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Stylistic Homages by BL Authors


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#1
bluntblade

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I've been struck recently by how indebted certain works by Chris Wraight and AD-B are to particular works. Now, this isn't a slight on them, and AD-B has overtly commented on this in the case of one book. I just thought it might be interesting to discuss, and wonder if there are other examples that people have picked up on.

 

AD-B has specifically cited Steven Pressger's work on Gates of Fire and Tides of War and, I think, Bernard Cornwell's Winter King series as influences on Spear of the Emperor and his Black Legion books. The framing device is very much reminiscent of both, particularly the narrator referring "forward" to events later on in the timeline. It helps to give a real mythic sweep to the books, as well as the sense of a curtain being drawn back.

 

As for Wraight, I've no idea if he's ever spoken to this but his Vaults of Terra books give me the impression of Terry Pratchett's more grounded Discworld books (the Sam Vimes ones in particular) played straight. While Pratchett did it to enable outlandish stories (and to justify Vetinari, Vimes and Carrot's respective, borderline-superhuman competence) Wraight uses this to evoke the insanity of Terra's sheer scale and dysfunctional state. There's also Sergeant Hegain with his "inasmuch as I'd say, Lord, but if you take my meaning" patter, which continually surprises me by not feeling wrong in the context of the books.

 

The other one that occurs to me, but which I haven't read, is that Ciaphas Cain draws from the Flashman well. Have I missed any?


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#2
aa.logan

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Peter Fehervari does this to various degrees; Fire Caste is full of echoes of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, The Infernal Coil is heavily vampiric in it’s homages.

There was a thread not too long ago that explored this a little, though I can’t remember the details
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#3
Bobss

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I don't know enough about each Black Library author to put together any kind of serious analysis here, but I've always noticed a few things...

 

  • Chris Wraight, I believe, has a doctorate in English literature or something to that effect, and it shows in his works. His lexicon is absolutely incredible and you will never find him describing things in a repetitive or cliche way
  • Dan Abnett's dialogue is particularly strong. In fact I believe he has the best dialogue in Black Library. It's no surprise he has worked on a number of comic books over the years, and dialogue is an extremely important thing in a visual medium as the main source of exposition
  • ADB is known for extremely likeable and interesting characters, sometimes even criticised as such, and goes to great lengths in every book to detail a character's defining traits and their armaments (we can all remember Talos', Khayon's and even someone like Annika Jarlsdottyr's loadouts quite easily) - it's no surprise he worked on a lot of roleplay game material before joining Black Library where character creation is a big thing
  • Graham McNeill is in/famous for very bombastic books, where character emotions and battle descriptions and plot developments are all very larger than life and 'epic.' This makes much more sense when he frequently mentions David Gemmel's epic fantasy works as his youngest inspiration
  • Guy Haley is also famous for cranking out decent stories that fit into other's author's works without too much friction, and this must come naturally from his background of writing in pulpy sci-fi magazines
  • The John French/Forge World connection is obvious, with very dense and well articulated books. I've also noticed his preference for resurrecting old and buried lore and perceptions of the IP. His portrayals of Chaos in particular feel pretty oldschool - which also happen to rock. I'm guessing he is a decades-old fan who isn't afraid to show it
  • Gav Thorpe's connection to the Games Workshop design team is also apparent, with his books (especially his Eldar stuff) dripping with insight and information, even at the cost of prose that isn't as naturally flowing as some of the other guys. At the cost of sounding rude, saying 'he's a developer, not an author' sounds about right
  • Nick Kyme's books feel, funnily enough, over-edited. As someone who has written a bit myself, whenever I read a Kyme book it feels like I'm reading a draft copy of something that has been edited and reread way too many times. Of course, Nick Kyme is one of the main editors over at Black Library Towers. That might sound like I'm talking bull:cuss though!
  • Likewise, James Swallow's books, while not incomprehensibly awful by their own merits, have always stuck out from the rest of the crop and don't really mesh with the greater mood of 30k/40k. This has always been the case, but The Buried Dagger buried that point home. Considering just how many sci-fi IPs Swallow works with, this doesn't strike me as unusual. He's a freelancer, but not on the same level as, say, Josh Reynolds who turns everything he touches into gold

Just my two cents


Edited by Bobss, 24 May 2020 - 11:32 PM.

