Tag Archives: fantasy

The Power of Hoodoo, Who Do? You do!

Emily Asher-Perrin on Tor.com wrote a lovely post about the 25th anniversary of Labyrinth, one of my all time favourite films! I think she pretty much sums it up with “they don’t make films like that any more.”

It was years before I rewatched Labyrinth after seeing it in the cinema, but I had a graphic novel version of it which I pored over repeatedly.

I also had the soundtrack. This was probably the first soundtrack to a movie that I ever owned, until Beauty and the Beast came along many years later. I listened to it over and over, despite the fact that much of the music is quite chillingly surrealist. I still think it’s one of the best all time movie soundtracks, completely cohesive. It’s also I think the only movie soundtrack I have ever bought in more than one format.

Okay, apart from Beauty and the Beast. But I really do need to get hold of Little Shop of Horrors on something other than audio cassette…

The first outfit I bought for my daughter (the only outfit I bought before she was born) was a red striped suit, like Toby wore in the movie. I did not actually want her to be stolen by the goblins, but it was a really cute outfit.

I cannot hear any criticism of Labyrinth. Even the cheesy bits are awesome. It is a truly magical piece of work, from beginning to end. Performances, design, script, everything. Except the 30 seconds at the beginning with the stepmother, who cannot act.

One of the greatest joys of my life is that my daughter loves this movie. Another joy is that my younger daughter is yet to experience it. We have that to look forward to! For all the marvellous special effects they can conjure up these days, no one has yet produced a fantasy movie to match Labyrinth for design, character, story, concept, music design and heart.

So thank you Jim Henson, Brian Froud, Wendy Froud, Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and everyone else who made this movie. I loved it before it was a cult classic. But it makes me extra happy that it has aged so well, and that it’s still so watchable today.

Clockwork, Rocks and a Tragicomic

I’ve finally kicked up a gear or two in my reading this month! Enough that I am way behind on my book blogging, in any case. So here’s a mass post to catch up on three books I finished recently: gaslamp fantasy YA The Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, epic political fantasy The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke, and ‘tragicomic’ memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

The Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices Book One), by Cassandra Clare

I enjoyed Clare’s first Shadowhunters trilogy, as a fun Buffy-style YA paranormal, though it didn’t rank among my absolute favourites because I wasn’t all that attached to either character in her central supercouple, and none of the far-more-interesting supporting characters got nearly enough page time for my taste.

The first book of this new trilogy, though, set back in the Victorian era of her same world, has absolutely knocked my socks off. Tessa is a touch too modern to feel like the Bronte-esque heroine she is obviously modelled after, as indeed are all the characters (the feel is more like that of a suave, postmodern TV adaption of a Victorian fantasy tale, than one which actually belongs in that era) but I didn’t care because it was just so delicious from beginning to end.

Fans of Gail Carriger will really enjoy this story of warlocks, shapechangers and magical secret societies. Tessa is an orphan girl with attitude, coping with more tragedy, betrayal and terror than Jane Eyre on a bad day, and somehow managing to keep her chin up. Will and Jem, two teenage boys who embody Clare’s fascination with deep, loyal more-than-family friendships, are both quite fascinating despite holding their mysteries close to their chest.

As with Clare’s earlier work, it’s the dialogue that really makes this a captivating page turner of a read, though the added bonus of really appealing protagonists this time around has made this a series I will be hanging out for, instead of merely adding to the reading pile if I have time.

The Last Stormlord (Watergivers Book One), by Glenda Larke

This is the kind of book which reminds me why I started loving fantasy in the first place. Glenda has created a stark, vivid and utterly convincing world which is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Her desert people live in cities that descend down slopes and cliff faces, and the society is (understandably) obsessed with water, which is the only currency. We see these gorgeous, harsh and cruel cities through many different perspectives: the rainlords who form the social elite because of their powers to manipulate water magically, and their proximity to the throne; and also the waterless, who barely survive on the fringes of society.

Everything hinges on the abilities of the Stormlords to lift and desalinate water from the faraway oceans, and to bring it over the cities in controlled storms. But there have been no new Stormlords for generations, and those few hopefuls have had “mysterious” accidents befall them. The only remaining Stormlord is old and sick and weak… and there is no one to replace him when he finally wears out. These are desperate times, and the lack of water leads to awful political decisions, civil unrest and, ultimately, to war. And all this before we even get to the end of Book 1!

Court politics, tangled societal rules, gender issues, romance, art and scimitars. How could I not like this book? It’s a measure of how much I did like it that I was able to get past the extremely gruesome death of a toddler early on in the story – for what should be fairly obvious reasons, death or cruelties visited upon babies and small children is one of my absolute pet hates in any kind of fiction, and something I just find myself unable to deal with. This one was rough, and still haunts me, but the story and the writing are both good and clever and crunchy enough to get me past that. I’m saving Book 2 (the one I share two shortlists with, in the Aurealis & Ditmar awards) for the plane, the one time I know I will have several of spare reading hours!

