Thursday, March 20, 2014

Future content

I'm excited to post the second part of my review for Queen Victoria's Book of Spells! It was a blast to read and write. One day I'll tackle my favorite fantasy anthologies and why they are so awesome; my belief is that they distill everything good about novels into a compact, accessible form, and that the literary wizardry has to be pulled it off in a tighter space. Immediately after I finished QVBOS, I jumped into George R. R. Martin-edited Dangerous Women, weighing in just under 800 pages. That's an anthology that will teach readers that stories are meant to be savored, not consumed whole in a sitting. Still, I love how it brings together stories from all genres: fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy.

Truly I think my favorite aspect of short stories are how it's like a short introduction to an author. Although readers may prize one genre over another, it's difficult to be really "well read" within any genre. (Personally, I don't mind that at all, because the journey of discovery is usually a blast.) Fantasy is generally considered to be a new genre, and yet it remains challenging to keep up with new authors while reading the backlist of old ones. And sometimes I want a shortcut to find new stuff similar to what I like. Today I decided one of the new features I'd like to add are author introductions; my personal take on authors, their works, and how readers will experience works. It's the lowdown on fantasy authors before you commit to purchasing a work.

There's not going to be any badmouthing here--just old fashioned analysis and fun connections. My plan is to discuss the works I have read by a certain author, bits about the author outside of their work, and then connect the works to something a movie, game, or other books that readers will recognize. One of my projects on this blog is to blend the various forms of nerdy media (being as most people aren't strictly into movies, games, or books alone). I can't wait!

Other upcoming content includes:
1. An Incomplete Education to British Murder Mysteries (TV)
2. The Lowdown on Libraries (and Why You Should Like Them)
3. Frances & Bernard and How to Read Confessionalist Poetry

There's more (as always), but that's a sneak peek. Happy reading! You may have noticed that my blog is getting more geared towards fantasy literature and less towards geek culture at broad. The literary aspect is an itch that I want to scratch, but I promise that I haven't totally lost sight of talking about nerdom in general.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Where the Literary Meets the Fantastic: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells (Part One)

There are times when I’m ninety percent certain I want to read a book based on its cover alone. Reading is about visual consumption, so it makes sense that while covers are not the only thing guiding our literary sensibilities, they play a large part in it. Covers also influence a reader’s initial perception of a story: we can guess what the story will be about, what genre the book belongs to, and sometimes, who the main character is or where the story will be set, all from the depiction on the cover. I love this about books even as I understand sometimes I’m hoodwinked into going for books that are within my comfort zone, which is very much, as Juliet E. McKenna phrased it, grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. Sometimes, though, especially within fantasy, covers can inspire readers to find magic in unseen literary opportunities.

The cover for Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, did this precisely for me: it went beyond merely interesting me to read the anthology. As soon as I was able to get my hands on this book, I devoured it, eager to read how modern fantasy writers enlivened one of my favorite literary genres. I have a deep appreciation for Victorian literature because it was the last point in history where the bulk of Western imagination was suggestible to forms of thought outside of pure logic and science. Terri Windling’s introduction is one of the best analyses on the subject I have ever read: she discusses the rise of strict morality and wild bohemianism that created an exquisite tension, which allowed for the rise of spiritualism and revival of fairy culture. The Victorians seemed to be capturing nostalgia in the face of industrialism while simultaneously exploring new technology that gave them an outlet to express their love for magic. Windling’s introduction set the tone for the rest of the anthology, exploring this rich vein of magic and history.

This anthology might be seen, in some lights, as a way of rewriting history. Factual history is where many of the stories start, particularly with fascination with Queen Victoria. However, history and fiction are intertwined as inspiration for these stories, in the same way that the Victorians used magic to inspire their own works of art, literature, and theater. The inspiration was a jumping off point that allowed for writers to address problems that had plagued the Victorians of yore: the lost perspective of women and the problematic nature of strict morality. One of the best stories, “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes, also addressed a modern problem: how in the rise of steampunk, we are sometimes prone to sentimentalize the Victorian age, when the very structure of the bourgeois, tea parties and propriety was based on society that rife with social inequality.

