Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 5, 2012

What I see when I look at fantasy book covers

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:26 pm

It’s not all fantasy that’s like this (thank goodness) but you can see the basic tropes making this unmistakably Extruded Fantasy Product.

  • Importantly, there is no frame: the full-bleed background extends to the edges of the cover. It must be as photorealistic as possible, and preferably show either a wild romantic landscape or a dark gritty urban scene.
  • The cover text is very much not part of the image, but splashed on top. Text is metadata, the image is in the world, and the two must never ever interact (beyond decorative overlapping) or the author’s legion of dedicated fanboys will get very nervous and shouty.
  • The title font is unnecessarily ornate & curly, with the metallic foiling that tells the discerning fanboy “this is really High Class fantasy”.
  • This is a really High Class author, so he gets metallic foiling too, and an enthusiastic blurb from a completely & very distinctly different author in the same genre.
  • Extruded Fantasy Product often contains a lot of compound nouns in the title, usually made up of at least two of the following components: sword, horse, crown, shadow, throne, star, demon, dragon, blade, thorn, bone, wind, skull, moon. Otherwise, it is mandatory to use an invented place name or culture name in the title, viz. “Throne-Moon of Corokhai”, or “Revenge of the Aaladrii”.
  • Magic sword. You can tell it’s magic because it has that purple swirly halo effect. Magic is purple. And swirly. In some cases, you have the sword without the magic swirly bit, or vice versa. This may or may not be the sword referred to in the title; it may be the crowndragon, whatever a crowndragon is.
  • The all-important Hooded Man. If it doesn’t have a bloke with a big weapon front & centre, it just ain’t got that fanboy appeal. His features are in shadow, to avoid spoiling the “it might be YOU” feeling. Also important: stubble (not shown) for that handsome gritty look. He should be muscular & Hollywood Grimy for the full effect, in a very homoerotic manner. NB: The man is depicted in a dark, moody, gritty colour palette. This does not mean he is not white. Sometimes, the figure may be female; if so, she will be depicted in a very sexualised manner, and almost certainly in an anatomically unlikely pose. She will often be wearing a corset, possibly designed to look like armour; she may or may not have a face. Her hair, in any event, will be long and will not be tied back.

April 28, 2011

Here Be Cartographers – Reading the Fantasy Map

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 8:28 pm

If you enjoyed my essay ‘On the Meaning of Maps‘, you’ll really like Nicholas Tam’s excellent and well-illustrated essay here, courtesy of Jonathan McCalmont’s “Horizontal Connections” column at Strange Horizons (which everyone should be reading).

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

April 2, 2011

Signal boost: calling cartographers!

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 11:53 pm

Saladin Ahmed is looking for an artist who’ll make a beautiful map of his fantasy world to go inside the hardcover of his debut novel. It probably isn’t a formally paying gig, but there’s almost certainly something reciprocal in it. His post about it is here, so if you have any mapping experience please consider it.

I have to declare a strong interest myself, as On the Meaning of Maps will show. More art in books, especially with the risibly bad state of fantastika cover art, is Always Good. Providing a map that could exist in the world, as an artistic object as well as a functional one, is even better.

February 20, 2011

Some common myths about JRR Tolkien

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:27 pm

There are a couple of immutable truths about any discussion of fantasy subgenres. Someone will talk about “rewriting the Lord of the Rings”; and someone will completely misunderstand what Tolkien was writing about. So I’ve listed a few common myths about his work, with refutations. This shouldn’t need saying, but it does: I’m talking only about the books here. The films are good in their own way, but they are not the same artistic entity and not aimed in the same direction.

Myth #1: The Lord of the Rings is purely consolatory fantasy. Everything gets better in the end.

This is arrant nonsense. The book has four endings, because it needs them; the message is that winning is hard, and protracted, and there are more battles to fight beyond the final push, the secret weapon, the big resolution. And that there will always be scars. Some things just don’t get better. Frodo and Sam are genuinely resigned to death after Mount Doom, before the sheer kitschy wonder of Iluvatar’s own SAR squadron coming down out of the north; while we were off destroying one evil abroad, another evil was destroying and corrupting our home; and when we’ve beaten that, despite all the rejoicing and celebration, some people don’t recover. Lobelia is frail and humbled; Will Whitfoot is starved thin; the Gaffer’s own home is demolished; and Frodo’s wound never quite heals. And in the fourth ending, the Ringbearers go over the Sea to Valinor, but that’s hardly an unmixed blessing. Deathlessness is not given to mortals unless they really, really need it—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam need to spend time there to rest and heal.

