Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amma gonna go all Smaug on yer arse

This week I read an article online that actually made me want to get all Smaug on the writer’s arse. Said individual was having a go at the fantasy genre, pretty much bitching about the standard tropes of elves, orcs, wizards, et al, and how set in its ways the fantasy genre has become. Blah, blah, blah, dwarves are boring etc etc. That whole vibe.

                                          Image: Wiki Commons
The writer bemoaned the fact that there were so few authors willing to push boundaries, and yes, to a degree I’m tempted to agree. Tropes exist. But here’s the rub – it’s what  the author *does* with these tropes that matters.

(Some fellow authors might also sympathise when I mention about going too far out on a limb, and encountering reader resistance to ideas that are just so far off the beaten path.)

To this end, I feel it’s important that all established and aspiring fantasy writers should read widely within (and outside) their genre. Know your classics. Go look up the less mainstream material too. If a book has many negative reviews not related to grammar gremlins, ask yourself why is it that a book is controversial. Go read the book yourself, and make up your own mind.

(I did that recently with Karen Miller’s Empress, and I fucking loved the book. Ditto for everything of Mark Lawrence’s that I’ve read so far. None of these are everyone’s cup of tea.)

Hell, for good measure, load up on non-fiction too. A subscription to National Geographic will expose you to so many ideas. Keep up to speed with current affairs. Watch documentaries. Challenge yourself with ideas that make you uncomfortable. Ask yourself why you are uneasy. Then see if you can channel some of that into your writing.

Now, if you’re absolutely hellbent on writing about dwarves, elves and orcs, ask yourself this: what can you bring to the trope to make it uniquely your own and not some thinly veiled Lord of the Rings fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off (though fanfiction has its place, no matter what the critics say).

Tropes offer us a recognised framework upon which we can hang a story. If we look at Joseph Campbell’s conception of the Monomyth or how folk tales often have common occurrences and themes, we have shining examples of why touchstones of familiarity are so important. They satisfy a deep-rooted need for those who engage in the appreciation of storycraft. Take those away, and it becomes difficult to relate to a story.

You might whinge that as readers and writers we’ve become lazy, but I’ll argue that we need our shared themes as common ground and a launch pad for the worlds we build. While fiction plays with alternative realities, it is in and of itself not necessarily an accurate depiction of reality.

Real life doesn’t always tie up neatly. The hero doesn’t always slay the dragon. Sometimes the princess is an evil, conniving bitch. When we read (or write) fantasy, it is because we wish to escape from the mundanity our day-to-day existence. We therefore (often) seek some sort of ideal.

Our needs for particular stories are also different. there are days when I’m up for a challenge, and something radically different from the norm (like Storm Constantine’s hermaphrodite Wraeththu) is exactly what I need. Other times I want my dragonriders flying across Pern’s skies or even a few sneaky hobbitses, no matter how many times I’ve read Tolkien’s words.

Yes, I think there are some fantasy novels out there that wear their influences on their sleeves (hello, Terry Brooks, Raymond E Feist) but I’ll still dip into their worlds from time to time and enjoy myself, despite the obvious parallels. Or I can hit up Ursula K Le Guin and have my world stretched to the point where nothing is familiar. You have to consider the context. And also, bear in mind, that certain *types* of fantasy fiction will naturally be more accessible to particular readers more so than others. You opt for terra incognita or stick to the well-worn paths. To say that one is inferior to the other is missing the point.

In closing, I’d like to charge you with the command to write the stories *you* want to read. That’s what matters, ultimately. Also, don’t apologise for your choice in reading or writing matter, and if you want vampire elves riding unicorns, DO IT. Life’s too short and brutal to pander to others’ whims.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Magic of Thieves by C Greenwood #reviews

Title: Magic of Thieves (Legends of Dimmingwood #1)
Author: C Greenwood, 2012

Ilan is orphaned at a young age, and though author C Greenwood doesn’t exactly name Ilan’s race, the pointy ears and ability to do magic all point at elves. Though Ilan’s parents try to get her to safety, as a last-ditch attempt to protect her when soldiers come to hunt them down, things go wrong. Instead of reaching a haven where Ilan might be afforded the opportunity to enjoy a relatively normal upbringing, Ilan ends up at the mercy of the thieves of the Dimmingwood when the peddler with whom she is travelling is ambushed.