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is an anthology that allows contemporary readers to do as the Victorians did, to appreciate the blurriness between fact and fiction in fantasy. Whether reveling in nostalgia as in James P. Blaylock’s “Smithfield” or skewering morality on a stick in “Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee, the anthology brings much illumination to what is normally seen as a stodgy genre. The second part of this post will look into two stories from the anthology in more detail, seeing where magic brings light to the realm of fiction.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

The Fell Sword is the second part of the Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron, a sequel to The Red Knight. This story takes a dramatic departure from The Red Knight, by encompassing a much larger span of Cameron’s fictional-but-kind-of-real continent (France, Byzantium, England, and Canada) and by The Fell Sword matches The Red Knight in quality of storytelling, but there are a few details in which the first book displayed better writing.
drawing more explicitly from myth and folklore to act as parallels.

The greatest strength of The Fell Sword is in how Cameron alludes to a variety of medieval texts and myths: from the story of Arthur to Geoffrey of Monmouth. As someone who has recently come to medieval literature, it was blast spotting the various references, which without that background, may appear as random. One instance that stands out is when some of Cameron’s characters are fighting the Ruk—giants sent from the Wild that was detailed in The Red Knight. Although the instance doesn’t end with Ser John throwing the biggest giant over a cliff as in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the structure was very similar. When Geoffrey originally wrote History of the Kings of Britain, it was to create a new history of England to assert the legitimacy of the Normans. The giants, the original inhabitants of Geoffrey’s Alba, had to be deposed when they refused to accept the rule of Brutus. Cameron’s story makes an interesting comparison as his characters fight back the giants in order to keep control of the borders against the Wild, and as in Geoffrey, there is a question of who has the actual right to own and use the land.

Another allusion that is applied more broadly is the backdrop of a retelling of Arthur. The most fun of reading the book was trying to figure how Cameron cast his characters, and how they differ from the original telling. The events of the story build in an intricate, interesting manner to parallel the Arthur story, from the betrayal of Lancelot and Guinevere of Arthur and the rise of Mordred. Cameron twists these events by using complex, lifelike characters that show that the story is not as straightforward as Mallory would have modern readers believe. Cameron casts doubt on the betrayal of Guinevere in the question of the faithfulness of Queen, and depending on who Mordred may be, if he has designs on the Arthur figure. Indeed, a direct parallel is in the figure of Ghause, who’s given a perspective for the first time in The Fell Sword, and she lives up to her wicked counterpart (admittedly, in a far more interesting way). Trying to puzzle out where the story is going based on the Arthurian inspiration adds more value than the plot on its own, which in The Red Knight, felt like it was going helter skelter from one adventure to the next.

One aspect that Cameron uses to great effect is the overarching plot that was started at the very end of The Red Knight—that the main plot connecting the disparate characters are that they are possible pawns used at the will of dragons. The theme of the world’s most epic chess game has been used in many stories before, but Cameron uses mystery very effectively to keep the reader guessing what events are influenced by dragons over free will. However, the more advanced the plot became, the more oblique the dragons became, until the reader comes to know a Sauron-esque enemy much better. It was incredibly satisfying as a reader when the part of the dragons was acknowledged aloud.

While The Fell Sword was certainly a fun read, there was some areas where it lacked in a way that The Red Knight had no issue. In particular, the role of female characters, even ones given direct perspectives, was problematic. In The Red Knight, I can remember if I try that most of the female viewpoints being dominated by concern for men: attraction to them, the attraction men had for them, marriages, etc. However, The Fell Sword drags this unsavory aspect much more to the surface, where any time any woman is given a perspective, they don’t possess any independent thoughts of their own—and it is wearisome and two dimensional. I think one of the reasons why The Red Knight avoided this faux pas was because it was set in Lissen Carak, an abbey, full of religious women who stood in solidarity apart from men. It is easy to appreciate women as holding power in their fertility, and perhaps Cameron’s portrayal is true to the time he’s portraying, but I didn’t understand why when he rewrote the Arthur story, he couldn’t also rewrite this aspect. Even Amicia, a strong-willed character naturally, is consumed only by thoughts of the Red Knight.

