Friday, November 11, 2016

Three Days After

So, it's almost 3:00 here, and I'm still in my PJs. Yeah, it's been that kind of week, and I know I'm not alone.

I rarely speak directly about politics in this blog, though I'm guessing most people can tell where I stand on things based on my feelings about diversity in fiction. Overall, I'm a pretty conflict-adverse person, and I know many women (and other, even more vulnerable people) who receive harassment and threats for airing their views online.

Nonetheless, I have to say something about this election. Like half (or more than half) of voting America, I spent the first Tuesday evening in November in a state that started with hearty denial (well, Romney got off to an early lead too, and all of these are "red" states) to still clinging to hope (Well, shit about Ohio, but there's no way Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania can all go red) to shock, followed by sick grief.

No election has affected me like this. I grew up during the Reagan years, so I'm used to political disappointment and frustration. Like all Americans, I've had elections not go my way and have walked around feeling blue and anxious about the future of our country because of it. This is different, though. It's more than just politics or fear that the kinds of programs and policies I support will be stalled for another four years, or even just fear of another Scalia type on SCOTUS. I've never felt this mixture of grief and fear. It's as if someone I loved has died.

This is how I feel right now.

Many visible, eloquent and talented people have aired thoughts and feelings similar to mine over the past few days, so I honestly don't think I can say anything newly profound, let alone have any impact, with this blog that has "tens" of regular followers. But there's one thing that's starting to bug me: white, straight, cisgendered people who are telling people that everything will be all right, even sneering at people for being afraid "just because they lost an election."

This isn't about just losing another election. Yes, I'd be frustrated and somewhat angry if we now had another President Bush or Kasich or Rubio (or, shudder, Cruz) etc. to look forward to, especially with congress also being under the control of the GOP and a Supreme court with several liberal and several aging moderate justices. But we don't have a qualified, competent politician, or even a rational, well-meaning human being at our helm. We have Trump (and Pence, who is in many ways, just as chilling, and with the political chops to back it up).

I won't list all the reasons I think he's unqualified to be president, in terms of experience, temperament, character, or goals, or why I think he's going to be a disaster for everything from the economy and national security to human rights. Others have done this very well indeed. Others have also done a good job of expressing the anger and disappointment I share that most of the white people in America, even most white women, voted for a man endorsed by the KKK and who wants to discriminate based on religion. A man who frightens children. A man who disrespects the men and women in uniform who have sacrificed their lives, freedom, or health for this country. A man who wants to overturn the Oberfell decision and feels that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people should be a protected form of free speech.

I'm not at all proud of my race today, and I earnestly hope that we will be just one of many minority groups in the not-too-distant future. No one group should have the ability to deprive others of their basic rights, and sadly, the white majority, as a group, has shown they're not willing to go to bat for others. Instead we think of success and security as a line we're all waiting in for years and years and shake our fists at other groups for, in our perception,"taking cuts." Think what we could do if she stopped acting like a bunch of dogs fighting over the last few scraps of meat and instead questioned why the fucking line is so long to begin with and why we all have to paddle so hard just to keep our chins above water. I get that many Trump voters didn't specifically choose to support him because of the bigotry and racism (though too many did), but they were willing to tolerate it as part of a package deal.

So please, please, please stop telling people who are scared and hurting they shouldn't be heartbroken and afraid. Some of us are more fortunate, more secure, than others and can possibly ride out another major recession, and (because of our race, gender, and orientation) we can hope be emerge personally unscathed from a period of rising intolerance for diversity and human rights. Some of us live in states that are going to at least try to resist the New World Order. Lucky us, but even so, we're not immune from the potential harm. I'm already wondering what will happen to the mental health care coverage in our insurance plan when the ACA (which mandates mental health coverage) is repealed, and I'm wondering how generous my state legislature and senate (and voters) will be with keeping the money flowing to make up for lost federal dollars if we go into another recession that depletes their coffers again. I'm wondering what will happen to the funding for the college where I teach, semester to semester on an as-needed basis, if the economy goes south again.

I'm not just scared for myself, though. You see, I care about people who aren't just like me. I don't assume that everyone who is less fortunate is where they are from being lazy or stupid. Not everyone will be equally insulated from harm when (and with the GOP controlling both houses, and soon, SCOTUS, it seems like a when, not an if) Trump's policies start to take effect. Half of us aren't male and are wondering what kind of behavior and harassment of women we might see more of over the next few years, since we've gotten a man who calls women pigs and dogs and thinks bragging about sexual assault is just generic "male banter" in the white house. Will sexual harassment in the workplace become another protected form of "free speech?"

 I've got friends, family, students and colleagues who aren't white, straight, economically secure, cisgendered, Christian (or likely to be taken as such by casual observation). What are their lives going to be like now? Jim C. Hines did a good job of listing reasons why many of us are afraid in his blog the other day. I don't see any point in duplicating those reasons here.

