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 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.
(more…)

February 2, 2011

Michael Moorcock – The Coming of the Terraphiles

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 2:22 am

I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I’ve been reading Moorcock since I was 12 or so. So I was extremely disappointed with this book.

It’s not good Who, since Moorcock doesn’t have much empathy with Eleven—the Doctor we see here might be almost any of them—and less with Amy. She gets almost nothing to do, and Moorcock doesn’t have her distinctive voice at all. In fact, since there’s a reference to “her unruly red hair standing on end” at one point, I’m not sure Moorcock has ever done much more than read a written description. The only plot she gets is in turning down an Earl’s proposal, and the flirtation goes on for half the book without any reference to Rory. Presumably, this adventure takes place during the period he spent erased from existence, but the Doctor doesn’t seem to think twice about it either.

It’s set in that last refuge of the SF hack, the Edwardian era IN SPACE, using that hackneyed plot device, the anachronistic mess of half-remembered history. So, in our Incredibly English Future, we have Wodehouse-grade peers & Chaps playing the ancient game of “arrers”, which is basically cricket and archery at once, interspersed with jousting, broadsword fighting (using swords three feet wide and a foot long), and Cracking Nuts With Sledgehammers. Amidst all that, a penniless young man and the daughter of a millionaire fall in love, and the young woman’s mother acquires and wears the most appallingly ugly hat in the multiverse. Oddly, everyone seems to want that hat, and not just as an excuse for Woosteresque hijinks.

I’ll spare you the rest of the plot; it doesn’t get much better. It’s nearly all Moorcock’s consistent Eternal Champion mythos, and what isn’t Moorcock appears to be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pastiche than it is Doctor Who. There are some extremely good concepts involved (Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men would have made extremely, er, appropriate villains for the Sixth or Seventh Doctors) but they suffer from trying to cram in far too many of them. Introducing us to Captain ‘Ironface’ Cornelius, Peggy the invisible burglar, Captain Abberly and the three singing Bubbly Boys, and Captain Quelch along with the First Fifteen not only dilutes the effect but ensures that none of them get enough screen time actually to be interesting.

It’s not good Moorcock, either—it doesn’t have any noticeable significance in his mythology, and doesn’t provide anything lingering except fluff. The plot ends with two unexpected oh-I-had-it-all-along moments, the McGuffin solving the Problem, a Heroic Sacrifice, and and a Happily Ever After. That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you’re going to go for a trad plot in a stock setting, you can’t do without intense emotional engagement, and I felt none of that at all.

October 11, 2010

Fiona McIntosh – Royal Exile

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

Book 1 of the Valisar Trilogy. Voyager, 2008, 450ish pp paperback.

This is one of the most compelling pieces of extruded fantasy fluff I’ve read for a long time. I kept snatching moments for a few pages through the day, and then finished it on a long bus ride home. But that said, it’s still extruded fantasy fluff. It’s about royalty, it has a set of bog-standard fantasy kingdoms, it has barbarian invaders (complete with a warlord who’s smarter than he seems), it has legendary magic, it has swords with names, and it has Lost Heirs.

On the other hand, it also reads like a Greek tragedy, rather than the feudal-fetish wankery so many fantasy novelists succumb to. The royalty are uniformly barking mad: King Brennus is as arrogant and as self-important as Denethor, and with very similar consequences. Prince Leonel is clearly going the same way, and the family charisma (which may well be the mysterious genetic magic) draws otherwise sensible people into taking them seriously and going along with their stupid plans.

It’s clearly set in the far future (eight generations or so down the line) of a foreign despot’s conquest, and here comes another one with his horde of tattooed barbarian tribesmen. In the meantime, though, there are rivers of blood, and the number of dead bodies is destroying the economy and the farmland… not that that’s given more than a passing mention in the text, of course.

McIntosh can write teenage boys pretty well, but that’s more or less where “good writing” stops in this book. It’s full of people telling each other things they already know, in unnecessarily formal ways, and quaffy upon quaffy for pointless fantasy flavour. “Anni” means a year, and “tatua” are tattoos, according to the glossary at the back.

Unfortunately, the book also fails the Bechdel test – and not just that, but only one sympathetic female character survives the book. She’s only introduced very late on, at that. The others all meet some grisly and avoidable death at a man’s hands, for the sake of a man.

It’s extremely grisly throughout, in fact, and most of the characters are rather ruthless… in that they’re always eager to sacrifice others, whether a newborn baby or a half-dozen countries. We never see anyone sacrificing themselves.