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#4
Xisor

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Nick Kyme does have form in doing a lot of very direct, lengthy homages and pastiches too. Scar Crossed Lovers in the Underhive anthology is a fairly involved reskinning of Romeo & Juliet. I'm told that Deathfire does this with the Odyssey too - but my Greek literature knowledge is pretty scarce.

His Necromunda novel - Back From the Dead - felt like it was very specifically referring to some Zombie material, but as I'm ignorant of most Zombie films and whatnot, it's again, beyond me.

I'm never sure what to make of them. (Strictly, that's not true: I dislike them, but on a gut level rather than a "I think this is bad for X reasons" - I can't put my finger on what riles me, so I tend to leave them alone. The Necromunda novel was pretty enjoyable though, a straight up cop/zombie sort of thing, but in Necromunda. Entertaining as a read. :) )

His Vulkan & Salamanders novels, for instance, also play heavily on a lot of direct literary riffs.

Iagon for example, the scheming Salamander in the trilogy, is a straight up "diabolical git" as per Iago from Othello. I think Nick's spoken pretty openly with that too.

But, going a completely different direction (and again: well outside my literary knowledge!) he's worked in a lot of straight up Batman/Superman ideas, and played around with them a lot.

It's not difficult to see the Night Haunter/Batman parallels, but the Vulkan/Superman ones are a touch less on the nose. (Though also, arguably, a lot more respectful of the "idea" of Supes, I suppose?)

Take "Promethean Sun" directly - specifically the scenes with N'bel. It's a fairly direct Clark/Jonathan setup. N'bel even has the "meteor pod" thing he was found in in a storm shelter out back.

They're both fairly "earthy" characters, agrarian even - Nocturne has the feel of a backwards village relative to, say, Armageddon. (Though Nocturne is hardly a simple place!)

Similarly, on visual/action grounds, Vulkan and Supss have huge overlaps - that "man of steel" aspect works neatly, being totally willing to throw oneself into harms way means that antagonists have to come up with convoluted schemes to "get at" our hero.

Sure, Vulkan's not much for flying, but Kyme had some great fun with it in having Vulkan repeatedly throwing himself out of Thunderhawks mid air!

Also, morally, trying to work Supes' overgrown Boy Scout idealishness into things like 30k is tough, but there's quite a lot to be enjoyed there in principle.

The final execution has some other issues, and even the idea in the first instance draws in some questions, but I'm always here for having a wee think about this sort of stuff - I find it fascinating to see.

More damning, however, is the idea that much of the comics-booksiness of the Salamanders stories is this: stylistically, I think they can be read as prose-comics.

The visual descriptions, the cultural trappings etc.

It's also (outsider's view of) "comics" - flameforge firehammers, deathfire dragontongs, cerulean everything...

I think all that is a very specific stylistic decision, it's just one that for me doesn't exactly work.

But if I squint mentally, I can sort of see what the intent was, I can infer what's trying to be invoked, even if for me what's actually invoked is "no, I don't like this".

It's interesting still.

---

In a completely different vein, you have a big cultural osmosis/independent evolution going on: Rob Sanders says he's never been into Doctor Who, and yet Bronislaw Czevak is one of the finest interpretations of the Doctor I've read!

He's spoken a few times about that sort of "confluence", where a lot of similarities arise because there's a fairly coherent core of an archetype that can be played with: eccentric, to oversimplify it a bit.

But it's a big one for being distracting: "what do you mean it's not a pastiche of DOCTOR WHO!?" - it's almost inconceivable that it isn't. And yet...