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

And moving into entirely different territory… This is a marvelous, awful, incredibly powerful graphic memoir (as opposed to graphic novel) of the artist/writer’s childhood, and particularly her relationship with her father, who died suddenly (and, she believes, intentionally) when she was twenty, shortly after she came out to her family as a lesbian, learned of her father’s own closeted homosexuality, and supported her mother in asking for a divorce. There’s an intensity to this book that comes from the layers and layers of meaning through each panel – often the illustration completely belies the text, or shows a different interpretation of reality. This means that you really get the sense that you are dredging through someone’s memories, circling round and round instead of following a single narrative line.

We are often told facts or details more than once, but each time it happens we understand more about the narrator and her family, and so we feel like we have been pulled deeper into the story. Bechdel exposes herself regularly as an unreliable narrator, but also pulls no punches in detailing her own perceived flaws or those of her parents – the three of them often feel like the only real characters in the story, or the only ones that she feels she can be honest and revealing about. Bechdel’s brothers, for instance, are only lightly sketched.

Most of all, this is a story about books – and it’s particularly interesting to me in light of several conversations this year on the topic of ‘books within books’ – Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I still haven’t got to, sparked off many of these, inviting comparisons with that classic book about reading books, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. Listening to Farah Mendlesohn on the recent Coode St podcast, I was reminded in a sudden startlement that Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock is also a book about reading books, and was fascinated by Farah’s assertion that every book cited in that book contributes to a deeper understanding of what is going on in the story. I didn’t need an excuse to go back and reread one of my favourite novels of all time, but now I am bursting to do so.

But yes, Fun Home is a book about books – I find it really revealing that Bechdel barely mentions her interest in art, but the whole story is wrapped up in her halting beginnings as a writer. We see her progression as a diarist, under the critical eye of both parents, and there is a whole meta conversation about herself as narrator, and how early she began to weave ambiguity and misinformation into her text. Likewise, she examines her father’s letters, from his courtship of her mother as well as to Bechdel herself when she was at college, for clues as to his personality and his secrets. Bechdel discovers her sexual orientation through books, and we are treated to her reading list and her thoughts on several of the works which most affected her, through the narrative. Wound into the story also are the books she shared (sometimes with delight, sometimes with exasperation) with her father, an English teacher and (she felt) frustrated student of literature. After learning to fear, despise and be critical of Bechdel’s father for so much of the story, it is quite stunningly effective to show how he and his daughter, who seemed barely capable of having a conversation together, bonded so deeply over literature. Bechdel’s mother is an altogether less deeply realised character (as with her brothers, it seems likely that Bechdel was holding back here, only feeling completely free to write about herself and her late father) but we also see her portrayed through her intersections literature, the masters degree she regularly disappeared into and the amateur dramatics that seemed to consume so much of her attention.

Fun Home is a difficult, confronting read at times, but is a spectacularly realised memoir, and I was deeply affected by the artwork. Bechdel has copied in old letters and sketched new versions of real photographs, and you can see in her depictions of her family home in particular that she was using this book to capture and honour so many memories, from the deep and dark to the absurd. It’s a masterpiece, and the kind of book you need to reference when people start saying dumb things about how comic books are shallow, or just for kids, or only about superheroes.

So, I wrote a novel. What Do I Do Next?

A friend has been working steadily away on his fantasy novel. When he finished, he called me up and asked me, “What do I do next?”

My advice was to write Book 2. While it might seem counter-intuitive to keep putting all your eggs into one basket, when it comes to fantasy you learn a lot more from getting to the end of your series than the end of the first volume. Also, you learn so much in writing Book 2 that you can then go back and look at Book 1 with new, jaded, experienced eyes, and rewrite accordingly.

But now he’s finished Book 2, and I feel like I should be able to give a more comprehensive answer.

Only… I’m not exactly an expert in getting published for the first time. None of us are, of course – there are many ways to get published for the first time, and most authors only experience ONE of those. In my case, though, it was a pretty atypical route (involving a competition that no longer exists) so giving advice on how to get to that point is a bit like… well, when friends ask for advice on coping with relationship breakups. (Um, I’ve never had one. Still on my first.) Possibly that is a bad example, because I am AWESOME at being a complete EXPERT on other people’s break ups.

But anyway.  My point is that people often look to published authors for advice, and while we can often share really fabulous advice about working methods and business plans and all the stuff we actually do, I’m not sure that we’re always that useful when it comes to helping new writers figure out how to get started.  Started was a long time ago for some of us…  And while getting published isn’t necessarily easy for us, and certainly isn’t something to be taken for granted, it’s still a whole different game trying to sell a book as someone who has a track record.