In light of all this, it's rather insulting to tell us we're being melodramatic when we say we think Trump and his movement remind us more of certain events in1930s-era Germany than it does the ascension of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (not that the latter would be anything to be complacent about either). If you don't agree or understand, there's not much I can do to sway you. But if you can't lend support to your distraught friends, colleagues, and family members, please don't try to feed us platitudes about how everything will be okay. I'd love for that to be true, for this to be just another election cycle that didn't go the way approximately half of us wanted, but I don't have a lot of optimism right now.

I think we will be seeing more of these kinds of crimes over the next few years, and it makes me feel ill. When will our country finally lay this shit to rest?

The only thing that gives me hope is huge number of people who are drawing together, pledging to support those who need it most. Planning to fight back. If there has ever been a time to get involved, to reach out to those who are most vulnerable, this is it.

One thing I do want to say to the friends (offline and online), neighbors, and family members who are more vulnerable than I am: I won't mock or dismiss your fears, and I'll do whatever I can to support you and have your back. If you need something, please let me know.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Female-Centered Stories and Some Thoughts on Man Pain

My husband and I went to a drive-in movie a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't been to one since I was a teenager, and there's a six screen complex not too far from where we live. They show double features of recently released movies and are much cheaper than normal theaters. The main challenge lies in going on an "off night" when there won't be a long line of cars waiting to get in before sunset.

It was a blast (it helps that we went in my new Toyota mini-SUV, which is pretty comfortable). We saw The Secret Life of Pets (which was fun and cute) and the new Ghostbusters Movie. In spite of the lukewarm reviews and my misgivings about remakes, it was an enjoyable movie that made me laugh. It actually wasn't a straight-up remake of the original, but a new story with four characters who didn't feel like female versions of the original cast. The main flaws were that the pace actually might have been a bit too fast in places, with less time for character development. There were a number of cameos and Easter eggs from the original movie that I enjoyed, but they probably would be over the head of younger viewers who haven't seen the original several times over the years. Also, they had an amusingly inaccurate portrayal of what it's like to be faculty trying (and failing) to get tenure at a major research university (female profs wearing spiked heels and having to clean out your desk the day the bomb is dropped instead of finishing out the academic year and fading away over the summer. Right), but movies usually mess up the details of academic life.

I'll admit, most of the reason I decided I wanted to see it was the rancor and derision some have expressed over the notion of making an action movie, especially a remake of one where the original all-male cast went unremarked, with a female cast. Remakes of beloved classics are always controversial, but I don't think for a second that it would have gotten anything like the same amount of negative press if it had been made with a cast of four contemporary male comedians, or (as is more usual today) with a central cast of, say, three men and one token woman (who would, of course, be billed below the guys in the credits).

Stories with male-heavy casts still seem to be regarded as normal and expected. No one's thought to have an agenda or accused of trying to "prove a point" when they write such stories. But have a movie that's mostly about women, and there has to be a reason (and if it's not about something where the characters have to be female and the target audience is female only) then the reason has to be that evil of evils, Political Correctness!

And while remakes always get more scrutiny, I'm guessing that any movie, especially comedies and action movies (where the cast doesn't have to be female) with an all-female cast will have more than its fair share of detractors, not to mention out right haters.

It's a bit like people who insist that a character in a book or movie shouldn't be black, or gay, transgendered, or differently abled, unless the plot requires them to be one of those things specifically. Yet male, white, straight, cis-gendered, or able bodied characters don't need to be justified. Such characters are supposed to be the "everyman" with whom any reader or viewer will relate.

So male-focused narratives still seem to be our default norm. Male actors still get the overwhelming majority of speaking roles in movies, and far more movies have male "lead" characters than female. Male characters even talk more in movies with female leads. Most films flunk the Bechdel Test (this is the test that asks whether a movie has at least two named female characters and whether they have at least one conversation with one another about something that isn't a man). It's much harder to get an accurate count for novels in different genres, but aside from genres aimed specifically at female readers, like Romance and Women's Fiction (the fact that books by and about women and their concerns gets its own "special interest" label kind of says it all, actually), I'm guessing a similar bias exists in most genres of published fiction that aren't aimed at a specific gender.

Men and their relationships, problems and concerns are Important and Interesting to everyone. Women are often presented as plot devices that advance the story of a male character, not as important agents in their own right. And the frustrating thing is, the more we see this presented as the default norm, the more invisible it becomes to us, and the more we notice (and sometimes resent) movies that step outside of this comfort zone.

This is a topic I've run across on a couple of blogs lately, re the topic of the plot element that's come to be called "man pain" or "mangst."

I grew up before the internet, so it was much harder to find people with whom to discuss concepts like the Double Standard, let alone have glib phrases like Women in Refrigerators. This doesn't mean these plot devices didn't exist or people didn't recognize them as problematic at times.

I first became aware of this phenomenon during my childhood (I'm old. Shut up), when we used to watch a show called the Six Million Dollar Man. It was about a former astronaut who had almost died and was rebuilt as a cyborg and had all these superpowers used to fight crime for a fictitious branch of the US government. There was a special multi-part episode called "The Bionic Woman," where the love of the protagonist's life (who had somehow never been mentioned in the plot before this episode) surfaced, and they were about to get married when she suffered a deadly parachuting accident (she was a Strong Female Action Girl type). He got his supervisors to use their technology to save her and make her a superpowered bionic woman, but alas, she rejected her bionics and died. He suffered horribly while this was happening, and the last scene was of him kissing her cold, dead face with a single manly tear sliding down his cheek.