---

With Dan Abnett's work, I think his literary excursions are where he's most divisive, even just for me.

With "Brothers of the Snake" the stylistic choices underpinning the idea of the novel utterly rankle for me. The only two ways I can look - even vaguely - fondly on the novel are either:
1- remembering that other people sincerely love it, and whatever it is they love just didn't quite work for me.
2- fine, I did have a lot of time for Space Marines going swimming and having walks on the beach.

Conversely, his other decidedly stylistic works - Prospero Burns amongst them - are just utterly tremendous.

For everything that didn't work for me in BotS, he somehow adjusts it in another dimension of specific homage/reference/evocation... And absolutely nails it.

Edited by Xisor, 25 May 2020 - 06:58 AM.

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#5
byrd9999

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That's very interesting about Nick Kyme's Deathfire linking to The Odyssey. I am currently reading Deathfire, so I'll look out for connections. Without the book to hand, I can think of 2 links: the prologue by the One-Eyed Man and the second section is literally called "The Odyssey" (and I still didn't put 2+2 together...).

 

 

Also, regarding literally stylistic allusions, I always felt that Dan Abnett (being a literary Oxbridge chap) clearly knows a lot about literature as "literature", and affectionately referenced Edgar Allan Poe in 'Pestilence' and Dostoyevsky in 'Master Imus' Transgression', short stories collected in the Eisenhorn omnibus The Magos.

 

The clever thing about these allusions is that they play into the subject matter of the stories, the creeping horror in 'Pestilence' and the inescapable guilt in 'Master Imus....' and add an extra dimension to them.

 

I don't like allusions for the sake of showing off, as if it's a game of Spot The Reference, like every single time Graham McNeill describes "a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore", but when done well then it creates a more nuanced picture.

 

A lot of the problems I encounter in BL fiction (imo) stem from the fact that many writers are not really "authors", but rather people who put words onto a page as a tie-in product to sell more models. Graham McNeill was a surveyor who liked Lovecraft. Gav Thorpe was a game designer who volunteered to write a piece of fiction for an issue of White Dwarf. John French was also a backroom staffer who started putting pen to paper.

 

Not to say that these guys can't write enjoyable stories, but the idea of even considering literature as an art-form (elegant prose, framing devices, literary allusions, foreshadowing, genuine plot twists, subverted expectations) is limited to few BL authors.

 

The incredible idea that Dan Abnett sowed in Horus Rising, that the Heresy is actually an epic futuristic Greek Tragedy, went sadly unexplored by most of those who came after.


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#6
bluntblade

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I'm thinking less of references in terms of events and narratives, and more in terms of style and, in AD-B's case, framing devices.


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#7
Fedor

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byrd, i'd humbly contend that even the most limited writer that ever put "pen to paper" for BL knows about framing devices, literary allusions, foreshadowing, plot twists and how to subvert expectations. BL has definitely given GW people a hand up at times that may not have done much otherwise, but everyone starts somewhere and it's not necessarily a reflection of talent level or ability to improve.

 

 

I'm having a hard time folllowing what you are suggesting about Horus Rising.The greek tragedy framing was already there since 2nd edition and Abnett was just expanding on the newer Visions lore. He did it very well, but even assuming a dislike for what immediately followed i don't see that he created something with deeper potential or notably different tone that was subsequently abandoned. The opening trilogy even had some efforts to link up stylistically with the use of the four temperaments that i was sad to see abandoned.

 

Abnett himself definitely wasn't following any kind of coherent theme when he wrote his next book the series either. It  had a completely different tone that imo read a lot like a playful love letter to old cold war era spy stories.


Edited by Fedor, 26 May 2020 - 10:02 PM.