I’d like to be able to offer my friend something a bit more substantial than “Query agents first, don’t send the whole books unless they ask for it, don’t pay ‘reading fees,’ yes they REALLY expect a synopsis to be a page or so…”  And while I’d like to just send him away to listen to five years’ worth of Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing and Will Write for Wine podcasts, possibly he was hoping for a slightly more efficient answer.

So what I’m wondering is – where should I point my friend?  What blog posts, what communities, what research hubs?  Where are the nearly-published submitting-like-crazy writers hanging out in 2011?

If you had just finished your first fantasy novel, what would you do with it?

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The trouble with discussing the books I read on the Galactic Suburbia podcast (as I did with this one in episode 20) is that I forget to blog about them – or I remember, but the sticky note gets ignored for ages because I feel like I’ve already discussed it…

I didn’t want to let The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms go without comment, though, because it’s one of the most interesting, original and intelligent fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time. It works against so many of the cliches and expectations of fantasy fiction, and while I think it doesn’t always succeed at everything it tries to do (it is, after all, a first novel), it made me genuinely excited for the genre.

For a start, it’s a complete story. Jemisin is writing a trilogy, but she has chosen to interpret that has being three individual novels set in different parts of the same world, with different protagonists and narrative threads. This is something I would love to see more of, as there is really nothing more satisfying than reading a novel that is complete in and of itself.

The premise of the novel is that the magical royal family of the hundred thousand kingdoms all live together in a city called Sky, forming an odd culture because only members of their family can live there – and so everyone from the king to the servants are all linked by blood. Part of this family’s power comes from the enslavement of the gods, who are trapped in mortal bodies. Portraying gods as characters is always a difficult task, as with any non-human race: if they are too alien it is hard for a reader to connect with them and their priorities, but if they are too human it seems inauthentic. I was impressed at the portrayal in this novel of various eternal creatures, and I did appreciate that while we have a clear cut heroine and some clear cut villains (everyone who wants to do bad things to the heroine), the story made it clear and believable that the culture had a different morality to our own. Many gods-as-characters in fantasy worlds are a little too amusing or shiny, like the children’s book versions of Zeus or Athena. I loved that the gods of Sky were so raw and complex and unpredictable, with humans only really able to understand them a small piece at a time.

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Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve been meaning to review Who Fears Death for a month now, and not sure why I’ve been putting it off other than wanting, really wanting to do this extraordinary book justice by what I write. Sometimes, though, you have to just suck it up and accept that it’s better to try and fail to get your thoughts across than kick the topic under the bed and ignore it.

In many ways, I feel too ignorant to properly discuss this book and what it does. I know almost nothing about Africa’s history, modern culture, or any other books or stories which might put this novel better into context. One of my quite appalling realisations while reading it was that I couldn’t think of a single other novel set in Africa that I have read. Ever. So there’s some context for you, about the level of my literary ignorance, if nothing else!

I thought I knew a lot about this book going into it, from having read reviews and the author’s own description of what the book does. So I knew that it would be hard-going, that it tackled some traumatic themes about gender issues, particularly rape and female circumcision. I knew to some extent that it was both science fiction and fantasy, and that it was most definitely not intended for younger readers. I gritted my teeth somewhat, heading into it, because I did suspect it was going to be confronting.

And yes, confronting it most certainly was. Okorafor took what I like to call the “Margo Lanagan” approach in that she introduced some of the most confronting aspects of her book in the early chapters, rather than sneaking them up on readers in the middle or end of the story. The readers are taken through the brutal gang rape of the protagonist’s mother, and also a scene in which the protagonist goes through ritual circumcision in order to better “fit in” to her local community. Both scenes are incredibly hardgoing, and yet there is nothing gratuitous about either. The world of Onyesunwu, whose name means ‘who fears death’ is a world where rape and circumcision hugely affect the lives of women, and establishing this up front is an important aspect of the story.

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The Lady’s Not For Burning

Day 12 – A book or series of books you’ve read more than five times

Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean.

It’s probably been close to twenty years since I first discovered this, one of the few perfect books in the world, and I would have reread it every year or two since. Not for five years now, since my last Great Re-reading phase. I would like to again soon, as it’s the kind of book that grows up with you.

It’s basically a love story to a liberal arts college education. I read it for the first time before I attended university and the real thing could never compare to this – to the beautiful stone buildings and dingy dining halls, to the friendships made thanks to random rooming lotteries. To the lectures and seminars about Shakespeare and poetry and Latin.