I was so mad. There was this great woman character with superpowers, a rarity in the 70s, and they killed her off because they couldn't possibly detract from the male protagonist's importance by having him be married and sharing the limelight.

Evidently, my feelings weren't alone, because the producers brought the Bionic Woman back to life (she was really in a coma, see) and gave her her own show, but with a convenient case of Amnesia so she was no longer involved with the Bionic Man character. Her show had a successful run. As for the Bionic Man's man pain? It was conveniently dropped and forgotten when it was no longer relevant to his arc.

Unfortunately, I've run across this kind of thing over and over in the decades since, and most of the time the writers in question don't bring the female "plot device" back for a book, movie, or TV series of her own :(

In the defense of the creators of the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman shows, the 70s were a different time. The modern incarnation of the women's movement (or "Women's Liberation" as it was called back then), was younger and pretty controversial in many circles, but there seemed to be at least some interest in expanding viewerships by showing women in new and different roles in books, movies, and television with shows like Charlie's Angels and Wonder Woman (and of course, they tried to avoid alienating male viewers by having the female characters be very attractive and most often sexily clad) but many of the old prejudices and assumptions about gender still went unexamined. As they do today.

I wish the whole man pain thing would, if not die in a proverbial fire, at least be rarer, or examined with a more critical eye. I'd love to see more books, for instance, where a male character gets into one of those "her suffering is all about me" jags and be brought up short by the woman in question (or at least have someone ask him, "Are you so hung up on this because you're sad for her and miss her, or is it mostly because you're experiencing tedious masculine guilt because her death symbolizes your own personal failure?")

Men are cool. Men are important. Their relationships and feelings are interesting. They are half the human race, after all. But there is no shortage of stories about them. It would be nice to see more books, movies and TV shows where they share the limelight, or maybe even take on the support roles for a change.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Small, Personal Biases can Shape Society

I ran across this simulation called "A Parable of the Polygons." In a nutshell, it demonstrates how an integrated society can become increasingly segregated over time if individuals harbor even a small amounts of personal bias towards living near their own kind.

It's fun to play around with the numbers. One thing that's interesting is that once segregation occurs, an elimination of bias doesn't result in greater mixing. I'd love to see a version of this with more "shapes" and where the bias can be manipulated to be different for some "shapes" than others.

While this demonstration focuses on physical proximity, it's possible that something similar could happen with regards to the choices people make about the books they want to read (both with regards to the gender or race of the authors or of the characters therein).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea Trilogy

Shattered Sea Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, published in 2015 by Del Rey.

I've been quiet lately, but I just finished Half a War, the third book in Joe Abercrombie's YA The Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up the first novel in this series, Half a King. I really enjoyed his First Law Trilogy when I read it a couple of years back, in spite of finding a few bits and pieces problematic. I loved the way the author gave each pov character a distinct voice, narrative style, and personality and made me care about people I wouldn't like at all in real life.

I wasn't sure if his YA titles were going to be the same exact thing with teen protagonists, or if they were going to copy the style that dominates YA fantasy nowadays (nothing against it, but it's very different from Abercrombie's writing in some ways).

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The story is very different, but the world building is, if anything, deeper and more internally consistent than what appears in The First Law books and their sequels. The writing style is smoother and a little more consistent across characters, but each character still has their own voice and personality. Unlike a lot of YA fiction these days, the stories are written in limited third (and in past tense), but the narrative is so immersive that it feels as if the story is unfolding as it's read.

As for tone and style, there are fewer "f" bombs than in Abercrombie's adult fiction, but the characters still talk the way you'd expect warriors and sailors to talk. There's no dumbing down or sugarcoating anything just because the story is written with teens in mind. The protagonists have adult responsibilities thrust upon them (as one would expect in a war-torn, pre-industrial society), and they rise to the occasion convincingly without coming off as adults in teenagers' bodies.

One constraint placed on YA fantasy is the need to keep the story within a limited scope or time frame so the protagonists don't "age out" of the demographic as an epic tale or series unfolds. Abercrombie deals with this issue by changing viewpoint (pov) characters with each book. Half the World, takes place a few years later and follows two different viewpoint protagonists (not Yarvi, who was the protagonist in Half a King). Book three took place three years (more or less) after book two, and has three new and different pov characters.

This may be a bit frustrating to readers who prefer to stick with the same pov character/characters for an entire series, but in each case, the protagonists from the previous book appears as important secondary characters in the subsequent ones. The development of Yarvi's character across the series, as seen through the eyes of new povs, was particularly intriguing.

One thing that Abercrombie received some criticism for in his First Law trilogy was his treatment of women and the prevalence of rape and female victimhood as a plot element. Out of six pov characters in First Law, only one was female, and she was possibly the least developed of the bunch in terms of motivations and backstory. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, but it did bother me in a couple of places.

