Tag Archives: fantasy

My First Favourite Female Fantasy Heroes

There’s been some talk around the internets in recent days about how rare it is for women to declare and own their awesomeness, without apologising for it, or putting conditions on it, or basically explaining it away until it doesn’t exist any more.

This reminded me of a conversation that went around the traps a while back, I believe centering around Sarah Rees Brennan, who often endorses such wicked ideas, about how actually maybe it’s time we stopped calling female fictional characters Mary Sues every time they display awesomeness.

As with Twilight-hating, I fear I have to also come out against Mary-Sue-callage, something which may be utterly justified at times and yet contributes so much anti-female sentiment that it makes my skin crawl. Yes, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it. Still, I stick by it.

Critiquing the portrayal of women in fantasy is a perfectly valid pastime, but that’s not what I’m here for right now. I want to talk about some of my favourite female characters from my early years of fantasy reading, why I love them and how they have influenced me. Let me know your favourites in the comments!

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Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey

I’ve been following Karen’s blog for the last couple of months, and was particularly caught by her post about the importance of New Zealand as the setting of her debut novel, Guardian of the Dead. The post came out of her frustration that overseas readers were referring to her and her book as Australian.

I read the book with this in mind, and I have to say that my first reaction was one big ‘what are you people, high?’ I can see why Karen was so outraged, as the book is not just rich in detail about its New Zealand setting, but the plot itself turns on the mythology and experience of that country.

The second thing that occurred to me was… wow. I really know almost nothing about New Zealand. And I mean nothing. Guardian of the Dead paints such a detailed picture of New Zealand culture, mythology and how they blend into the lives of modern New Zealanders, and… I’ve never seen this before. My entire pop culture experience of New Zealand consists of Hercules, Xena, Lord of the Rings, a couple of Margaret Mahy novels and that Worzel Gummidge series. I can’t help feeling deeply ashamed that this is a country so very close to my own, with so many overlapping ties, and I’ll bet there aren’t many 32 year old New Zealanders who don’t have a far more comprehensive understanding of Australia, our popular culture, and what it might be like to live here.

I loved the delicious mix of mythologies in this pacy, emotionally resonant YA paranormal novel. While Maori legend forms the largest part of the story’s influences, there was also an acknowledgement of world mythology as a whole, and how it works. I loved the connections made between stories and magic, and the idea that everyone has their own body of myths through which they see the world.

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Cities, and Cities

Reading the interview with Felix Gilman in a recent Locus, I was gratified to hear someone else talking about cities in fantasy, and how awesome it is to have them (they are, after all, far superior to bogs, marshes, steppes and castles).

I promptly decided to write a blog post about awesome cities in fantasy, but it’s been a long week and all I could come up with was the Emerald City, Ankh Morpork & Lankhmar, in that order.

Oh okay and maybe Gotham City. Which I’m pretty sure counts.

So help me out – what are your favourite fantasy cities? Or haven’t they been written yet? What aspects of a fantasy city most interests you?

Because Trilogies Are Awesome

In recentish times I’ve talked about my top 10 standalone fantasy novels, why series novels should not pretend to be standalone fantasy novels, and the kind of standalone fantasy novel that’s really a stealthy series.

There’s one kind of fantasy novel I haven’t discussed in any depth, and it’s the fantasy format which is most iconic as well as the most vilified. It also, apparently, sells better than any other fantasy format.

I’m talking about the trilogy.

The trilogy gets a bad rap, mostly from people who don’t read fantasy novels. It’s the equivalent of Fabio book covers – the feature of the genre most fixated on by outsiders. In truth, fantasy trilogies are popular for many good reasons. They are long enough that you can tell a really epic story and build up a thoroughly detailed world, but not so long that people start worrying about the author’s life expectancy.

According to publishing legend, the format came about when the hardback of a moderately successful novel by some chap called Tolkien proved too long to publish in a single paperback edition. It was broken up into three paperbacks, and promptly became a zeitgeist-making, record-smashing, hugely popular book of a generation, and then another generation, inspiring publishers to actively hunt “something a bit like it”. While many of the immediate successors to Tolkien did not in fact write trilogies, ultimately the popularity of this format is laid at his door.

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On Reading Bad Books

Over at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, she asks the question: What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

There have been some wonderful, inventive comments, not overly hamstrung by Justine’s insistence that the relative merits of Twilight not be under discussion in the thread (and fair enough too, it’s one of the easiest ways to derail said conversation).

I commented over there with a blog-length comment, mostly about how I don’t like the way the terms ‘bad writing’ and ‘good writing’ get thrown around (it is actually possible for one person to like a book, another to dislike it, and them both to be RIGHT), and particularly the way that they are used in regards to hugely popular works preferred by women readers. I recall overhearing a young teenage boy informing his mother in a bookshop that Harry Potter was ‘entertaining but badly written’ and I was stunned. Who was he to make such a pronouncement? Was it his own opinion, or one he had heard? How can you possibly dismiss a work as badly written if you find it entertaining?

Surely entertaining is one of those things that writing is intended to do?

