Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 30, 2009

Author interview – Blake Charlton, Spellwright

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 2:50 pm

This sounds fascinating, and I shall have to read it.

Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy

Filed under: review,Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 2:48 pm

Another library book I don’t have in front of me anymore. Released in the US & Canada as “Scepter of the Ancients”.

This is YA, with the requisite 13-year old heroine. Stephanie (Valkyrie Cain) is tough, active, but definitely not feisty – she actually gets things done, instead of spending all her time acting out and screeching. She’s not a fan of arbitrary authority, but then that’s a trait of sensible adults as well as sensible teenagers.

Lots of good stuff here; magic, adventure, a paranormal community with some practices that make sense and aren’t explained in tiresome detail, and a smart-talking skeleton detective. Recommended.

Amanda Downum – The Drowning City

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:28 pm

This was a chance discovery at the library. Let me just take a moment to explain why my local library FAILS at shelving. They’ve very carefully taken all the SF and fantasy books (a task made easier by the fact that they all have “SF” classmarks on the spine) and sorted them in alphabetically with other fiction. Crime (detective, police procedural, &c.) still has its own section; so do YA and black fiction. In all three of those sections, there are SF books. I’m not philosophically enamoured of sorting books by genre, but I do strongly prefer to have them sorted by likeness, and publishing-genre gives a good first-pass model for that. Also, the less time I have to spend wading through third-class chick lit[1] and “auto”-biographies of pop singers or models, the better.

Anyway, the book! Haven’t got it in front of me any longer, so this will be fairly brief.

The environment is basically South Asian in inspiration, but the heroine has travelled from a European-ish country. Downum doesn’t shy away from either skin colours or colonialism, and does a good job of depicting tensions between races[2] & nationalities. The magic system is well thought out and interesting.

Oddly, the author Downum reminds me of most is Tamora Pierce (I’m thinking particularly of Wolf-Speaker and Trickster’s Choice), but this is definitely not YA.

[1] I’ll happily read first-class chick lit. But it’s too rare for me to want to look through it deliberately.

[2] Actual races, not this dwarves-and-elves shite.

November 25, 2009

Werewolves & other bullies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:20 am

Something else that always annoys me in fantasy: werewolves. It’s like every other time I turn around these days, there’s a pack of furry arseholes obsessed with establishing their one-dimensional dominance hierarchies by glaring, snarling, and beating each other up.

Why do people find this interesting? It’s not fun (even if you happen to be the bully on the top of the pile) and it doesn’t make for much more than formulaic stories. Trying to get something done despite being surrounded by idiots who think it matters that they can beat you up? Sounds far too much like a crude caricature of school, to me, without even the blessing that it stops after five years. Apparently, if you’re a werewolf you’re stuck playing dominance games for the rest of your furry life, and the way to get things done is to learn how to beat people up yourself.

It could be that it’s a variant of the waaaaaaah-modern-life-SUCKS feudal wankery which used to afflict fantasy so badly – you know the one, the stories which hark back to a simpler, nobler age, where the loyal, sturdy peasantry took an uncomplicated delight in their simple lives while dedicated, honourable nobles protected them from dire threats. While living in their huge castles and eating vast amounts of meat every night. In the werewolf variant, nobody has to bother with democracy, or consensus-building, or social niceties, or a chores rota; it’s straight back to the firm mutual bonds of kinship and community, where everyone knows their place and the solution to a crazed or incompetent leader is to rip his throat out.

Of course, it could be a cunning way to problematize this sort of community – I’ve seen the occasional werewolf story where someone (usually a female someone) tries just to opt out of the power structure, and gets slapped down and dragged back in[1], on the “join in our way or stay at the bottom” principle. The problem is, I’ve never yet seen a story where the fucked-up society gets changed, and the impulse to rip out your political opponent’s throat gets treated as an embarrassing display of bad manners.

Most authors seem to deal with that by giving werewolves some sort of implanted mystical dominance hierarchy crap, “like real wolves”, so that otherwise sensible people become compelled to play silly buggers with Greek letters, and get driven into a rage by challenges to their status. So the message there is that certain types of people[2] are just naturally what they are, and the social structure of your community is decreed by mystic woo-woo biology? Dodgy literature[3] at best.

I would say, this is the kind of subgenre that’s crying out for an Octavia Butler; but she took on much broader targets, and ones that posed a lot of difficulty to a large proportion of her SF-reading constituency.

I can’t think of a social message from werewolf stories except “bullies are bad” and “dominance hierarchies are an annoying waste of time” – and frankly, SF/fantasy readers generally know that already. It doesn’t necessarily stop them engaging in that behaviour amongst themselves, but then that’s domination systems for you.

[1] If my memory doesn’t fail me, then one of Kelley Armstrong’s novels (Bitten?) has a scene where two male pack members drag a woman back so the pack can force her to get pregnant by a man of their choice. This one actually comes the closest I’ve seen to fixing them, when the woman points out that it wouldn’t happen if they didn’t all cooperate with the psycho on the top of the pile.

[2] There are no non-people. If it’s in a book, and it talks, it’s a person – what we see from it is an illustration of something about people. Nobody ever gets a free pass because “werewolves are like that”. It’s as bad as “all orcs are minions of evil”. Nobody is ever condemned by genetics to be a minion, let alone evil. The idea that some people are natural Alphas and the rest of us are peons makes me see red.

[3] Similarly, there is no non-literature. Nothing gets a pass because it has bad art on the cover or gold lettering for the title. It all deals with the human condition, with life and hope and relationships between people.

November 5, 2009

Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:02 pm

Like Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the Aeneid, and Aeneas is about to land on the shore of Latium. Our viewpoint character is Lavinia, king’s daughter and faceless cipher in Vergil’s poem – but, since this is LeGuin, it gets Complex. The Lavinia who speaks to us is not a historical character precisely, not a real person[1] in the secondary creation, but the character in the poem, rounded out and given life in the Miltonian sense[2].

She has a series of conversations with Vergil as he lies dying, and he’s enjoying getting to know her properly – rather than the one-dimensional character with no lines that he wrote. “I thought you were a blonde.” On the other hand, there’s no recrimination or contempt for his (lack of) characterization, and it’s obvious that the poet’s insufficiency (unfinishedness – there’s quite a debate about that) hasn’t detracted from the secondary world. LeGuin obviously loves the text, even without the afterword explaining so, and she describes the countryside of mythic Latium very evocatively.

I say mythic, because LeGuin’s always very conscious of the Aeneid’s roots in Octavian’s time – the afterword discusses why she had the characters drinking wine and eating olives despite the agricultural anachronisms involved. This is very much a novel which looks forward rather than backward – that’s absolutely characteristic for LeGuin, but rare in fiction set in Classical times.

[1] Insofar as “real person” has any meaning in fiction, but you get what I mean.
[2] For books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them equal to that soul whose progeny they are.

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