Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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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March 29, 2011

Patricia S Bowne – Advice From Pigeons

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:54 am

Hiram Rho is a junior demonologist at the Royal Academy of Osyth, and also a natural philosopher—in this context, someone who can communicate with animals, rather than a proto-scientist. Unlike the normal magical academy this one is thoroughly modern, complete with all the bureaucratic paraphernalia of academia in the real world; the major difference is in the subjects they study and research, and this is carried through into the rest of the society. Wizards work in construction, sorcerers heal, and alchemists change the nature of reality by their will.

Demonology works by belief, by defining the demon into existence and persuading it to believe what you tell it about itself. A corollary of that is that a demonologist’s own skills & abilities are continually negated by the practitioner’s own necessary academic analysis of them, removing their unquestioning belief in themselves. It’s a much more interesting take on demonology than the more traditional realm-of-hell version, and gives a nuanced take on the iron will and self-belief required of the summoning magician. It’s also a good reflection of the traits it takes to survive in academia!

The book begins with a rather forced infodump about the Institute’s magicians, but I can forgive a scene much for lines like this.

He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He’d be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions.

The character thinking there is Warren, a classic academic middle-manager; the book’s second major plot strand is a rather interestingly metaphysicalized dramatization of his midlife crisis. The first is Hiram Rho’s quest to define his academic path, his career, and his self. He’s a graduate student with all the socialization of a starving badger, torn between two schools of magic which promise him very different things, and unable to trust or like his colleagues. Despite that, he’s still an interesting character to spend time with, and deftly drawn.

The book also features gay characters, without making a special point of it; the world apparently has no problem with homosexuality. The text also treats Rho’s past as a sex worker quite matter-of-factly, and it’s a nice change to see that with a male character.

Overall, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the metaphysical nuts and bolts of wizardry (as distinct from the more traditional kind of magic-system fantasy) or for academics, unless they’re desperately trying to repress flashbacks already.

Edit: (since I forgot to note this originally) You can get it from Double Dragon Publishing here, and read the first chapter online here.

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

May 25, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – City of Ruin

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:31 am

This is the direct sequel to his earlier Nights of Villjamur, and it’s even better. He still has the same taste for overexplanation, and there are a few instances of characters telling each other things they already know, but this one is definitely a complete story within the larger plot arc, and it’s not necessary to read the first before this.

The world is clearly the deep future of our own, enough millennia into the future that the sun has cooled and dimmed to red, in the tradition of Vance’s Dying Earth or Farmer’s Dark is the Sun. Oddly, the connection doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as it usually does in fantasy. I think that’s partly because it is deep time rather than post-apocalyptic, and doesn’t have any of the “clever” little references that set my teeth on edge.

“Ah, yes, you were admiring my antique soup jug, I think?” The slender man’s eyes darkened with pleasure as he traced a finger along its curving flank, following the strange words somehow inked into the ivory-yellow surface: “Russell Hobbs”.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill characters off, in grotesque and meaningless ways, and generally at a viewpoint distance. On the other hand, he also doesn’t hesitate to show complex, interesting plans (for, eg., killing characters off) crashing and burning abruptly. There’s a very strong arbitrary-and-meaningless vibe going on throughout, which might make this sound somewhat Moorcockian (and the sheer prevalence of fantastic and in fact downright bloody weird imagery—I particularly liked the flying monkeys—could reinforce this impression) but he does manage to pull off the feat of having an albino protagonist who is nothing whatsoever like Elric.

One very good thing this book features is a competent, sensible, interesting older woman. You’d think there was some Fantasy Bylaw against those, most of the time… and, speaking of Fantasy Bylaws, this one does indeed have a map in the front. I suspect that after Nights of Villjamur came out, the Fantasy Establishment went around to the offices of Tor UK and started making comments about what a nice place they had here. Not sure what the point is, but if it keeps the traditionalists happy, there’s no harm in it.

April 8, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – Nights of Villjamur

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 8:52 am

I’ve been horribly behind on my blogging, because I’ve been incredibly busy with art projects, with preparations for Eastercon, and with the holiday I’m about to take in the Highlands. So I’m going to get even more behind.

I just wanted to do this one quick review, though. Everyone’s been talking about Nights of Villjamur recently, and with good reason—it’s great.

It’s an interesting original vision, with a powerful central image. A glacial period (not an Ice Age as the book copy suggests) is heading for the Empire, and the rulers have to make hard choices to get through it, complicated by all the usual afflictions of internal politics, strange magics from the dawn of time, and invaders from Elsewhere. All of which may be linked…

And that “may” is important. This is very much the first book of a series, and almost none of the plot strands are resolved inside this book. Doesn’t stop it being a good read, but it isn’t a whole text.

Thematically, it’s Erikson-lite, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure the world is ready to cope with two of him. This is definitely quest fantasy[1] rather than city fantasy, but only one of the viewpoint characters has anything even resembling the traditional portal-quest trajectory, and even then he’s rather more independent than the usual farmboy type.

I do have a couple of issues with this book. First, it’s heavy on the infodumping; one of the favourite pastimes of nearly every main character is to sink into a reverie and tell us about their past or what the city’s like[2], and sometimes the narrative voice does this too.

Second, the names threw me a bit. Partly, the clever mix of different styles and cultural origins is a nod to a huge multicultural Empire (we have botanical names like Urtica and Rumex alongside Ghuda and Mewún, and garuda fly above the city while draugr menace it and banshees wail within it) but I still have no clue how to pronounce Goúle, Fúe, or Júula. The best I can do is to imagine that that’s an umlaut instead. Tineag’l, on the other hand…

On the upside, we see a well-written homosexual romance before page 100, and nobody’s being coy about it either.


[1] However, there is no map in the front, and a DeLillo quotation. We are clearly into much more serious territory here.

[2] But only once. We all know these people in real life, and they Just Keep Doing It, over and over again, worrying at the past or clutching it like a favourite teddy bear. We never see these reverie memories repeated, in books…

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