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.