This was far less of an issue in the Shattered Sea Trilogy. While book one was more male-centric (only one character, who was male, had pov time), books two and three had well-developed female pov characters. The fantasy world portrayed wasn't a feminist utopia by any stretch, but women played an important role in the culture and society and all the female characters, viewpoint and secondary, had well-developed personalities, goals, and agency.

Another characteristic of this trilogy is that I found each book better than the one before it. I liked Half a King, really liked Half the World, and couldn't put Half a War down. The ending was satisfying and stand alone, but there's enough going on in this world that I'd be happy to read another book or series set in it if the author decided to write one. I'd love to learn more about who those "Elves" really were, though the narrative provided enough hints about their cities and artifacts for me to formulate some hypotheses of my own.

I recommend it to anyone who likes gritty, sword-and-sorcery style fantasy set in a low-magic world, centered around a culture that feels vaguely Norse. The writing is tight but full of voice, the pacing fast, the emotions intense, and the characters are flawed human beings who are nonetheless endearing.

Don't read below here if you don't want mild, non-specific spoilers/content warnings.

Things that may be issues for some readers: the stories contain a fair amount of gore, battle scenes with descriptions of injuries and death, slavery, some swearing, consensual sex that is less graphic than in the First Law trilogy (and endearingly awkward enough to remind us that the characters are teens), death of major characters, references to torture and mistreatment of prisoners. I don't remember rape being depicted or mentioned overtly in the story.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Pervasive Myth of the Chastity Belt

I remember learning about these devices in my European history class in high school. They were presented as lurid examples of how horrible it was to be a woman in the middle ages. People referenced them from time to time in articles or discussion, and their existence were pretty firmly in the camp of things "everyone knew" to be true. But something always bothered me about those stories: they didn't seem like something that could be terribly effective, unless they were constructed in a way that would make their wearer likely to succumb to a nasty infection.

Belt claimed to be from 16th-17th century

Of course, my misgivings turned out to be correct. There's little evidence that medieval and Early-Modern references to the things were anything but metaphors or jokes, and the "real" ones that exist seem to date no earlier than the 18th or 19th centuries, when they were probably created as fakes to put in "medieval torture museums," or perhaps as sexual novelty items.

Here's some reading on the history of this pervasive myth.

Add this to the long list of things people "know" about the middle ages that just ain't true. As the old adage goes, a lie makes it around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

BathRuby 2016 - The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality by Jane...

This is a fascinating video that touches on things I've noticed (as someone who teaches science at a college).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fantasy Novels I've Read Recently

We're already almost a quarter of a way through 2016, so I wanted to list some of the books I've read and enjoyed over the past two months or so. The last two, Updraft and Uprooted, were published in 2015 and are eligible for the 2016 Hugo Awards. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos this year (the March 31 deadline is rapidly approaching), I recommend you give these a read if you haven't already. I'd never tell anyone else what they should like, but I think both of these books are Hugo Worthy. 

The other titles on this list are excellent too, and I strongly recommend them.

Cover by Todd Lockwood
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Tor 2013. I put off reading this book, because I thought it was going to be a fake reference book or something, but it's actually a delightful story, written memoir style, about Isabel, a woman living in a quasi-Victorian world that is very similar to our own, except that it has dragons. Fantasy elements are slight, and the dragons portrayed are very naturalistic--intelligent animals. The book starts with a the protagonist's childhood memories of dissecting a dead dove (and getting punished for it) and collecting specimens, and nearly being killed by a creature called a "wolf drake."

After Isabel marries a man with similar interests, she manages to get them a berth on a research trip to a mountainous country to study a breed of dragons called "rock wyrms." The narration is alive with voice and the protagonist's wry wit, and the tale kept me riveted until the end. I've just read the sequel, entitled The Tropic of Serpents, and it's every bit as good. These books definitely a change of pace from the style of epic fantasy I usually prefer, but I enjoyed them thoroughly and plan on reading the rest of the books in this series.

Cover by John Jude Palencar
Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough. Ace books, 2011. Aral, the protagonist, is a former assassin priest of a goddess of justice who has been murdered by her fellow deities. Robbed of both faith and identity, he's a tattered remnant of his former self who works as a blade for hire between bouts of drinking. The only thing keeping him sane is Tris, his shadow-dragon familiar. I'm a sucker for "hot mess" characters and for stories with animal companions and magical familiars, so this premise attracted my interest. The author's wonderful deconstruction of the "trouble walked in wearing a red dress" trope in the opening scene drew me in.

The book was entertaining, cleanly written, and well paced, and I liked the pov character's voice. If there's a flaw, it's that the author was a bit light on environmental and character detail for my tastes. I tend to favor leanness here, but I couldn't really visualize the kinds of clothes they were wearing, the style of architecture, and the appearance, coloring, racial characteristics of the characters, so my mind kept defaulting to "pseudo-medieval, European with everyone white," but I don't know if this was the author's intent. It's a small thing, though. This is the first book in a series, and I look forward to reading the next one soon.