Another trap that The Fell Sword falls for in a much more complex manner is one that is common to many fantasy novels: the trap of magic. I personally love Cameron’s style of magic, a blend of philosophy and physics that alter reality. It was more of Cameron’s application of magic that becomes troublesome. Several times, magic heals characters who sounds as if (and sometimes are) on the brink of death. It has a very deus ex machine feel to it when this act is performed repeatedly and bends the suspension of disbelief. Magic is truly the glue for the story, and outside of healing, Cameron handles it deftly as an instrument of war and a means of uniting unlike forces. However, several times Cameron’s characters questions why they don’t merely kill off troublesome characters, with enough frequency that it becomes problematic. I’m hoping that in the third book (given where The Fell Sword left off, there almost certainly will be a third one) we’ll see a more judicious use of magic.

The Fell Sword will be available in the US on March 11, but it was released in the UK on January 30, so I got my copy from an online UK bookseller. Apparently it came out in the UK recently that Miles Cameron, the author of The Red Knight and The Fell Sword, is actually historical fiction writer (of some fame, though I had never heard of him) Christian Cameron. He discusses it on his blog, but what he doesn’t address is why he felt the need to take on a nom de plume. A hardened fantasy reader may see as it shame for being associated with genre fiction: an idea that is not entirely dispelled by Cameron. 

The blogger lives

Fall faded into winter, and this blog went into hibernation. However, now that spring is around (and an old job traded for a new job, and the GRE out of the way...), the blog returns like a lumbering bear. I have lots of new content planned, including a new series to replace "Lots O' Links". I'm pretty excited and the blog's revival will start with a review of Miles Cameron's The Fell Sword--appropriate since his work has been reviewed here before.

The long winter is finally over.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Relevancy of Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Defense of Geekiness

There's been some kerfuffle recently floating around the Internet about the relevancy of fantasy fiction and how science fiction and fantasy is going mainstream.  This has been a topic that has been analyzed endlessly on the Web (sometimes we geeks outdo academics when it comes to navel-gazing--I say that with love), but whenever there's a new trend or addition to the canon, it crops up again. An ongoing trend has been about the debate of the fake geek girl, a rather prickly and heated topic, and a few others that come to mind are the resurgence of popularity of superheroes and the advent of the grimdark movement in fantasy literature. I personally love these sort of meta-debates and the parallels to academia are again striking: intelligent, well-read people defining their study of interest and why it matters. In academia, a primary debate would be about what works comprise the canon (and the occasional critique of the canon's existence) and an example would be of the movements of literary going away from old white guys to writers like Chinua Achebe or Toni Morrison. As with any movement that gains momentum, there's a lot of debate about the change itself.

For geeks, the debates becomes more nebulous, and I chalk it up the variety of mediums we enjoy. Literature, films, and video games attract a diverse crowd, and everyone has an opinion on not only which medium is superior, but which works within the categories qualifies as "the best." For me, instead of dismissing opinions like that, I take it as a challenge. I seek out the work in question, because I want to see why Bioshock is such an awesome game or why I should be interested in N.K. Jemisin. My reasoning is pretty simple: this could be the next great work that I love, and if I don't seek it out, I'll never know. I think geeks are fueled by that kind of curiosity, coupled with how much time and energy a person wants to devote to finding new material. Being a geek is a lot about consumption, and luckily for us, sf/f books, games, and movies are created at an incredible rate to catch our eyes and our dollars.