It extends to a larger scale, too. The Elves are sailing westwards, taking the Rings of Power with them, and the Wizards too. Magic is going out of the world. (That may or may not be a Bad Thing; personally, I think it isn’t, and that it’s a necessary development. I also like to think that the Professor agreed with me.)

Myth #2: The main plotline of The Lord of the Rings is the battle against Sauron, and his destruction.

Sauron is a sideshow, really. He doesn’t do anything himself during the course of the entire book; his entire MO is to corrupt others and to make them do his work, even when they oppose him. (Denethor, for instance.) So it’s not as though destroying him would do very much to prevent the current apocalyptically bad spread of evil.

Instead, the quest is to destroy the Ring, into which Sauron placed the essence of his corrupting power and control—it’s a reified metaphor, and the heroes refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil. (Incidentally, that’s a truly dreadful stealth pun. I love the Professor for so many reasons.)

Myth #3: All the good guys are Aryan.

The Rohirrim are certainly tall and blonde (since they’re Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but the descendants of the Númenoreans are generally fair-skinned, dark-haired and grey-eyed. In Letter 211, Tolkien actually described the Gondorians as Egyptianate—that would certainly explain the tall stepped architecture. (Tolkien’s Middle-earth doesn’t look like Medieval Europe – Michael Martinez) I don’t think we can entirely get away from picturing the Men of Gondor as white people, but they’re certainly a mongrel race of some sort; nine ships full of colonists, in one wave, are not going to make a country without significant intermarriage.

Tolkien’s Dwarves are well-known to be influenced by Semitic cultures—in fact, they’re quite a blatant Jewish stereotype, progressive for its time but still problematic. Clannish, conservative, and magnificently bearded, the men keep their women to themselves and love gold and beautiful things. They do not serve the Enemy in themselves, but can in extremis be corrupted through their greed. They’re ferocious (The OMT is “doughty”) warriors; Israelite—and Israeli—armies had a fearsome reputation for a very good reason. And the Dwarves are very definitely, implacably on the side of Good.

Myth #4: Tolkien’s aesthetics are clear; beauty is good, and evil is ugly.

Denethor loses none of his grandeur and nobility in his despair, and Saruman’s voice is still utterly beautiful. The Silmarils, the most beautiful pieces of craftwork ever made, turned kin against kin, race against race, and set off tragedy after tragedy. Fëanor so loved his work that he doomed the world to live forevermore without the light of the Trees.

As for Good, nobody ever describes Dwarves as pretty—or Hobbits, for that matter! Strider, when he first appears in the Prancing Pony, is never described as handsome or even clean, and the hobbits take against him for his looks; he describes himself as having “rather a rascally look”; and even says, “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.

Myth #5: The countless imitators are somehow accurate representations of Tolkien’s work.

Like whom? The ones most often cited are Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. Brooks & Goodkind have no similarity beyond swords-and-horses, cool-stuff-happening-in-secondary-worlds superficialities. Eddings was very specifically a Campbellian formula writer; Jordan’s entire fantasy oeuvre is an unnecessarily extended artistic response to Eddings; and Martin is not discernably descended from Tolkien at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s versions of the Wars of the Roses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is in some ways similar, but it’s a portal-quest trilogy, bringing in 20th century Americans; the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre. It would be like transporting Sir Orfeo and Ysbaddaden Chief Giant to Deptford.

Fundamentally, if anyone ever mentions Tolkien on the cover of someone else’s book, it’s marketing fluff. Ignore it.

Myth #7: The Lord of the Rings is wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It’s not written in a boulomaic modality (ie. “things are not this way; they should be”) at all; it’s an elegiac might-have been, an alternate distant past that might have led to this future. Also, and this is vitally important: it is a text, not a world. The epistemic modality we’re given is not that of the events of the story, or the people; instead, we are asked only to pretend that this book exists, that there is a history called the Red Book of Westmarch, and to treat it in the same light as we do Herodotus’s Histories or the History of the Kings of Britain.

