provided you’ve been paying attention). I enjoy this type of detective work, but, again, there is a disadvantage: the experience of trying to understand the basic vocabulary of the world is very different from the fluid fictional dream offered by Robert Jordan in Method One. Time and again I found myself flipping, not for a glossary, but for previous references, cross-checking the vocabulary against itself to come to a fuller understanding. The advantage, I suppose, is in the uncompromising purity, the absolute immersion in new world unmediated by either a helpful narrator or a compiler of glossaries.
So where does that leave us? Beats me. I have tremendous admiration for all three books mentioned above, and I suspect much of this is a matter of personal taste (again, on the part of both the writer and the reader). In fact, I’d argue that this is a good problem to have: it means the book in question involves a new world, one strange and fascinating enough to warrant our close attention. There are, undoubtedly, people who disagree with me, and I’d love to hear from them. Is there a method I’ve missed? Or have I misunderstood the function or effect of one of those listed above? How else might we do it?