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#8
byrd9999

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That's what I get for trying to think and type and juggle home-schooling duties at the same time. I did have a more thought-out thing about Abnett and the epic scope of the first book, but I'm tired now and it's past my bedtime and I can't think any more :)

 

Okay, my statement was a little facetious about the lack of art in some BL authors' prose, but knowing about stylistic devices and using them effectively are two different things. As Mark Twain wrote about choosing exactly the right word to use, it's like the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug. (And if John French drops me, the reader, in a darkened room, in medias res, with only the narrator's inner monologue once more... I'll scream!)

 

Bluntblade, if it's just author style comparisons you're after, all I've got is Poe and Dostoyevsky (Abnett) and Lovecraft (McNeill).



#9
b1soul

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Without being informed, didn't get Pressfield vibes from Spears of the Emperor.

The prose reads quite differently. Xeones voice in Gates of Fire is very distinct. Now, ADB's stuff is all quite good (to say the least), but Gates is absolutely incredible IMO.

#10
Xisor

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Welcome to the Xisor Waffles About Matt Farrer & Rob Sanders Hour, strap in. ;)

I don't know to what or to whom they're referring or riffing or homaging in these, but they seem particularly specific structures that I'm quite possibly just ignorant of the other end of the link, so will outlay them here for you all.

---

I'm not sure what the homages would be, if there are any, but on purely stylistic points two(...) of my absolute favourite bits of BL not only break the mould, but pop it in a blast furnace and fire it out of reality via a rocket composed of interpretive dance.

That might be overselling them a little, but relative to "bold" novels that go off the beaten BL path, like Prospero Burns, these two are my vivid favourites.

Which is to say:
- Atlas Infernal, by Rob Sanders
- Seven Views of Uhlguth's Passing, by Matthew Farrer
(- Archaon: Everchosen, by Rob Sanders. Being a WHFB novel, I'd hate to break the forum's server or whatever it is that motivates such insltensity in not discussing directly, tangibly related BL topics when relevant, but as such chitchat is diabolical heresy of the most egregious, cruel and disreputable order - even when prominently involving a 40k character - talking about forbidden lore is still forbidden, so you'll all have to linger in tantalising ignorance of whatever tedious pearls of wisdom I could drum up.)


The former sets up the whole novel as a dubious tale - not only in the authenticity of its narrator, but in the very structure of the novel. Is the "real" story the story, or the interstitial chapters? Is any of it real? Is it all allegory? Is - because of the nature of the Harlequins and psychic-mythic-lore intrinsic to the webway, the Black Library and the titular Atlas, is it in fact all allegorical and all real, a paradoxical total mix of both?

Atlas Infernal is one that's not easily unpicked, and I utterly adore it.

In terms of framing devices, it's about as meta-thematical as it's possible to get, short of an author rogue self-publishing "real" BL stories as a commentary on heresy and institutional suppression of information or something.

It's also wonderful. Not only in as much as I adore the sheer vividness of Rob's prose, but also the weird spread of characters and relatively coherent trippiness of the whole thing.

It's not a light, breezy, pacy thriller, but it is bonkers and more packed with evocative notions than most of the novels I read. (And for that reason it's stood out firmly in my experience of BL books, and indeed all books.)

---

In contrast, "Seven Views..." is a somewhat straighter tale, told from seven successive perspectives on the same story, with each perspective having a fairly fundamentally different take on proceedings.

I won't go into too much detail, as its a short story, so if you're not familiar with it but notionally interested - I'd strongly suggest just hopping off to go read it. (Not least: I'd love to hear thoughts on it - even negative ones - as it rarely gets mentioned.)

But, like Rob Sanders', Matt's prose is a more decidedly descriptive style of writing. It paints a rich, detailed universe, and I utterly adore it.

(I used to quip that a sentence of Farrer's usually had more to it than a paragraph [or even a chapter's] of more pedestrian writers. But that's needlessly critical, and likely not actually true, except with the caveat "for my tastes". Given what I enjoy, Matt's prose is THE way I'd like to view 40k. Some vivid characters having tense, pacy plots with tight drama is neither here nor there for me, if all the supporting words don't tickle me. Hence why I took so long to come round to Dan Abnett - he writes excellently, but a lot of his time is spend on stuff not to my tastes. But when he touches on stuff that I do like, then my eyes were opened to him, and the rest became well worth it.)

