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.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

September 30, 2011

Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:38 pm

This is postapocalyptic fantasy, but very much not in the Shannara or Shadowrun sense; it’s poetic and spare, without concerning itself with European fantasy tropes or the endless codification which is the curse of so much fantasy.

Codification, indeed, is one of this book’s cores. A Great Book forms the central text of the Okeke/Nuru society in the area; the dark-skinned Okeke grew proud with their technology and their cities, and then disaster fell and the light-skinned Nuru were placed over them. Rana, the Seer, prophesies that a tall Nuru man will rewrite the book; Daib, a sorceror, decides that he is that man and begins exterminating the Okeke. On the other hand, Onyesonwu—the titular “Who fears death?” and an Ewu (child of interracial rape) sorceress—is told by her teachers that Rana had rewritten the prophecy, unwilling to believe that it really could have meant an Ewu woman. So we’re nicely set up for both plot conflict and an ambiguous look at the whole concept of prophecy & textuality.

This is echoed interestingly by Okorafor’s use of nsibidi, ideograms used in pre-Roman-script West Africa for magical & legal purposes as well as for communication. They’re inherently powerful, but they aren’t exclusively powerful, and we see throughout the book that there’s a lot of juju Onyesonwu doesn’t understand or can’t use, as well as juju she has learnt or is inherently very good at. This is no all-powerful player character wizard, and what in a European fantasy we’d refer to as a magic system (it’s neither magical nor systematic here) does not have edges or demarcations. To mix cultural metaphors appallingly, it’s a song not a topographical map.

Another (related) theme is heritage and genetic/familial determinism. Ewu are generally thought to be inherently violent, being the children of violence. That’s something that Onye repeatedly tells us isn’t true, but it isn’t particularly borne out by her actions; she’s very much Not A Nice Person. Mwita, the other Ewu we meet properly, is a child of love rather than violence, but has had a very violent past; his avocation is as a healer. It’s flatly impossible to separate any effect of birth—what in a Christian context we’d call original sin—from the toxic effects of tradition, cultural hatred, and old wounds. (This may look like a traditional African theme, but it isn’t; it happens everywhere, sadly.)

Okorafor easily resists the bog-standard “science and rationalism bad, living in harmony with the environment and intuitive magic good” approach, and undramatically weaves in realistic and useful high technology where it’s appropriate. By European fantasy standards, this is a dystopian future; coin-sized computers and weather-gel treated clothing are sold from open stalls in dusty markets, and slaves carry heavy loads along roads thronged with bio-fuel scooters. I’m rather reluctant to use the word “dystopia”, though, because that implies something that doesn’t exist already; this sort of complex intersection of technology levels, social conditions, traditional practices, and the future is already happening all over the world, and has been for quite some time.

Unsurprisingly, this book easily passes the Bechdel test; not only that, but it gives an interesting look at familial relationships between women, forcing Onye to re-evaluate her mother at the end. Another interesting—and entirely appropriate—representational issue is that there are no white people (except one, Sola, whose milk-coloured skin and flat lips mystify & repulse Onye) and no legends of white people. This is not a story of dark-skinned people emerging from a pale-skinned colonial yoke, but a story of a culture who have re-mythologized their own history.

It’s a deeply affecting book, and as you’d expect it avoids the pile of easy clichés about Africa that what little African-influenced fantasy we do see so often shows off. I’m not in any sense qualified to evaluate the book’s treatment of contemporary African issues, only to note that it exists. I’d recommend this book to anyone, with some serious trigger warnings over rape and female genital mutilation.

June 10, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My re-read project, over at Fae Awareness Month, is going apace:

Chapters 1-5

Chapters 6-10

Chapters 11-15

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.
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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 4, 2011

The time-binding of nostalgia

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 1:43 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Schweizerheimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

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.

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