The question of geeky canon does seem to boil down to the success of certain works, particularly because now the market is expanding to include non-genre works as well. Five years ago, stories like Sherlock Holmes and The Hunger Games wouldn't have necessarily been considered geeky. (Although I will acknowledge that THG has always existed in the lovely sci fi/literary fiction sweet spot of dystopian stories.) Now that these works have an enthusiastic fandom, I think we take their success in the geeky world for granted. Their successes have also brought in more people who self-identify as geeks, and those new inaugurated geeks bring in new things to geek over, love, and crossover (looking at you, Disney princess crossovers). Maybe the question of geeky canon has already been answered: it will expand as necessary to celebrate new fandoms and welcome new people. I have never had any truck with the people who say you have to be "this geeky" to ride.

Another point that's being made is that it means a lot more to be a geek now than it did five years ago. They highlight the popularity of cons, the trends that bring in waves of new people (*cough* Marvel movies *cough*), and how geeks are more relevant than ever in this era of technology. I agree, and I would add to that: science fiction and fantasy is more relevant than ever because the doors are open. The Internet is ubiquitous and so is the opportunity to get into geeky fandoms (and admit, the Sherlockians of Tumblr are having way more fun than any of us ever did just surfing Facebook). The only bar to entry is about interest and if someone is willing to give a geekdom a chance. Not every geekdom will stick, but as Cristea pointed out in "The Doors Are Open--SFF Goes Mainstream" on Fantasy Faction, there has been a trickling effect where people may play a game and then perhaps check out a fantasy book, and then five more (my addiction started with Harry Potter, but I think that just makes me old school).

The arguments that fantasy and science fiction are irrelevant and merely about unrealistic stories is becoming outmoded, I think, because the sf/f being produced today is reflective of a global mood. The old chesnut that sf/f is pure escapism is also fading, although that one is bit stickier. One big appeal of sf/f is the escapism--to imagine something unreal and revel in the magic--but the majority is about exploring stories that are similar to the best dramas of today, but are not unencumbered by the limits of reality. The few boundaries of the genre don't put a limit on what's possible, and when the story is written well, it transcends time better than any straight fiction. I know that's one thing I definitively celebrate as a proud geek.

The other huge appeal of geekiness is being able to share passion and a love of learning. Even the most closed geeks still have a lot to offer in terms of appreciating their fandoms. The passion is what makes geekiness so much fun and worth the time, effort, and money. Last week I did a search for fantasy publishers, expecting to find very few, and I found dozens linking dozens of others. The passion unites geeks and what makes finding new fandoms/works fun. The enthusiasm is palpable and a lot of bloody fun, and so I hope that we can continue to own the term "geek".

To celebrate the diversity of geeks, you might be interested in checking out this website:

Monday, September 2, 2013

When You Follow the Magic: An Unfinished Collection of Writer's Advice (Part Two)

For this post I will be linking to articles of writing advice, which applies especially to science fiction and fantasy writing. In my previous post, I discussed the best books of writing advice on sf/f, and those works have been canonical to my experience as a writer. What I love about the websites I'll be linking to in this post is that my knowledge and experience is constantly expanding to accommodate new advice. Thanks to the fantasy sub-Reddit, Tor, Mythic Scribes, and Blackgate, I can find words of wisdom from published writers who are successful in today's fickle publishing world. These articles are all recent, and usually tackle an angle of an issue that pertains to sf/f writing. This will probably end up as an ongoing feature (I'm constantly on these sites).