(by the way, all Classics students are crazy)

This leisurely, poignant read follows Janet, the daughter of two professors, a girl who loves books, through her college years. Here, she befriends frivolous Tina and awesome Molly. She falls in love with earnest, music-loving Nick and hangs out with his friends, dramatic Robin and rude, cranky but ultimately romantic Thomas. She reads a lot of Shakespeare, and forgets to write poetry. She takes fencing, and goes for long walks in Autumn, and resists the pressure to take up Classics, because English is really her thing, honestly. She goes to plays, and parties. She and her friends all sort out contraception, and have sex for the first time.

And of course it’s a fantasy novel, but exactly how it’s a fantasy novel is not clear until the end, in fact a lot of layers of story do not make sense until the every end, like why Robin laughed, and why his name and Nick’s are written there, and why Thomas was rude that day, and who rode those horses, and why the Classics students are all crazy, and what happened that time with Professor Medeous…

Which is why it is a book to be read and reread and reread, though there’s a magic here and somehow every time I try to pay attention to the important details, they slip away like water because there are all these gorgeous other things to re-experience like a youthful discovery of Shakespeare and a paper theatre of The Lady’s Not For Burning, and homemade signs that say Must Take Pill, and first love, and imperfect love and broken love, and friendship that lasts forever, and that other love that was under her nose all the time…

I read this book by accident, not knowing what I would find. Best accident I ever had.

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How to Read Big Fat Fantasy

My reading habits have drastically changed over the last few years. If I look at myself based only on my reading (and who doesn’t do that?), then I can barely recognise myself compared to the reader I was five years ago. If this reading meme has made me think about anything, it’s about my history with books and reading and styles, and how many different readers I have been in my life.

This is me now: I read YA books by the bucketload, mostly those that have come out this year. The same goes for SF and fantasy, mostly books by women, mostly standalones or urban fantasy in which every volume is short and sharp and self-contained. When it comes to the genre known as BFF (Big Fat Fantasy, referred to as such lovingly by fans and unlovingly by non-readers) I will defend it to the utmost and refer nostalgically to the books I consumed as a Reader Past, but in fact I don’t read much of it.

Or indeed, any. I don’t think I’ve cracked the spine of a BFF volume since the last time I judged the fantasy section for the AAs. I will wax enthusastic about current female fantasy writers such as Karen Miller, Jennifer Fallon and Glenda Larke, but the truth is that all of these writers have produced at least one if not several new series since I last read them. (I think Karen has put out about ten) I started keeping up with other aspects of the genre, and let this one slide. When I was remembering how much I love court fantasy with its intrigue and politics, I realised that I read all the books I love most from that genre some time ago. Because, you know, the books are long and they travel in packs.

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Warlord is a Lady Tonight [Xena Rewatch 1.1-1.4]

Yes, my reward to myself for… oh, something or other, mostly having money in my bank account for the first time in months, was the Big Ginormous Xena Boxset. It’s so shiny! I’ve been rather longing for a proper Xena rewatch for some time. So here we go, in order, from the top.

1.1. Sins of the Past
They manage to pack quite a lot into this episode. It’s rather clever in that it is basically a sequel to three linked episodes in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys from the year before, and yet there is no mention of Hercules or the fact that he pretty much set her on the road to redemption with his Magical Wang. Instead, we see Xena trying to deal with her decision to give up her warlording ways, and the various ramifications of this as she tries (not overly successfully) to change her spots.

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Dr Tansy meets Paige!

The other night I did a great interview with Paige Turner at local university-based community radio station Edge Radio. Paige has put up a podcast of the interview in which we discuss the appeal of fantasy in a tech-heavy world, how I come up with my character names, and the heavy classics/historical influences of my fantasy. As well as other fun things.

Check it out!

Fantasy with Frocks

Episode 2 of the CreatureCourtCast is up at the Creature Court website. (use the second link if you want to play it on the site instead of downloading). You can also find it over in iTunes.

The theme for this episode is ‘fantasy with frocks.’ Because yes, this is one of those books where clothes get described, a lot. One of my protagonists is a dressmaker, and that means that she sees the world through clothes. When she struggles for metaphors and similes to describe the strange world she is slowly becoming aware of, she uses crafting terms to do so. As she learns about the mysterious Creature Court, and is introduced to them, one of the aspects that stands out for her is the way that they dress: to make statements, to impress each other, to show off.

They are, after all, part-animal, and as I mention in the podcast, we have a long cultural tradition of anthropomorphising animals and putting clothes on them. Puss in Boots with his floppy hat and awesome footwear! Jemima Puddleduck in her bonnet. Cat from Red Dwarf in his tailored space suits.

Clothes also form plot points in Power and Majesty. The dress pictured on the cover represents a turning point in the story, and I read one of the key scenes for that dress aloud in this episode of the CreatureCourtCast. Ashiol and the Creature Court find out about Velody’s existence because of the dress, and it also introduces the idea that a person’s magic (though the word ‘magic’ is never used in the books) can bleed out into things they make. This will be important later…

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