After reading all the comments that have come in on Justine’s blog I have been formulating a different response to the question. I understand why people are reacting negatively to the suggestion that ‘it’s okay to let teens read bad books because they’re just teenagers, as long as they’re reading it’s good’ but so many of the responses to that are rubbing me up the wrong way.

Because, you know what? It’s none of our business what teenagers are reading.

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Diversity in Fantasy

Cindy Pon asks questions about cultural appropriation and the responsible portrayal of diversity in fantasy fiction, and a variety of young adult writers present their answers.

On a similar theme, Karen Healey is on Strange Horizons talking about Margaret Mahy, and the use of New Zealand as a place in fantasy fiction. Reading this, and remembering other writers recently gushing about Margaret Mahy, it occurs to me that I don’t think I’ve read nearly enough of her books. I read a couple as a child and loved them – particularly Aliens in the Family and the one with the pirates and the librarians and the really spicy gingerbread, but that’s not a long considering the million and one brilliant novels she appears to have written. Damn it. There goes the to read list again.

(I just checked on the availability of The Changeover in my library and there were only two copies: one large print and one reference only. I guess I’m reading it in large print)

In other news which has nothing whatsoever to do with diversity in fantasy, Karen Gillan pretends to have a reason for wearing very short skirts (misleading headline!) but assures us all that Amy Pond isn’t in love with the Doctor. Good to know, Amy!

Stealth Worldbuilding & the Other Kind of Standalone Fantasy

I have been talking this week about the value of standalone fantasy, and composing a list of my favourite single volume fantasy novels, just to prove that yes they exist, and yes there are good ones. But what came up most commonly in the discussion surrounding those posts is how many standalone fantasy novels actually are less standalone than they appear – once you start reading the other works in that author’s backlist, you may discover that you have in fact been subject to Stealth Worldbuilding.

This isn’t just the province of fantasy, of course. One of my favourite things about Mary Wesley novels was how often one of the sweet young men in the story would turn out to be one of the many nephews of Calypso from The Camomile Lawn. I have been informed that my new favourite YA author Sarah Dessen does much the same thing, which is hugely exciting.

There are many fantasy authors I can think of who did this – creating fantasy epics one book at a time. Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli books followed characters down a family lineage, each volume having a different first person POV. Terry Pratchett, after writing a direct sequel to his first Discworld novel, went on to build up his world with over 30 individual books, which allowed him to explore just about every nook and cranny of his fantasy world. Protagonists of one book become local colour & scenery in another – and his penchant for sequels mean there are several mini-arcs within the huge run of books, but you can pick and choose which order to read them in. I read them based on how much I thought I would like them! These days many of his “franchise arcs” have run out of juice, and it’s the more standaloney standalones which get better critical response, though Granny Weatherwax and the witch culture have been thoroughly rehabilitated through the marvellous YA Tiffany Aching books.

There’s something very appealing about the form of stealth worldbuilding that can occur in a series of linked standalones. Accessibility is at a premium, with none of those “Book 7 of the Grandiddiad” labels to scare off new readers. The backlist can work in all directions. But at the same time, there is a pleasure in continuity, in development and consequence for characters as well as a world. As a reader, there’s a deep fannish satisfaction that comes from even small hints of what happened to beloved characters, years down the line. I remember watching Robotech the Next Generation, desperate for any hints as to what had happened to the protagonists of the former series – nibbling on the few bones available.

The stealth worldbuilding in Discworld has now built up into such vast proportions that one can play a computer game that takes you from place to place, and so many of them are familiar! Even better, there’s always an unexplored corner to learn about. The most recent book, Unseen Academicals, revealed that there was this whole subculture that had been going on in Ankh-Morpork all along – the unfolding of which didn’t seem remotely artificial to me, as this is exactly what happened when I discovered the Premier League.

A throwaway line in one book can become the major plotline of the next… or ten books later.

There are of course standalone series which follow the same protagonist through a series of “standalone” novels. This is particularly popular these day with urban fantasy, and it’s not coincidental that this is also a traditional format for crime fiction. Character development if you read them in the right order, but the ability to experience the beginning, middle and end of a plot in one volume.

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My Top Ten Super-Solo-Unsequelled-Standalone Fantasy Novels

After yesterday, I’ve been thinking about how many fantasy novels are truly standalone. Girlie Jones declared on Twitter that she doesn’t read fantasy because she’s not interested in waiting for volumes to be written. It’s a fair cop – if the concept of a journey through an elaborate magical world doesn’t grab you from the outset, it’s hard to find a half-decent gateway drug to introduce you to the genre.

Fantasy certainly lends itself to extended series, either of the to-be-continued type or the ‘many standalone novels set in the same world/based around the same character’ type. One of the pleasures of fantasy is the exploration of a world and the ongoing consequences of changes to that world – but that isn’t all that fantasy has to offer and sometimes there is a deep pleasure in a short burst of magical fiction. It’s also a great way to lure a new reader into the genre. I suspect that his many and varied standalone novels are a big part of why Neil Gaiman, for example, has such a broad fanbase.