Cover by Kris Kamikakushi
"Hunting Monsters" by S.L. Huang. Book Smugglers Publishing 2014. This is a short story, published as a stand alone. It's available as an e-book on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online. Set in a fairy tale world (incorporating elements from "Little Red Riding Hood," "Beauty and the Beast" and other classic tales), this is a wonderful example of how a good writer can layer world building and history into a short story. Like many good fairy tale protagonists, the main character lives in a small cabin in the woods. On her fifteenth birthday, her mother is arrested for the murder of a grundwirgen, creatures that resemble beasts but are people in the eyes of the law.

The writing in this story is very good. I've always had a weakness for retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, and this one was a page turner.

Cover by Steven Martiniere
Updraft by Fran Wilde. Tor Books, 2015. This has to be one of the most unique speculative fiction settings I've ever encountered. Set in a world where people live in bone towers (which appear to grow from somewhere below the clouds) and fly on silk wings, it follows Kirit, a protagonist who wants to become a trader like her mother, but is manipulated into becoming one of the singers who protects her city safe from attacks by invisible predators.

As a singer in training, Kirit stumbles across multiple layers of intrigue and discovers a truth that could change her world forever. This story is fascinating and well written. If it has a fault, its that the alien setting and culture, along with the highly immersive approach to world building (it's told in a very "here and now" style of first person with not an info dump in sight) makes it hard to understand and relate to the characters' motives at times. This may be a fault in me as a reader and not the book itself, however, and I found myself increasingly pulled in as I read. I look forward to the sequel, which is coming out later this year.

Cover by Scott McKowen
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey books, 2015. This story draws from Polish fairy tales the author remembers from her childhood, and it's beautifully written. Set in a village where a 17-year-old girl is taken every ten years by the wizard who protects it from encroachment by a cursed wood, the story has a strong female protagonist who is driven by her love for her best friend. The world is vividly drawn and simultaneously familiar and relatable yet fresh with many unexpected twists. I liked the way the author was able to create a sense of menace while remaining basically optimistic about human nature. Kept me guessing until the end.

This is a stand alone-novel, something that's probably too rare in fantasy. I love series and I understand why writers and readers of fantasy like sweeping epics and want to return to their favorite worlds for tale after tale, but it's also pleasant to be able to lose oneself in a book and to reach the end without feeling like there are plot threads that still need to be tied off.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fantasy Novels Without War

Last time, I wrote about the popularity of war as a plot element in fantasy, but there are a number excellent novels that break with this tradition.

Before I can discuss this further, however, I have to define what I mean by military plot elements. This is important, because different readers may draw the line in different places, or differ in what they see as militaristic. I mentioned last time that a friend and I disagree about whether Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books are, at their heart, military stories, because I see the combat between the dragons and the thread as an "against nature" sort of context, but he has a point when he says that the dragon weyrs have many of the characteristics of a military, such as support via a system of tithes and a hierarchical rank structure.

For this reason, I've attempted to separate these ostensibly non-military fantasy novels into two broad categories: books where combat itself plays no significant role in the plot at all, and books where there are skirmishes and armed conflict at times, but it exists in a context that is personal or disorganized. In both cases, any "action," such that it is, is either incidental or a consequence of other plot elements, not what drives the main plot overall.
Original paperback edition of The Last Unicorn.
Cover art by Gervasio Gallardo

One fantasy classic I can think of that is an example of the first kind of story is Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (Viking Press, 1968). This stand-alone story is a well-beloved tale about a unicorn who suddenly realizes that she is the last of her kind and must find her missing brethren.

Another non-military fantasy I read quite recently is Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books, 2014). This is a fantasy of manners about mixed-race prince, raised away from court, who unexpectedly ascends the throne of Elfland and must learn to hold his own in the backstabbing world of politics.

Barbara Hambley's Stranger at The Wedding (Del Rey, 1994) is another story that could be described as a fantasy of manners. Its protagonist is Kyra, a young wizard who must crash her sister's wedding and surreptitiously use her meager assortment of spells to disrupt the nuptials and save her sister's life.

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (originally published by Eyre and Spottiswoode between 1948-1959) is about as non-military as a fantasy story can be. This is a gothic fantasy, one that's actually lacking in magical elements, with a plot that centers around machinations and jostling for position within a family. The characters don't even step outside their castle until the third book.

Mary Robinette Kowal's regency-style Glamourist History series (published by Tor books between 2010-2015) are set in a Regency-era world that is reminiscent of Jane Austin's stories, but one where ladies of quality are expected to be magicians.

Marie Brennan's Lady Trent novels (Tor books 2014, 2015) take place in a fictitious world with very Victorian sensibilities and follows the adventures of a "lady naturalist" who becomes her country's most celebrated expert on dragons.

Although the above novels are very different, they do share two things--little to no combat or "action" in the sense that many fantasy readers mean the term, and plotting where the stakes are highly personal, even if a deeper conspiracy is discovered as the story unfolds.