  1. "The Only Advice A Writer Needs" by Tony Cliff. I relate to Cliff because I get the desire to find the magical advice to solve my writer--hell, even my life--problems. What Cliff offers is a solid, practical advice about how to get it done. The frippery about inspiration will only get a writer so far, and Cliff gives reader the push to want to produce. The magnum opus will not write itself.
  2. "Writing Secondary Characters--Interview with Scott Lynch" by Katherine [sic]. Scott Lynch is a fun writer, one who knows how to make readers gasp, cry, and laugh. I had the chance of seeing him in a seminar about genre blending at Gen Con, and after that, I wanted to have everything to do with any advice Lynch could offer. In this interview, he's funny and crisp, and goes beyond merely discussing secondary characters. This interview is most helpful for creating an entertaining, well-rounded story.
  3. "Writing Fantasy Battles--A Look at Strategy" by Aaron Miles. This was a fun read for considering what went into tactics when the world use to have fights where two armies fought to the bloody end. Miles discusses early army organization (cavalry, archers, and infantry) and how they would be positioned for different conflicts/settings, what weapons they'd be using, and interesting details like why it's most important to show up the battleground first. This was my first time running into Fantasy Faction, and it's well worth regular visits.
  4. "Gallowglas, Hester, Wagner & Coe: Four Authors Sound Off on the Writing Life of a Midlister" by Garrett Calcaterra. Sometimes I get caught up in the vision of what it would be like to be as famous as J.K. Rowling, and because this article exists, I know I'm not alone. The reality is that "making it" as a writer is today as much as about selling your published book as it is getting it written and published. This article covers how uncertain the writing life can be, and also how thrilling and satisfying. The uncertainty stems from things that plague ordinary life: when your next paycheck will be rolling in and for how much, what projects you have going on and how successful they will be, etc. The satisfaction seems to come from using this implacable desire to create stories and managing to survive on your own talent. This article does have a pragmatic tone, so don't expect any overly optimistic advice. My recommendation to cheer you up is to watch an episode of Gravity Falls and think: if this crazy story can make it, so can mine, and maybe so can I.
  5. "Self Promotion for Horrible People" by Sam Sykes. This blog post is self promotion for introverts 101. While some writer's (including me) propensity is to be rather quiet, modest, and selfish about our stories, that's not going to get your story noticed or read. Putting it that way sounds callous, but Sykes discusses promotion in a positive, cheerful light--how to make promotion of your story fun. Sykes is funny and blunt, and this blog post was an interesting look into how writers can share their stories.
    1. Equally as fun and significant was Sykes' "The Importance of Being a Bastard". I love reading about fantasy that approaches the topic in an unconventional and interesting way, and Sykes covers that subject well with Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. The most important takeaway point of this blog piece by Sykes is writers need to love their stories and enjoy creating them, particularly because that creates better and more gripping fiction.
I love sharing the advice of these writers as much as I enjoyed reading about them in the first place. The real kernel of these articles is that the desire to write and the impetus to create is a wonderful thing, and to make sure that writers are enjoying that ride. This is why we got into science fiction and fantasy--to create something that transcends the ordinary and opens up new worlds in our imagination. I can't wait for more interesting pieces of writing advice to share!

When You Follow the Magic: An Unfinished Collection of Writer's Advice (Part One)

I realized I still have much to say about fantasy and science fiction writing. It has long been a passion of mine to mimic the magic I read in stories, experienced in games, or watched in movies. What I really enjoy is studying what goes into creating the magic: what kind of props are working behind the curtain? What elements are at play and how are they working to create such a wonderful way to use my time? I have found that fantasy and science fiction writing (what I think about these two being lumped together is another post...) is a marriage between the writing craft and the elements of genre. Most of the writing advice books I have read that are geared towards sf/f address both of these topics, with a sly wink that when they come together, you have a great story.

I do have a bit of penchant for writing advice books of all shapes and sizes. One of my favorite activities is to visit my favorite Barnes & Noble every month to see what new book Writer's Digest has released. Books written specifically about sf/f are few and far between, so I intend to list the ones I have read here for a handy reference! I have a couple of a caveats: first, that I don't really like the writing of Orson Scott Card and therefore could not get through the "canonical" How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and two, this is a distillation of many years of research. I have personally read each of these books, and can give them a good recommendation.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing Books