Standalone novels are, if you are not Neil Gaiman, mostly a luxury for fantasy writers. They turn up at the very beginning of their careers, in many cases, or sidle in from time to time. The accepted wisdom is that standalones simply don’t sell as well as trilogies or series books, even when by the same author.

I wanted to assemble a list of fantasy books I love that are not only standalone, but continue to be so – they don’t share their world or characters with other books. There are no sequels, sideways or direct. @crankynick pointed out on Twitter that I had set myself a hard task because “it’s a rare writer that doesn’t go back to the well if a book takes off.” This is a cynical but let’s face it, not untrue view of how the publishing world works.

By only including pure solo standalone novels in my list, that means I am excluding many great fantasy novels which share a world or character with one or some other of their author’s works, even though they stand perfectly well on their own: such novels as The Hobbit, Valiant, The Curse of Chalion, Anansi Boys. Even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can be excluded on these grounds, I think, as The Ladies of Grace Adieu is very much a sequel and companion volume, while not actually a novel. Thanks to Tehani and Nicole I also learned that Threshold, Sara Douglass’ lovely novel of maths, magic and glassworking is now linked to some of her other novels and no longer counts as a standalone in that pure sense. Damn it! There goes another of my best examples.

So: THE LIST (my top 10 super-solo-unsequelled-standalone fantasy novels) presented below…

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To Be Continued

I had a great chat tonight on Twitter with @JonathanStrahan, @charliejane, @charlesatan and others about fantasy and the way that publishers are reacting in different ways to the reader resistance phenomenon: readers turning their back on extended fantasy series, and in some cases refusing to start reading a series until it’s complete, so that they can happily get invested in the characters without worrying the author is going to drop dead, or make them wait.

Some of the techniques publishers are using include letting the author finish the whole series/trilogy so they can assure readers it’s all going to be there, and in many cases releasing the books much closer together, rather than the more traditional one volume a year. This is happening with my Creature Court trilogy, where the third book will be delivered around the time the first will be published, and they’ll be coming out six monthly. Meanwhile, Rowena Cory Daniells has a new trilogy coming out this year through Solaris at once a month! As Jonathan pointed out, this is a method the romance industry has been employing for years.

I get pretty angry about the most problematic method publishers use to overcome the reader resistence phenomenon: that is to say, fraud.

I still remember the fury I felt when I got to the end of Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love. There was no sign on the book that it was a continuous series, but ten pages from the end, I had suspected there was a lack of finality. Sure enough, “to be continued in Castles in the Sand.” There are other examples, quite a few of them documented across the web, of series which the publishers have, for whatever reason, chosen not to represent as a series from Book #1.

Here’s the thing: there are many things you can do to try to persuade readers that is going to be worth their while to pick up Book #1. But it’s not okay to pretend the book is something other than what it is. A reader who doesn’t want to read a lone Book #1 is going to be PARTICULARLY angry if they are tricked into buying a book under false pretences. They will tell their friends. And you know, if they don’t (as most readers don’t) know much about the industry and how it works, they’re not going to blame the publisher. They’re going to blame the author.

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Strong Women

WendyIn my last post I talked about how there are many different kinds of strength in female characters, and it rubs me up the wrong way when an emotionless, damaged and violent ‘Ms Kickass’ is the only acknowledged type – as if that is the only alternative to the fainting damsel.

So in the interest of giving some actual examples, a variety of strong heroines I have been thinking about lately:

Emma Donohue in White Tiger and other novels by Kylie Chan

I once had a long conversation with someone about the lack of mothers in fantasy – and whether you could have a mother as an epic fantasy heroine. The problem with this of course (and the reason Xena didn’t get to keep her baby) is that taking a child along on a dangerous adventure is completely irresponsible. Chan was one of the first authors I found who had a solution – what if the child is immortal/powerful in her own right but still needs parenting? Emma develops powers and martial arts ability throughout the books, but which she isn’t technically a parent, she does fulfil that role throughout the books, and the juggling act of trying to sort out the school situation when you and your child are embroiled in a supernatural war was actually pretty awesome.

Briar Wilkes in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Another mother hero! In this case, a woman almost entirely defined by her relationship with men – Briar goes in search of her teenage son, who is himself hoping to clear the names of his father and grandfather. I’m still only halfway through the book, but after reading so much steampunk centred around boy heroes I’ve been really enjoying the novelty of a middle-aged heroine with a complex past.

Polly & Eileen in Blackout by Connie Willis

The Blitz is famous as a time when everyday people had to cope with the most extraordinary horrors while still keeping the shops open, putting food on the table, and trying not to fall apart. In this time travel novel, stranded historians Polly and Eileen learn more than they intended about the fragility of life and survival in wartime. While their male counterpart Mike gets tangled up in the “manly” dramas of Dunkirk and military hospitals, Eileen and Polly show us the day to day stresses and challenged of living through the Blitz. Just something as simple as the constant interrupted sleep… with a new baby’s habits still fresh in my mind, I’m surprised the whole population of London didn’t just go insane.

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