Fantasy readers are almost universally extremely bad at that. We have the ingrained reflex of trust, of epistemic acceptance (suspension of disbelief)—we take it merely as a convention that these things did not happen, never happened, could not happen, but are nevertheless written about. It is hard for us to see the text for the story, the telling for the tale. To preempt a sadly obvious quibble—this is, of course, not to say that SF readers are any better. We don’t see the text any more than we look through a window and see the glass. But in the final analysis, a book is not a window, any more than it is a world.

February 14, 2011

DNF fantasies

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:53 pm

I’ve a couple of books here I couldn’t get through, so consider this a review of about the first third or half of each. I may go back to either or both, but right now I have better things to read.

The Adamantine Palace, by Stephen Deas: This one reads like a cross between Pern and A Song of Ice and Fire, and neither dragons nor royal politics hold a great deal of interest for me these days. It’s not badly written; it’s just not for me.

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stock): I picked this up because I hadn’t read anything so thoroughly Trad Fantasy in a long time, and because translated fiction (especially Eastern European, for some reason) always appeals to me a little more. The basic premise of it was fine if formulaic (orphaned royal heir adopted and trained by mystic warrior society, some sort of Prophecy going on in the background) but I got bogged down somewhere around the extended training montage and travelling scenes.

I’m also quite likely not to finish The Edge of the World, by Kevin J Anderson: I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages if it hadn’t been the only book I had with me on a long tube journey. The worldbuilding-mystery is interesting, but since this is apparently Book 1 of N, I’m not likely to get much payoff from it, and the writing style is very generalized, disengaged, and notional—very much tell rather than show.

January 17, 2011

Blake Charlton – Spellwright

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Spellwright cover imageThis came hotly hyped and urgently recommended, and it did indeed sound perfect for me—a fantasy story about a wizard, in a world where magic is text and a sentence written in the language of magic can become a weapon, a tool, or a way to change someone’s mind. Cover quotes from Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Daniel Abraham (we’ll skate lightly over the one from Terry Brooks) testify to the kind of demographic this is pitched at. It’s a pity about the cover artwork, consisting as it does of the worst kind of hooded-white-bloke-with-boring-glowing-stuff tedium, but a look around the internet reassures me that the one I have is the worst of its many covers, and that most of them (in particular, the US cover by Todd Lockwood) are a great deal better.

Annoyingly, Voyager haven’t given any indication on the cover that Spellwright is the first part of a trilogy. If you’re the kind of reader who wants everything wrapped up, then I’d suggest waiting for the others to come out—the next, Spellbound, is due in the autumn. On the other hand, the basic plot arc here is finished off neatly, though there are plenty of hooks for the next one, and I didn’t feel unsatisfied with it as a book in itself.

The book’s central conceit is fascinating, and well explored. Nicodemus Weal is a wizard (a “spellwright”) who can’t spell right[1], and who may or may not be either the saviour of humanity (the Halcyon); the protector of the Druids, the Peregrine; or the Storm Petrel, the champion of chaos. Explaining how order & chaos link in with the languages of magic would constitute a spoiler, but it’s an interesting episode when it does, and I look forward to seeing the grand themes played out.

Starhaven, the spellwrights’ university, is a distinctive setting with its pre-human buildings and a long arched bridge leading into a sheer cliff face. Like most other wizardly academies it’s an old, complex place, baroquely detailed and full of odd traditions. Normally, these schools are characterful enough in their own right to qualify as edifice fantasy, but I see a bit less of that here. Starhaven feels rather static—more of a backdrop than a participant. Unlike some of the more venerable literary universities—for example, Pratchett’s Unseen University, LeGuin’s Great House on Roke, and Barbara Hambly’s Citadel of Wizards—it’s hard to read Starhaven as contingent or mysterious, hard to imagine that a hallway might abruptly change its mind about its destination or debouch into a summer garden that was yesterday’s hand-numbingly cold lecture theatre.

Most of the text is similarly functional & static; instead of metaphor or description, Charlton usually gives us narrative and statement. Partly, I suspect, that’s because of the sheer amount of setting & magic-system detail he wants to give us; I’m not convinced that all of it is necessary though, and I’d have preferred to have seen more left for the reader to deduce from context. On the other hand, it does fit with the mechanistic, structural nature of the magic, and it’s entirely appropriate for the book’s structure to echo the magic’s mechanics, given that the magic can quite literally (and literarily) rewrite reality.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with Spellwright, but I think that’s down to the amount of hype as much as anything. The plotting is solid and the high-concept magic system well realized; the only thing that didn’t lift it into the top-fantasy-author tier was the prose, and given that this is Charlton’s first novel I’m sure that will improve.