Though even saying that, I'm happy to read "not to my tastes". And goodness me, it's quite clear my tastes are universally shared either - so with Rob & Matt, I've spoken to a lot of people who just find their prose too much hassle to bother with.

Which is a damn shame to my ears, but I'd not want people to be slogging through something they don't enjoy "just because they should".

That said, everyone should at least give "Seven Views..." a shot, as it's short and pretty peculiar. And my favourite short. Second favourite.

---

Bonus content because I won't shut up:

"The Masters, Bidding" is another short, probably my favourite "normal, many people might like this as it's not too wrird" BL short story - though about 70-80pages long, if memory serves, so really a small book in its own right.

TM,B, however, uses a very different stylistic story device, a sort of recursive story, in which the characters of the story are themselves compelled to retell their own sub-stories for actually quite neat (I thought!) plot reasons.

It's long, and a bit meandering, but if memory serves (as I've not read it in a few years) it encompasses a few varied stories, from various Chaos warbands of quite starkly different natures and philosophies, and tells it all in much more confined, distinctive voices.

It makes for a really neat and varied take on modern 40k's Chaos, I thought it pretty damn awesome.
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#11
bluntblade

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Without being informed, didn't get Pressfield vibes from Spears of the Emperor.

The prose reads quite differently. Xeones voice in Gates of Fire is very distinct. Now, ADB's stuff is all quite good (to say the least), but Gates is absolutely incredible IMO.


Spear is more influenced by Cornwell, I think.

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#12
aa.logan

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Spear and the Black Legion books both being recounted by the narrator many years in the future in the face of the coming forces that will change every achievement in the books are quite overtly homaging the Winter King series

#13
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I enjoyed Atlas Infenal as well but it’s a book I’ve largely forgotten as it never got any follow up, even for a short as far as I’m aware. Has Rob ever commented on the book since or given any hints he might take the characters story further?

#14
Sandlemad

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Spear and the Black Legion books both being recounted by the narrator many years in the future in the face of the coming forces that will change every achievement in the books are quite overtly homaging the Winter King series

 

I think Pressfield and Cornwell do similar things really. Big events narrated in the first person by a dude who was there and a close friend/lieutenant/comrade of a charismatic military leader. Acknowledgement of that leader's flaws but fondness for them despite that. Cynical or at least a world-weary view on things with emphasis on the life of the poor bloody infantry. An awareness of history being made but with a lot of "the poets say it was like X but it never seemed that way to me".

 

Now that I think about it though, Spears seems to wear the Cornwellian influence more lightly than the Black Legion books. The subject matter of sub-Roman Britain is definitely there but it doesn't have anywhere near as significant a central character as Arthur in the Warlord books or Alfred in first six Saxon books or Alexander in Pressfield's The Afghan Campaign; Amadeus is a very different kind of character, closer to a Derfel though we don't see his thoughts, and Anuradha's relationship with him is pretty different to what you see in a lot of Cornwell. The tone of decline and doomed effort is there but there's a lot less engaging with myth-making and historiography than you get with Abaddon. Is Anuradha closer to what we see in Gates of Fire's narrator?

 

RE: Cornwell, there's also his Sharpe and Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts of course. Definitely a big influence on the overall tone and a lot of Abnett's military thinking seems to be pulled from the 19th century, among other sources, but there's not a great deal of close 1:1 parallels from what I've read. Never really found Sharpe's surrounding cast to be as developed or significant as the Ghosts, for example. It's a good chunk of what keeps people coming back to the GG books though.