  1. The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke. This book may not openly look like a sf/f writing advice book, but trust me, it is. Gerke covers the technical aspects of writing--what should go on the page down to how to create a shiny and interesting first line--but delves much deeper into the heart of the story. My favorite part was his discussion of the protagonist, about knowing who the hero is and what kind of predicament they'll end up in. Gerke really highlights how, in fiction, writers have the ability to create the story that fits the protagonist, from their problematic beginnings (re: that the main character is living some way that is true to themselves, which the plot will bring to the surface) to the heart-rending endings (where the main character decides to whether to correct their personal imbalance or fail to do so). The language of the hero's journey is something very familiar to every genre of writing, but particularly sf/f. Gerke also uses examples familiar to geeks everywhere: LotR, Star Wars, Mulan, and various novels. Gerke has an immense talent with language, and I'm getting ready to reread the book for a third time (twice was not enough to absorb all of the important advice!).
  2. Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life by Terry Brooks. I am personally not a fan of the Shannara books, for a reason that Brooks identifies in this book: it is really a Tolkien imitation. For me, it did not transcend the imitation enough to hold me (but I will try again one day). Sometimes is written in a conversational manner as Brooks discusses his personal success story and the habits he cultivates for creating stellar fiction. Brooks is very encouraging and accessible, and the fun was in seeing how he did it. While he may not go into technical details, I'm including this book on this list because it gives sf/f a vision for what their success could be like.
  3. Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold. Back when I first started wanting to write fantasy, wayyyy
    back 10 years, this book caught my eye. I consumed it in much the same way I'm doing with Gerke's book. It was my first encounter with advice geared towards sf/f, and the cover captured my imagination. I believe the book is now out of print, but still available on the Internet. This book is great for beginners to the genre and to writing: a solid grounding for constructing a story and using the inspiration of sf/f to create a killer story. Gerrold is a seasoned veteran of writing and sf/f, and the sense I got from him then was that he is a little "old school" (clearer good/evil alignments, lavish descriptions, typical gender division). He is definitely a dyed-in-the-wool geek, though, and his passion is unabated for good sf/f stories. His most familiar work is The Martian Child.
  4. Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Crawford Kilian. I think this book is useful because it helps writers lay a solid foundation for their stories in knowing about their genre and utilizing research to produce an excellent story. I liked how he handled science fiction and fantasy separately and then explores their subgenres, more than usual treatment of just epic fantasy! I wish he had expanded that section more, but it's a great starting point. Kilian also explains what goes into publishing a book beyond merely writing the story--hopefully soon I'll have cause to use that advice! My copy of the book also included a disc that had character creation software on it, but I have not tried it out yet.
  5. Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. I believe this book may be fairly well known among aspiring sf/f writers, because of the eye-catching spooky cover and its relatively recent
    publication date. This book has the same engrossing hold as The First 50 Pages with some of the magic that Worlds of Wonder employs. Harper is blunt in the fact that his book is about the paranormal, necessitating that the story is set in our world that has a bit (or a lot) of magic added to it. Out of the books listed, Harper does the best job of helping writers create an idea for a story, by utilizing the familiar and then taking off with it in the most fantastical kind of way. Harper also gives good advice about how to flesh out the technical aspects, and there's a great anecdote about how he conducted research once for a story (sorry--no spoilers here!). The book also goes into advice about creating realistic dialects, and then later, to finding an agent and a publisher for your story. Harper also draws quite a bit from popular sf/f--think Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Raymond Feist, and Mercedes Lackey--to illustrate technical aspects (such as the lives and politics of werewolves). 

What I found the most in writing advice books is that their worth is entirely subjective. Many writers love to discuss their topic and give advice for what worked for them or how to avoid mistakes they made. At large, the books I have included have been the most accessible, and for me, the most useful for my writing aspirations. Writers like Harper and Gerke teach as a "real job" (Gerke as a speaker at writing conventions, Harper as a high school English teacher) and they seem to have the books that are the most engaging. I'm excited for discovering new and old books on writing and sf/f, and sometimes it's easiest to handle the topics separately.

For the next part in this series, I will be posting recent links to writing advice articles I have found that pertain to sf/f, and then maybe I'll have the proselytizing itch out of my system.