[1] That’s a rather facile way to put it—Nicodemus’s affliction is based on Charlton’s own experiences with dyslexia, which can be incredibly disabling when not recognized or allowed for. One consequence of that is that it’s better and more believably written than most magical afflictions.

December 10, 2010

Best of 2010, and Christmas Giveaway – Erekos by AM Tuomala

Filed under: meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 1:49 pm

Now closed! Congratulations, Penelope Friday!

This year’s Best Of post is early, because I’ve managed to arrange a special treat for you! But first, the results. I’ve read enough Really Good Books this year that I’m splitting the nomination in two, for Best From Large Publisher and Best From Small Publisher. (Er, that’s “large” as SF&F imprints go, which is not “large” in absolute terms.) NB: I’m including self-published pieces, and pieces only published on the web, under “small publisher”. Any suggestions for a better name for the category gratefully received!

Out of all the good books from large publishers, Catherynne M Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed utterly blew me away, and sails away with the nomination to some fantastical shore. In second place, if I were awarding second prizes, we have The Meat Tree, a re-envisioning of the story of Blodeuwedd by Gwyneth Lewis.
Honourable mentions also go to Pennterra by Judith Moffett, and to Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.

I’ve read fewer from small publishers this year, and that’s something I want to remedy in 2011. On the other hand, there have been a couple of books that were absolute standouts by any measure, and the winner is Erekos by AM Tuomala. Second prize would go to Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams, by Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier, a blog novel published by the author under a Creative Commons license.

Erekos cover

I liked Erekos so much, I want to share the love—and the publisher, Candlemark & Gleam, agree with me, so they’ve donated a copy for me to give away. It’s a digital-only book, and you’ll get your choice of either direct digital delivery (ePub, PDF, or mobi format) or a special gift package with all three formats on a CD, so you have something to put under the tree this Christmas. This is a worldwide offer, but if you choose the CD option we can’t guarantee getting it to you by Christmas unless you live in the US. We’ll try our best, though!

The competition will be open till midnight GMT on Wednesday 15th December, and all you have to do to enter is comment below and tell us who your favourite goddess is. Mythological or fictional, we don’t mind. You can also enter by Twitter, if you use the hashtag #erekos—please spread the word!

Jordan & Sanderson – Towers of Midnight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:42 am

I read this yesterday evening, after finding it unexpectedly in the library, and it’s let me crystallize something about the change between authors that was nagging at me. (No spoilers.)

Sanderson actually wants to finish.

I’m not saying Jordan was consciously spinning things further and further out, but I was getting the distinct feeling that he didn’t know where he was going overall. He obviously had the plot mapped out and knew what had to happen where in the story, but I can’t get any clear sense of overarching themes to it all and he kept dragging in new characters and plotlines. To me, that reads like an author trying hard to refine and direct his vision of what the series is for, especially after the explicit bait-and-switch from Book 1; everything I’ve heard on that topic is about a move away from portal-quest fantasy, but not any kind of towards.

Sanderson, on the other hand, is nothing if not workmanlike and direct, and it shows. In the two Wheel of Time books he’s written, the plot strands have been coming together at warp speed, and we get much less time-wasting. Mind you, there are still a couple of new developments that are less deus ex machina than

I’m starting to wonder if the Wheel of Time series, taken as a whole, is more of a response to Eddings than to Tolkien. It’s exploring some interesting variations on the One Ninja theory of history, given the contributions of everyone involved (though the side of the Shadow is still as hopelessly blundering as always). It could have something to say about free will, determinism, and redemption, but I honestly don’t know what.

There is always the big theme of gender relations, but Jordan & Sanderson’s treatment of identity politics is so hopelessly reductionist and naive that trying to say anything in that format is like playing patience with no hearts or diamonds and expecting it to come out.

November 27, 2010

Walter Rhein – The Bone Sword

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 6:12 pm

I’ve reviewed this one over at The Future Fire.

It’s epic fantasy from new imprint Rhemalda Publishing, and quite frankly it’s dreadful; the only thing worse than the writing style is the cover art. I have accordingly reviewed it at length.

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