Part of the reason it was compelling, I think, was that I wanted to keep reading and see if the plot points turned out as I expected. I had to keep waiting and waiting for some of them, but they were all there, and all just as expected. One thing did surprise me, but only because I’d forgotten that in extruded fantasy product women are disposable.

Meta, and the Wheel of Time

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 5:55 pm

First – apologies to the lovely people who’ve left comments in the last week or two, because my mail client had started marking my notification emails as spam. I’ve had words with it, and I think I’ve caught all the comments now.

Second – I think I’m arguing myself into re-reading all the Wheel of Time books, and trying to give them a fairer shake of the whip. I don’t think any of the flaws I noticed the first and second times through are going to go away, though. Which is to say: unnecessarily prolix padding, no ability to control plot proliferation, far far too much Idiot Ball plotting, and a completely reductionist (not to say irredeemably binary, boringly naive, and inaccurate) approach to gender politics.

But Jordan’s been doing interestingly subversive things to the fantasy form, even if many of those have been done better by other people since he started, and he has been using some actual literary techniques, which puts him head and shoulders above most fantasy authors. Granted, they’re all still standing in a ditch compared to the best (Peake, Kay, Parker, Swanwick, VanderMeer, Vinge) but given Sturgeon’s Law that’s an unfair comparison. So it’s worth another look for me, at least.

July 16, 2010

Mike Shevdon – Sixty-One Nails

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:37 pm

Angry Robot bill this as “Neverwhere’s faster, smarter brother”. My (somewhat predictable) initial reaction to this claim was along the lines of “Ah ha ha ha ha… NO.” Of course, being the generous and kind-hearted person I am, I decided to keep reading it anyway, just to see whether it did have something comparable to Gaiman’s work after all.

It turns out that there are a couple of points in common—they’re both set in London, and… er. No, I think that’s it.

It’s about fairies—excuse me, “Feyre”. I’d like to say that that’s the single silliest and most pretentious misspelling of “fairy” I’ve ever seen, but one of the subspecies of the Feyre is the “Fey’ree”. The Feyre are all aligned towards one or more of the Aristotelian elements, completed in the obligatory manner by “Void”. The Void fairies are the bad ones who refuse to breed with humans, and there’s a mystical barrier keeping them out of our world. But it’s breaking down… and our protagonist is a special, unique Void-fairy halfbreed, which nobody thought could ever exist. Of course, that particular plot point is resolved casually at the end, with a bit of waffle about unexpected heritages and nobody being able to predict what kind of fairy they’ll turn out to be.

A lot of the story concerns learning & mastering the rules of fairy magic, and working out what fairies can and can’t do. And if that last sentence didn’t seem wrong to you, you’ve been reading about a different kind of fairies to the ones I was brought up on. Honestly, this book would have been more readable and made more sense if it started with a crashed alien ship several millennia ago, and superstitious humans treating the advanced travellers as supernatural beings, because these are no kind of fairies I’ve ever heard of. At least Shevdon doesn’t abuse any of the traditional names, so if you do want to read it you can safely pretend they’re just space aliens.

The treatment of fairy tropes in the book is inconsistent, too. They can’t touch iron (it gives them electric shocks) but they’re absolutely fine with steel. Iron is intensely antithetical to magic, but at one point they get into an iron safe using fairy magic. Fairy magic interfaces nicely with technology (at one point, the protagonist uses a mirror to make a call to someone’s mobile), but they regularly use ignore-me-I’m-not-here fairy magic to conceal themselves, or large melee weapons, from security guards and nobody ever worries about being caught on CCTV.

The CCTV thing is a particularly London issue, but there are a few other places in the book which ring rather untrue to me, too. Fifteen quid for a taxi to Heathrow before dawn, for instance; things that eat London pigeons and apparently enjoy them; walking around next to the Fleet without protective gear, let alone falling in it and surviving… Shevdon’s done his headline research pretty well, it seems, but not bothered with the little things.

The writing style is flaccid, with a lot of just-past-tense first-person reflections, and a keen eye for cliché & the pointless minutiae of everyday life, whilst carefully avoiding little details that might enliven a scene beyond the bare-bones setting. It’s still readable, but one gets the feeling that writing is being treated as a necessary inconvenience involved in getting on with the plot, rather than the book itself.

The story’s nominally about the discovery of an unexpected new layer to life, replacing and changing all that’s gone before, but there’s very little sense of real dislocation or threat. The opponents we’re shown are dangerous enough, but they’re all predictable and well defined; there’s none of the lurking, numinous sense of unknown threat, or the unpredictable desires & disposition, that characterize things of faerie in English folklore.

If you have a few hours to waste and nothing better to hand, you won’t be harmed by reading this, but that’s the best I can say about it.

