A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson: Word building in Fantasy Fiction: The Tolkien Benchmark

Synopsis: In the spell-powered city of Tarreton, the wealthy have all the magic they desire while the working class can barely afford a simple spell to heat their homes. Twelve-year-old Isaveth is poor, but she’s also brave, loyal, and zealous in the pursuit of justice—which is lucky, because her father has just been wrongfully arrested for murder.

Isaveth is determined to prove her innocence. Quiz, the eccentric eyepatch-wearing street boy who befriends her, swears he can’t resist a good mystery. Together they set out to solve the magical murder of one of Tarreton’s most influential citizens and save Isaveth’s beloved Papa from execution.

For the Writer:

we-got-historyOn to tips and techniques: What does A Pocket offer the writer? Let’s widen our discussion of Anderson’s offerings by comparing them briefly with Tolkien’s word building. Some will know that J.R.R. Tolkien was a professional philologist (study of languages and their relationships), and by default an etymologist (the study of the sources and development of words) and morphologist (the admissible arrangement of sounds in words) fuelled by a deep interest kindled in his childhood. It is not surprising then, when Tolkien embeds a word into his prose, it is like gazing on a diamond set in a tiara, particularly a name or place in historical, etymological context, which reads like it has been passed down from generation to generation, though in many cases the noun was made up. The long and short of it is, when Tolkien serves a morsel from his constructed onomasticon, they melt on the reader’s tongue; it lingers; it tastes rich and complex; it’s authentic. Here is the peak of the literary spectrum, complex word building akin to lofty architecture and social engineering.

At the bottom, gazing at the stars, are stories in which words are merely cut and pasted into the narrative: begged, borrowed or stolen. Somewhere between are the rest of us, including Pocket. 

Unlike Tolkien’s wholly other world/s/, R.J. Anderson’s sub-creation seems more an alternative world, that is, similar to our world, comprised of its objects, its social system, and a familiar culture populated by humans with whom earthly readers can relate, a culture built upon many of our present day institutions, such as colleges, unions, religions, economic woes, persecutions of the vulnerable, and factories, yet a world definitively not our own. Pocket’s pre-eminent  feature, which keeps the city of Tarreton functioning, where the protagonist lives and where the story unfolds, is magic, cooked magic – baked, to be more accurate.

So how does Anderson demonstrate to her readers the other-worldliness of her creation through her word building?cogs

First, by the names given to groups in the social order. Moshite sounds familiar enough to belong to our world, and in fact, it does, if your take Moshe (Moses) and add an adherent, though in Pocket it is Moshiel they follow, a name though it may not exist, is a Hebrew construct. The religious sub-culture feels to this reader intentionally and distinctly Jewish, except Moshites worship at a temple (historically a meeting hall, which sounds more Brethren), and not in a synagogue; they do not read from the Torah and God is not JHWH, but the All-One – a little hint of the trinity there. The remainder of the population belong to the ‘protestant’ Unifying Church or the wealthy adherents of the Arcan Temple. This is not a review, remember, but I did find the social system a sampler of current (the last few centuries) world religions and attached to the story rather than growing, as in the case of Tolkien, from strong roots. Granted, fantasy authors often play potato head with old languages to form vocabulary. Even Tolkien borrowed heavily from early Norse in TLR, but with many years labour organized the languages of the inhabitants of Middle Earth according to each race and their respective histories. Times have changed, and this is Middle Grade Fantasy were talking about, but every outstanding created world in fantasy fiction has had a lot of attention paid to its well-rooted glossary of terms.

What I did find more rooted and fluid in the story was the language around a society which functions on magic. The whole concept spell baking, its technical vocabulary and history, is an idea well-imagined, thoroughly executed and very instructive for any novelist-reader. The term Sagelords had that very strong sense of provenance. That concept, that word begs to be the key to this world’s history, and sociolinguistic framework.      

Also instructive and well worth the read is how Anderson re-visioned otherwise common language into whimsical and tasty morsels of middle grade confectionery: cits, baccy, baccy-kindlers, smoke pedlars, traffic minders, horseless trams, talkie plays, Keepers, spell tablets and pedalcycles are but a few of the offerings. I found myself asking how extensively should an author press this technique. Don’t ask Tolkien. He would have told you from Ring Wraiths all the way to Pipe-weed. Anderson chose not to translate everything, only those things pertinent to the story; however, some nouns like jail could have used her magic touch.    


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