Friday, August 30, 2013

Links O' Interest: August 30

The "Links" feature has been on a brief hiatus, but I'm posting this as a stop gap until I can find more great geeky things to share. These were found on the Mary Sue and they are just generally awesome.

  1. Mock up Disney princess as covers of magazines. Way amusing because the artist really nailed the impressions!
  2. A master lady swordsman of today. The interview is a lot of fun to watch, particularly if you love medieval combat as I do.
  3. Retro Pokemon posters. It reminded me of a Bioshock crossover. Gotta love old school advertising (which has only changed slightly from the era it was inspired by).
There will be more links soon! There's a lot of video game news stirring, so my next post will probably include some of that.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Spell of Female Fantasists: Pamela Freeman's The Castings

The common wisdom in books is that genres were created by publishers for marketing purposes, to decide what part of the bookstore a book should be placed following publication. I like the simplicity of the theory in that it helps aspiring writers to decide what genre to categorize their story into. As a reader, however, I love books that don't fall definitively into any genre. In "The Dos and Don'ts of Combining Genres" by Joanna Volpe (Writer's Digest Yearbook: Novel Writing 2013), it is recommended for writers to choose a dominant genre, but to feel free to experiment with one or two others. Today I had the realization that this is exactly what my favorite lady fantasy writers do, much to the strength of their stories. Although I love "straight" genre pieces, the stories of the lady fantasy writers have stuck with me longer for their genre blending and balancing.

The stories of these writers combine fantasy, young adult fiction, mystery, and romance. It sounds like an overseasoned dish. However, through skilled writing and good editing, the stories are an excellent and savory meal. The queen of these writers for me is Tamora Pierce. I'm a fan of the Alanna (The Song of the Lioness) series, where the high adventure and adult themes appealed to me as a kid, and the Circle universe books. In the Circle universe in particular, each novel is centered around solving a mystery, and the series follows the protagonists as they grow into adults. The trials and tribulations of the characters gives grounding the wonderful flavors of Pierce's Circle world, where magic, mystery, and friendship are the ingredients to a great young adult story. Even as an adult, the Circle world still lingers in my imagination and I have enjoyed the rereads.

The second female fantasist who "genre blends" like a master is Diana Wynne Jones. Most of my exposure to her is through young adult fantasy short stories, Howl's Moving Castle, and more distantly, Witch Week. Jones was, quite happily for me, all over the shelves of my public library as a kid. Unexpected Magic was the first time I had run into what I can only call an ode to the English countryside. Jones's stories were sweet but bizarre, and I was hooked after that. It's one of the few times I have found a story that was fantastical and yet set in the bucolic country. Howl's Moving Castle preceded Jones in popularity for the Miyazaki movie, and the original novel is a great testament to a mixture of steampunk before it was cool, fantasy, and a fun coming of age story. Jones remains a "brick" in the wall of my personal fantasy literature education, and one for transcending the boundaries of genre.

The third woman fantasy writer is a recent addition for me, another gem discovered Half Price Books. The book is a sizable compilation, The Castings by Pamela Freeman. I found it in the "adult" fantasy section of the store, but like Kristin Cashore's books, could easily be in young adult. My basis for that reasoning is the level of detail Freeman included in her writing. Most young adult books keep a clipped pace and spare the details, where in adult fiction and fantasy, some writers will spend many pages lovingly describing the scenery, a character's description, and especially inner monologue. Freeman strikes a balance and adds just the right amount of flavor to appeal to both teens and adults.

I'm currently in the middle of of Blood Ties, the first book, and I feel myself enthralled in another fantasy world that blends fairy tale, medieval history, and magic. The land of the Eleven Domains reminds me of the England described in medieval manuscripts, plagued by invaders much like the Vikings. I have translated a few Old English manuscripts, and appreciate the level of detail in Freeman's writing that adds a touch of fantasy to the "boring" details. (My threshold for "boring" medieval history is very high--at the moment, I'm also reading The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting, and knowing every kind of hunting hound available at the time.)

The Castings is truly a gem among stories. Freeman makes the best use of multiple POVs, deftly intersecting the story lines and trying to discern who is the main character. The genre blending is not as present as in Pierce's story, and the magic is a bit more mature than what I read in Jones. Freeman's genre mixing is less evident than in those two, but there is a strong undercurrent of the action story, mystery noir, and historical fiction. The story resonates easily beyond genre. The main characters are presented with challenging, realistic situations, and with the tweaked historical details, it's a wonderful and engrossing read. The enthusiasm it inspires reminds me every bit of the joy I got from reading Pierce and Jones.