May 29, 2010

Marc Stiegler – Earthweb

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:30 pm

Another very characteristic offering from the Baen Free Library. Actually, I’m giving an unfair picture of the Library with these posts—there are some extremely good books in there, and I should post with some positive recommendations soon.

This one, on the other hand, will not be one of them. It reads as though Stiegler had found a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing if you don’t want to give offense, and then treated it as a how-to manual.

The main plot involves a series of huge death-dealing spaceships full of killer robots, which are called (without any explanation whatsoever) Shiva I to VI. Now, it might be possible to argue that this is a reference to Jewish mourning practice, but given the literary antecedents of huge unmanned spaceships on periodic courses through the solar system, it doesn’t wash.

Teams of dedicated and highly trained people, referred to as Angels, are sent up to perform suicide commando raids on the huge killer spaceships named after a Hindu god. Can we say “problematic”, boys and girls? I thought we could!

It’s not as though that’s the only offensive aspect, either. The national stereotypes are thick on the ground, from the flighty spendthrift South American woman (Hispanic, not indigenous, of course) to the upper-class British journalist whose foppish manner conceals a razor-sharp mind. Admittedly, the Chinese scam artist shows no discernable Chinese characteristics; he’s just a generic American like the entire rest of the book.

There’s an autistic child who’s treated only as a plot coupon (they use the phrase “idiot savant” in earnest), and all his implausibly miraculous accomplishments are laid at his mother’s door instead. And, of course, the reason she’s doing it is to earn enough money to find a cure for his autism.

In related disability news, though, there’s a prominent example of wheelchair non-fail—a character who’s lost both legs is treated entirely normally, and not made an object of pity. Of course, his Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who’s also a lethal killing machine, of course—you didn’t think this kind of book would let a heroine get away without that?) doesn’t hesitate to commandeer the controls when she wants to take him on a date.

All in all, this is really rather a special book, and only worth reading for curiosity value. Once I’d finished it, I ended up going straight to the bookshelf for Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, for a thoughtful, sensible, nuanced treatment of autistic people instead, and I recommend you do the same.

May 18, 2010

David Friedman – Harald

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:36 am

Micro-review: Fun bit of mil-fluff; strategy & logistics for gamers. Harald himself is basically Mary Sue Stark. (Er, that’s as in Ned Stark, not Tony Stark. Just to clear things up.) One thing that annoys me, though, is the prevalent voice. Talk like this, all the time. Everyone. Like they hate talking. Hard to follow. And then the narrative voice starts doing it too for some of the action scenes…

This is a Baen Free Library book, which means you can buy, download, or read it online for free here.

July 6, 2009

Jonathan Green – Unnatural History

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:31 pm

With this, Abaddon[1] Press’s first in the Pax Britannia[2] series, another patchwork cadaver gets unceremoniously slung on the creaking, lurching bandwagon of steampunk.

I had this pressed upon me as a free gift at Eastercon LX, and I have no hesitation in saying it was worth more than I paid for it. I got at least 25p worth of entertainment from writing this review, after all.

There’s a half-decent novella in there, maybe a hundred pages of sparkling wit and madcap action; but it’s encumbered by four things.

The first is the author’s tin ear for dialogue, and inability to separate narrative voice from character; the second is the unoriginality of each tired set-piece scene, from the confrontation with Scotland Yard at the Scene of the Crime to the life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train and the hero’s unorthodox entry to a zeppelin in flight[3]; the third is the glutinous web of what we’ll charitably refer to as plot that binds those scenes together; and the fourth is the excess two hundred pages of leadenly prolix padding that surrounds it all.

It’s written very much in the style of a Strand part-work, and each chapter takes care to recap large parts of the one before. To add to this weight of unnecessary verbiage, there’s also rather a lot of infodump exposition; it appears that Green had simultaneously been writing the roleplaying game sourcebook of the world, and by some budgetary exigence had been forced to combine the two projects into one.

The characters appear to have been ordered from a catalogue, possibly quite cheaply. I suspect that that would be because the millionaire playboy secret agent explorer[4], the ex-prizefighter butler, the ruthless femme fatale villain, the incompetent police inspector, the amoral scientist, and the machiavellian politician would quite happily all roll up and fit in one cardboard tube.

About all I can say about the book’s ending is that it has one, and that the plot strand (there is only one) is resolved, and that in the proper style some of the enemies have escaped for the sequel. If we are lucky, there will not be a sequel.

As far as further detail goes, either I have blotted it from my mind in the last ten minutes or I found myself incapable of reading it with any attention due to the sheer horror of both the prose and the internal logic of the proceedings.