 

Wraight and Pratchett

I'd second the Pratchett reference for Wraight, if a little reservedly. It mostly comes down to that one technique in particular that they both use, the short contemplation about a dense urban environment, where a character suddenly realises that e.g. "[e]very day, hundreds, thousands of carts and boats and barges converged on the city with fish and honey and oysters and olives and eels and lobsters. And then think of the horses dragging this stuff, and the windmills … and the wool coming in, too, every day, the cloth, the tobacco, the spices, the ore, the timber, the cheese, the coal, the fat, the tallow, the hay EVERY DAMN DAY…" Like a little epiphany combined with a zoomed-out 'landscape shot' for want of a better term. I'm fairly sure that Pratchett wasn't the first to do this though, maybe Dickens did something like it as well? But it's very effective for getting across the scale of Terra.

 

Cain and Flashman

Ciaphas Cain is definitely a series-long pastiche of Flashman, itself a pastiche of so many other strands of literature. It's not just that though. Similar humour alright, which is unique enough for 40k to ensure the books have always been popular. A pretty core difference is that while both Cain and Flashman are open about the differences between official accounts of battles/events/etc and their own cowardice/skullduggery, Flashman is true scum throughout but Cain is a self-effacing hero. The mighty commissar is a front for a low-key skiver/coward, which in turn is a front for a basically decent bloke.

 

This highlights what I think is a big difference between what the Cain books do and what Flashman does. In Cain you have a decent, humane chap (and a few other pleasant enough characters) in the midst of all this madness, ergo not everyone in 40k is an OTT grim fanatic. It's cynical about human motives but with the result that the imperium of the Cain books isn't quite as ludicrously grimdark as other more popular bits of background portray it as. "Wholesome" is a word that's abused beyond recognition nowadays but I think Cain and his mates occasionally get close to it?

 

In the Flashman books by contrast, Flashie is awful and most other architects/significant figures of the British Empire are portrayed as self-serving, vicious, thick or mad, and the whole imperial project is a grubby sham. This sets the Flashman books against the "rah rah empire" books Fraser was gleefully satirising (there's a question of how effectively Fraser actually satirises imperial attitudes but still) and winds up being considerably more cynical about the RL British Empire than Sandy Mitchell's stuff is about the Imperium. I'd see the Cain books as works which are very faithful stylistic homages/pastiches/imitations but which end up doing very different things despite that.

 

Also... the use of a wry footnoter in the form of Inquisitor Amberley Vail and the extracts of lieutenant Sulla's hagiographic histories are pretty important to the Cain books. I can't remember them having any precedent in Flashman (though they're obviously both 'found manuscripts') so even just by their presence Mitchell diverged stylistically from the stuff he was inspired by. Does anyone know any work Vail's footnotes could have been inspired by? I can think of plenty of comical footnotes but none with such a particular voice from a character in the actual narrative.


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#15
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From what I've read about Flashman, it does seem the major inspiration for Ciaphas Cain. Reading what I have of Cain, I certainly got the impression of someone trying (and failing) to capture Pratchett's wit. Pratchett is even heavier on the comical footnotes, and Mitchell seems to be going for the same "A was A but was actually B" irreverence.

 

Do you suppose the authors leaning towards a matter-of-fact, dry style are going for Hemmingway?


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#16
Sandlemad

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Mitchell is going for that irreverence but I think I'd put his style of wit as closer to "80s/90's British nerd humour" in general. Pratchett's a strong thread in that but you could also point to Tom Holt, Douglas Adams to a lesser degree, PC Gamer magazine...

 

The footnotes are a thing though, they're Pratchett's calling card but in his case they're all in an authorial voice. What Mitchell does is something quite specific (often not as funny but then it's Pratchett) by making it Vail's voice commenting dryly or sardonically on Cain's statements, even in cases where Vail is present in the scene, rather than using it as a medium for detached jokes or observations. It's a little bit metafictional, a bit like Cain himself commenting on Sulla's histories, so Jasper Fforde might be a closer comparison but I think he started writing professionally after Mitchell.

 

I like the footnotes, even if there's usually too many of them and with a lower ratio of zingers than other authors. The flirtiness is fun.


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