George R.R. Martin once stated to the effect that writing "straight" genre stories undesirable and even boring, and that his background was in gobbling Westerns, mysteries, and other genres in the dime store of his youth. The works of Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, and Pamela Freeman show that when genre blending is done well, the stories remain in the imagination for a long while.

On a personal note, I know I haven't written a post in a while. Let's chalk it up to personal upheaval. I'm also aware that my posts have been a little one-note recently--I promise to get back to geekery soon.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Catching up with the Nac Mac Feegles and other rambles

I've had a very interesting realization that I have, in a sense, grown up with a fictional character. I'm not talking about Harry Potter--I'm referring to one of Terry Pratchett's creations, Tiffany Aching. I read The Wee Free Men in my early years of high school, and felt I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith. Then we did as fictional friends do, and grew apart. Until recently, when I discovered I Shall Wear Midnight. The reason why I bring attention to this is because Tiffany and I have grown together, where The Wee Free Men was less serious, like the light fare of Diana Wynne Jones, and I Shall Wear Midnight is much closer to Catch-22 in absurdity. For me, when I started reading about Tiffany, I was also passed the time playing Horseland (this was circa 2003, pre-cartoon)--and now I regularly read grimdark fantasy with a heady dose of violence. What is so exciting to me is that it's a good example of how interests can have personal influence, if only because our enjoyment is intimately colored of who we are and what we were
doing at the time. And now, how our enjoyment of interests can change in an unexpected way. The clearest explanation I can find in fiction is actually a similar (if more advanced) idea, in Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.

This comes on the heels of a lot of serious thought I've been given to interests, particularly in the context of geekiness. A lot has been said about the "fake geek girl", and one of the more salient points I took from that discussion is that no one holds the keys to the kingdom of geeks, determining who is allowed in. My favorite analysis comes from Under the Masks's Dr. Andrea Letamendi in this piece, because she discusses the insidious effects of prejudice in such a nuanced and interesting way. I feel that the prejudice Letamendi identifies applies to a crazy degree to women and people of color, but to a much a lesser extent, to geeks at broad. I'm referring to "interest prejudice", which I have seen a lot in academia. If you haven't read this book/watched this movie (or for geeks, played this game), then you're a lesser geek and perhaps not worth knowing, so goes the logic. Perhaps this is a feeling unique to me, but it has caused me to feel I can't develop a friendship with someone because I'm not as "worthy". It's a bizarre feeling, and it seems no geeky interest is free of it.

This has caused me to consider what kind of person I really want to be. For years, I've called myself a geek and tried to "prove it" by broadly being interested in many things. I have found many geekdoms to love, like Sherlock (not much of a stretch because I loved the stories), Firefly, and the Left 4 Dead games. There have also been things that haven't stuck: Halo, comics, and anime (with few exceptions, like Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Claymore, and with these, it is an extreme love). Recently, I have come to find it's not worth pursuing the things I don't enjoy or even pretending any longer--and I have no idea why it took me so long to get me to come to that conclusion. I have decided I want to instead pursue the geekdoms I do love that much more, like writing and fantasy of all flavors. I feel willing to give new geekdoms a shot, maybe two or three. For those people I don't have a lot in common with on geekdoms, I don't want to let that be a division between us, and I don't want to feel inferior because I don't share the same passion as another person does (even if they try to make me feel that way!).

Reading I Shall Wear Midnight, I have realized that Tiffany has gone through a similar transformation, albeit on the Chalk and not about geekdom. Instead, she's gradually finding the confidence to be the individual she wants to be, doing the things she loves, and upholding her own beliefs. I Shall Wear Midnight is unique because this seems to be the first time I can remember where Tiffany's witchcraft is treated as an assault, a threat, or an offense to other humans around her. Her "hero's knot" is to figure out which is more important: assimilating to a dominant culture and those who want her to be "normal" and obedient, or following her true calling of witchcraft and doing the things she loves most, namely helping people and hanging out with the Nac Mac Feegles. She has to choose, in essence, between being less of a witch or being less normal. I haven't finished the book yet, but I have a feeling where Tiffany's ending will be. As I understand it, this is the final installment of Tiffany Aching's stories, and in some way, it feels like childhood is ending and Tiffay and I are growing into an adults. I always know where I can find my fictional friend, however, and feel nostalgic about my childhood fantasy.

Links of Interest hasn't disappeared forever! The feature will come back in two weeks (although if I'm lucky, I'll get one in this weekend). Next week, I probably won't post because of Gen Con! *happy jig*