It reads as though the Good Doktor Frankenstein, despite his medical degree, had been unable to tell fresh corpse parts from the sundered limbs of Action Man, and instead of pulling the lever to surge life-giving electricity into his creation had instead attached strings and made it dance the Funky Chicken.


[1] What a name. I suppose at least it has the merit of keeping their books to their intended audiences.
[2] Oh, look, unnecessary Latin. Now there’s a surprise. The text refers to “Magna Britannia” and “Londinium Maximum”, and at one point Our Protagonist gets into a fist fight with something “the academics would give the name homo lizardus or perhaps lizardus sapiens“. And that’s narrative text, not reported speech…
[3] It’s both pseudo-Victorian steampunk and alternate history. Of course it has to have zeppelins. It would have been really quite surprising if it didn’t.
[4] One Ulysses Quicksilver, and the protagonist of this novel. The only distinguishing features that have stuck in my mind are that he learnt generic Eastern martial arts in a generic Eastern monastery, and that he wears a chartreuse and crimson waistcoat. I would really rather not have known these things.

June 18, 2009

Philip Palmer – Debatable Space

This is a peculiar book. It’s got a really stunning idea at its heart, which is a corollary of quantum entanglement communications: the idea that, denied anything but perfect virtual telepresence on an alien world, humans could well turn into despotic psychopaths, lording it over their own colonial subjects.

However, for reasons best known to himself, Palmer has chosen to cloak it in the trappings of a comic space opera – the kind of story usually described as a Zany Caper and lovingly wrapped in a cover by Josh Kirby (mayherestinpeace). The story opens with a ragtag bunch of misfits pursuing a career in piracy and kidnapping – IN SPACE! Complete with a kidnapping victim who isn’t what we think… but then that was the pirates’ plan all along, and it turns out they’re not just pirates but revolutionaries, and the story unfolds from there.

The end product reads as though Terry Pratchett, at the point when he first sat down to write The Dark Side of the Sun, had instead been hit by a stray particle of inspiration intended originally for the creative imagination of Alastair Reynolds. The first comparison I thought of was Rob Grant; or taken a little further, darker, more intense, it might have been Deathstalker. It’s almost certainly significant that all these examples are very British writers.

Palmer’s very good at pacing his revelations out, and we get a good idea of the backstory through the self-absorbed maunderings of Lena, the kidnapping victim, who is less an unreliable narrator than a flagrantly incompetent liar with intermittent flashes of self-awareness.

On the other hand, it’s hard to care. The characters aren’t exactly two-dimensional, but I’m up to page 346 (I write these reviews as I go along) and the only one I couldn’t summarize in a twitter-length is Lena. This is quite likely deliberate, of course – it’s absolutely standard for the comic-space-opera form that the characters don’t matter any more than the set, and what’s important is the mad hijinks and narrow scrapes.

The science is mostly based around string theory, though “rubber band theory” would probably be a more accurate name. This isn’t a criticism; I appreciate a good line in technobabble, so long as nobody cares if I skim-read it and get back to the interesting bits. The military strategy, on the other hand, is devastatingly incompetent. Sacrificing millions of soldiers to win a battle, without any narrative explanation of why a sneakier tactic wouldn’t work? That’s one thing. Doing so when you’ve already established that your civilization has more than enough skills and resources to build throwaway robots by the million? Oh, dear.

What we never see, throughout the whole book, is any of the Enemy. The Cheo (and yes, that is derived from “CEO”) we see at a distance in Lena’s diary-excerpt flashbacks, but only her descriptions – nobody else so much as gets a line or a name. Having finished it now, I get the impression Palmer was aiming to do a character-focused piece all about Lena, but didn’t know how to write anything SFnal except Red Dwarf episodes. That’s an unfair and sweeping generalization, I freely admit, but it’s abundantly clear from the tenor of his writing, and especially from his afterword, that he’s new-come to SF writing. I’m not sure how far his reading stretches; he namechecks Verne, Asimov, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, and “a host of others for creating the genre that is now the playground for a whole new generation of writers”, and more interestingly he names a couple of planets after Pohl and Kornbluth.

“It is a novel full of exaggeration and hyperbole. Spaceships travel amazingly fast, antimatter missiles are thrown like water bombs, some humans are genetically modified to swim like dolphins or run like panthers, the battles are astonishingly vast in scale, and anyone who doesn’t die horribly in combat can live for centuries in a state of perfect health and simmering libido.”

See, that’s someone who’s just discovered SF imagery and really wants to share it with everyone, but doesn’t realize that there are thousands of people in his own country alone who read hundreds of SF books a year and might well read nothing else. It’s so sweet!

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