The second group of novels are more violent than the previous ones, and may contain some skirmishes and bloodshed, but larger-scale military conflicts don't drive the plot in any meaningful way.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. (BBC Books, 1996). Based on the TV show by the same name that he co-wrote with Lenny Henry. Gaiman's stories get emotionally intense, violent and scary at times, but armies, pitched battle, and military campaigns aren't factors.

The Earthsea cycle by Ursula K Le Guin (first volumes published in 1968 by Parnassus Press) are a classic high fantasy where the stakes start out personal and expand until Ged and his companions save the world from the damage caused by magic. A raid on the protagonist's home village serves as plot catalyst at the beginning, but after that, there's little combat aside from one-on-one wizard's duels.

Patrick Rothfuss's The name of the Wind (Penguin Group, 2007) has a nasty fight with a bunch of giant spiders in the opening chapter, and a battle with a giant lizard near the end, but military engagements are notably absent. As of the end of the second book in the series, however, it appears that a larger-scale armed conflict is on the horizon.

The Harry Potter Novels by JK Rowling (Scholastic Books, 1997-2007) have plenty of physical conflict, and no few deaths, throughout the series. But there really isn't anything that could be described as a battle until the end of the last book. And that didn't take place in any kind of military context.

Fran Wilde's Updraft (Tor, 2015) is set in a world where people live in bone towers and fly with silk wings. While one-one-one combat between characters is important, the antagonists in her world resemble a secret police force, not an army.

The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch (Bantam Spectra, 2006-present) is filled with cloak and dagger and intrigue aplenty, along with some good old fashioned swashbuckling action, but as of the latest installment, the focus hasn't been on military conflicts.

I could keep listing examples, but if I did, I'd be writing all night. Many of Terry Pratchett's satirical Discworld novels focused on fantasy elements besides war (it really depended on which tropes he was taking a poke at). Same for many books by Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley. And while Mercedes Lackey's Velgarth books usually contained a battle, and her heralds represented an elite group of officers, her Elemental Masters novels are simply fairy tale retellings that are, at their hearts, love stories.

So even though the fantasy genre (especially  fantasy taking place in secondary worlds) has the reputation for plots that center around the mustering of armies and the fighting of epic battles, there are a number of authors who have created individual novels, even series, where the plots are driven by relationships, intrigue, smaller-scale conflicts, personal goals, and political machinations. While many of these stories have stakes that are intensely personal, some do end up impacting the fate of entire kingdoms or worlds.

The take home message is that fantasy is a diverse genre with ample room for character driven stories that encompass a broad range of topics.

I know I've only scratched the surface here and have left out a number of great examples. Feel free to comment with more titles.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

RIP Pat Conroy

I don't generally mention deaths in my blog. But When I read about the passing of Pat Conroy yesterday, it made me very sad. He had an ability to make this reader care deeply about someone with whom they might have little in common on the surface. I think it's because of his rare gift for bleeding emotions onto the page. Walk in the light, Mr. Conroy. You were one of the greats.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Why is the Fantasy Genre so Focused on War?

Warfare plays an important role in the fantasy genre. Many of its most iconic works embrace military themes, either as a central plot element or as a disruptive force that's more in the background but still creating obstacles and conflict for the protagonists.

Sometimes the military is front and center, as in Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksennarion novels or Django Wexler's Shadow Campaign. Other times battles occur intermittently throughout the series where much of the focus is on something else, as in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, and other times, war is completely in the background but still influencing the story, as in Carol Berg's Lighthouse Duology.


I've wondered why this is. Many people look at the genre as escapist, and war is one of life's less pleasant realities. Few of us really want to live in its shadow as civilians or soldiers, and painstaking descriptions of military training, tactics, camp life, not to mention indignities such as dysentery, can be quite dull. Conflict, change, and stakes are necessary plot elements in any story, and war can certainly create these, yet other genres of fiction find ways to test their characters and introduce change without a focus on sieges, battles and military strategies or tactics. It's possible to create stories with compelling stakes that have nothing to do with war. This is the norm in many genres

When I put this question to some of my fellow fantasy readers and writers, one explanation was that historical epics, such as Gilgamesh and The Iliad focused heavily on battles and wars. Fantasy as a genre often attempts to recreate or evoke the tropes presented in these traditional tales, which often contained magical or supernatural elements.

The success of Tolkien's work is also a possible explanation. While he didn't dwell on the nitty gritty day-to-day life of soldiers, or even on military tactics, no one can argue that war was an important part of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Given Tolkien's influence on the genre, it's hardly surprising that many writers adopted his approach. A focus on enemies who are unilaterally evil and under the control of a dark figure that must be stopped certainly does turn war into something that's more appealing from an escapist perspective.

I can't help but wonder how much of fantasy's sometimes idealistic portrayal of war was shaped by the two world wars in particular. Tolkien fought in WWI and lived through WWII as well. He claimed that his work was not meant to be allegorical, but it's hard not to see parallels between fascism and the minions of Sauron.

And Tolkien aside, those of us who were born and came of age in the decades following WWII had our consciousness shaped by the cultural memory of a war that really was against an implacable evil that could have destroyed civilization as we know it. Few would argue in hindsight that a more pacifistic approach would have been the best one in that particular instance. Could the warlike nature of late twentieth and early twenty-first century fantasy represent a collective desire to escape to a world where moral ambiguity was (in hindsight, at least) less than it is today? This is certainly possible, though I can't think of a way to test, or falsify such a hypothesis.

Another thing to consider is that war stories are often anti war stories at their heart. All Quiet on the Western Front is an iconic example here, but there are plenty of others. Fantasy novels are notably absent from this list, but I don't think fantasy writers always portray war in a positive light. TH White's The Once and Future King is a retelling of Mallory's version of the Arthurian legend, a heroic epic, yet some feel it was inspired by his own pacifism and misgivings about nationalism as he came to terms with a war (WWII) where the enemy clearly had to be stopped.

Other fantasy writers like Moorcock, and more recently Abercrombie, have also sought to deconstruct some of the tropes popularized by Tolkien and other fantasy writers from the earlier part of the 20th century. Moorcock's Elric saga, and the Abercrombie's novels are very violent and war-centered, yet neither glorifies war or presents it as something that improves the world.

And there are plenty of other explanations why war is so commonly portrayed in fantasy novels. It's often stated that in the early-to-mid 20th century at least, fantasy was traditionally aimed (with some noteworthy exceptions) at young, male readers. This is a demographic that is often drawn to tales of adventure, heroics, and self-sacrifice, and while war isn't necessary for stories to embrace such themes, it certainly lends itself well to them.

It's also possible to overstate the prevalence of war in fantasy, as there are a number of popular and iconic fantasy tales, many very recent, but some quite old, that have no military, battle, or war in them at all, or if they do, it's so much in the background that it has little to no impact on the plot. One thing that's really hard to do, given the thousands of trade-published titles (not to mention all the self published work that's become available more recently), is to actually tally up the books published during a given period to see if there are certain plot elements or themes which become more or less prevalent.

The diversity of the genre itself becomes problematic here. How does one define a war-focused story to begin with? Are Rowling's Harry Potter books war focused because the last book in the series had the siege of Hogwarts in it? I'd say it really isn't, but some might not agree.

A case in point, is that I never really thought of McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books as militaristic, since it's unthinkable in that world to pit dragon against dragon or go to war over land when the whole planet must cooperate to survive. To me, these books always felt more like a long disaster relief effort with coming of age stuff, romance, interpersonal drama, and cloak and dagger plots, but a friend recently told me that they always made him think of one unending Battle of Britain, but with mindless spores instead of enemy planes and bombs. He has a point.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Great Secondary World Fantasy by Woman Authors You Might Not Know

 Since March is Women's History month, I thought I'd write about women who are currently writing traditional fantasy (by traditional, I mean fantasy that takes place in a secondary, pre-industrial setting).

I became a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy in the 1970s and 80s, and I've been reading it ever since. While I read all types, my primary interest has been traditional "space focused" SF,  and traditional "secondary world" fantasy. For a long time, most of my favorite writers of speculative fiction were women. They included writers like C.J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Lynn Flewelling, Kate Elliott, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Elliot, Kage Baker, Elizabeth Moon, and Anne McCaffrey. My bias was somewhat deliberate, because I noticed that a lot of the popular male SF and fantasy writers of that time period treated female characters (and relationships between the genders) in a way that didn't appeal to me.

Sometime during the early 2000s, I decided I needed to remedy my female bias in reading, and I started reading some of the newer male authors

Not dismissing the men here. Many of my favorite fantasy authors have been male. But with all the controversy over at the SFWA, I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately. Epic fantasy has taken a darker, grittier turn in recent years, and it also seems like fewer of the new voices in adult secondary world fantasy have been women in recent years, though there have been a lot of women writing YA fantasy and urban fantasy. When people recommend fantasy, or discuss their favorite authors, female writers often get overlooked.

Here's a list of some woman fantasy writers I've read personally who have set at least some of their more recent novels in secondary worlds and who write primarily for an adult audience. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've tried to emphasize some writers who are a bit more recent.

Kristen Britain: Green Rider Series. This tale is set in a more traditional fantasy world, where special messengers called Green Riders serve their king. An enjoyable tale with a strong female protagonist.

Amanda Downum: The Drowning City (first book in the Necromancer Chronicles). A great female protagonist, and a cool take on necromancy in general.

Lynn Flewelling: The Nightrunner series and the Tamir Trilogy. She's been writing for a while, and has a strong following, but a surprising number of epic fantasy fans haven't read her work. Her fantasy society is ruled by a lineage of warrior queens and served by a network of wizards and spies, and intrigue and conflict figure prominently in these stories.

N.K. Jemison: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: This is her debut novel, and it's a complex tale of intrigue and ambition, set in a fascinating world.

Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennett: Havemercy. This is the first book in a series that is set in a world where a country with a Czarist Russia feel uses mechanical dragons to fight their enemies.

Francis Knight: The Rojan Dizon Trilogy (Fade to Black, Before the Fall and Last to Rise). Darkish fantasy set in a dystopian theocracy where magic is fueled by pain.

Glenda Larke: The Stormlords Trilogy and the Isles of Glory Trilogy. Both of these have great world building and intriguing characters. The water-based magic system in the Stormlords books is wonderful.

Jane Lindskold: The Firestarter series. The protagonist is a girl raised by intelligent wolves, but this doesn't stop her from becoming embroiled in a web of royal intrigue. Lots of twists and unexpected turns. An added bonus is that the author actually researched wolf behavior and social structure and didn't rely on the outdated stereotypes and assumptions that clutter up far too many stories.

Anne Lyle: The Night's Masque Trilogy. This is set in an alternative Elizabethan England, where an intelligent, magic-using species that is decidedly not human inhabits the new world.

Maria V. Snyder. Poison Study. I've heard that this is marketed as YA, and as a romance, but it doesn't really fit the typical mold for these genres (the protagonist is 19, already past the usual cut-off age for YA at the beginning of the series, and ages throughout. Plus the romance is an important part of the tale, but not its main focus). An interesting debut novel set in an unusual fantasy world.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Some Fun Fantasy Reads From 2015

Swords and Scoundrels, by Julia Knight. Published by Orbit Books.

This story centers around Kacha and Vocho, a sister and brother who have been exiled from the Duelists Guild because Vocho killed a man he had been hired to protect. They're making ends meet as highwaymen until they rob the wrong carriage and are plunged into a conspiracy. This story is set in a flintlock and Rapier world where people worship a clockwork god and live in a city where the buildings rearrange themselves at set intervals. It's a really fun read, filled with plot twists, conspiracies, and divided loyalties that will keep the reader guessing until the end. The tale continues in the sequels, Legends and Liars and Warlords and Wastrels.

Black Wolves, by Kate Elliot. Published by Orbit Books.

Set in the same universe as her Spirit Gate Trilogy,  this novel stands alone and does an excellent job of pulling a new reader into the author's rich and complex world, which centers around a kingdom called The Hundred. It has several pov characters, but the connections between these characters keep the story from meandering the way some fantasy epics do. It's not easy to give a thumbnail sketch of this book, but it centers around the power struggle between the current King of the Hundred, his wives, their sons, and their various allies. A major theme in this book is change within a society and conflict between cultures. And don't let the cover and blurbs that focus on male characters fool you. Three out of five of the protagonists are women, and the author does an excellent job of portraying women, even ones who are from cultures that cloister them, as major players with agency and goals. I'm looking forward to the next installation.

Dust and Light, by Carol Berg. Published by Roc Books.

Set in the same universe as her Lighthouse duology, this book book can be easily read by someone unfamiliar with Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone (though those are well worth reading as well). Magic is hereditary in Berg's world, and sorcerers occupy a privileged, yet constrained position, as the use of their magic is controlled and contracted by the restrictive pureblood registry. The story centers around young Lucian de Remeni-Masson, a pureblood sorcerer who has been stripped of half his magic for unseemly conduct with an "ordinary." He and his sister are struggling to survive after the rest of their family was murdered by savage Harrowers. When he's forced to accept the contract of Bastien, master of the local dead house, Lucien's talent for creating portraits that tell the truth about the dead lands him in a world of trouble.  Like with Berg's earlier books, the narrative is in first person and she does a fine job of portraying the voice and personality of her protagonist and making the reader care about him and his problems. The second book in this duo, Ash and Silver, was released in December, and I plan on reading it soon.

Finn Fancy Necromancy, by Randy Henderson. Published by Tor Books.

I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this author came to my attention when I attended the Cascade Writer's Conference in 2014. The protagonist, Finn Gramaraye, was framed for the crime of dark necromancy 25 years ago, and the story begins as he ends his exile from his body to the Other Side (an ethereal place of existence populated by the fey) and returns to his body, which has been helpfully occupied by a changeling to keep it alive during Finn's sentence, in the mortal realm. But the person who got him in trouble last time doesn't want him back in the mortal world, and Finn, with the help of his eccentric family, are going to have to find out what really happened and prove it to the Arcane Enforcers. The story has got a great voice and plenty of dark humor. The next book in the series, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, is coming out in February.

The Waking Engine, by David Eddison. Published by Tor Books.

This novel was published in 2014, but I didn't read it until last year. As someone who is a fan of classic fantasy, I wasn't sure if this book would appeal to me, but the author did a good job of drawing me into his basic premise, which is somewhat similar to that of the Riverworld series. When you die, you awaken in another world, where you live until you die again. Rinse, repeat. Until you awaken in the City Unspoken, which holds the gateway to true death. But Cooper is an anomaly. He seems to have skipped to the end of the line, and he awakens in the City Unspoken without ever having died at all (his navel from his "first birth" is still intact). He may be the only one who can solve a problem that threatens to unravel the metaverse: the gateway to true death seems to be malfunctioning and the Undying City is thronged with people who have nowhere else to go and are repeatedly dying and being reborn in the same place. Cooper is no kick-butt protagonist; he's more like an Arthur Dent--confused, bemused, and in over his head--but he never lost my sympathy. The author also made good use of the omniscient pov, something I haven't run across much in fantasy lately.