And that is how Ilan becomes a mascot of sorts, for a band of thieves, and has a thoroughly unconventional upbringing for a young lady. She might be well versed in the ways of the forest, but she lacks social graces until she intercedes to save the life of a young priest – and an unlikely friendship comes into being.

There really isn’t much to book one of this series other than offering readers an origin story in which we are introduced to the protagonist, and get to share her back story. This might bother some, but I enjoy this sort of detail. Greenwood’s writing is a little clunky at times, and I often found myself wishing the author would go deeper with the layering. Events, like the time Ilan finds herself a McGuffin, she acts but doesn’t question her motivations, which I felt moved a bit quickly for what was in fact a momentous event. Also the world building remains frustratingly light. I wanted to smell the leaf mould, hear which birds were singing, and see how the sunlight dapples the forest floor. This sort of detail, in my mind, is intrinsic to fantasy, and I wanted more of it.

Yes, Ilan can be a bit of a brat, but that’s understandable considering her circumstances, and I really took a shine to her despite her mood swings. She’s a teen, and acts it.

On the whole, this was a fun, engaging story that shows plenty of promise. If you’re looking for a light fantasy adventure with a strong, morally ambiguous female protagonist, then this might be your thing. Though I’m not experiencing a burning rush to go out and immediately buy the next novel, my interest is sufficiently piqued that if book 2 were to land on my desk, I would go on with the story. This one's a free read, so give it a shot.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human #review

Title: Apocalypse Now Now
Author: Charlie Human
Publisher: Umuzi, 2013

In Apocalypse Now Now, we discover right from the opening chapter that Baxter Zevcenko is, to put it mildly, not a very nice boy. At the tender age of 16, he is already a porn-peddling kingpin involved with school gangs, and he’s quite unapologetic about his calling in life. In his mind, everything’s perfect. He has enough cash, he’s manipulating others to do what he wants them to, and he has a hot girlfriend, Esmé.

Of course this is where everything starts to go south. It begins with the threat of a serial killer looming, and gets personal when Esmé goes missing, presumed kidnapped by the serial killer. Baxter’s only clue is a mysterious, glowing tooth found in Esmé’s room.

What follows is Baxter’s descent into the Mother City’s supernatural underground. Everything that he thought he knew is overturned. Fortunately, he’s not on his own, as he teams up with a mystical, ex-special forces bounty hunter, Jackson Ronin.

Their quest sees them tangling with elemental spirits and zombies, and Baxter gradually comes to realise that he stands at the centre of an eons-old conflict between a mantis and an octopus god—shades of HP Lovecraft much?

Baxter is not the hero we asked for, but he’s only one who’s going to take the blame for averting an impending apocalypse – a task for which no one will thank him due to what he has to do in order to come out on top.

Apocalypse Now Now is a gritty, action-packed quest that playfully subverts many of the tropes we encounter in popular urban fantasy, from zombies to dwarves, and generous lashings of local flavour when we encounter creatures such as a springbok faun and tokoloshes. It’s easy to see where the “Tarantino meets Neil Gaiman” applies, but I couldn’t quite help thinking of fun films like Men in Black. And, in a similar fashion, Apocalypse Now Now doesn’t take itself too seriously.

With that in mind, if you’re looking for a madcap romp filled with plenty of pop culture references and sometimes dizzying plot reversals, then you’ll likely enjoy sinking your teeth into this one. Though you may want to sit down and catch your breath afterwards. It’s a helluva ride.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1) by Scott Lynch #review

Title: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Gollancz, 2007

This is one of those books that has created quite a bit of buzz online, some praising it and one or two absolutely slamming it, so I felt compelled to add it to my reading list. Not only that, but it was recommended to me by an author friend who said it was a good example of fantasy literature where the protagonist is more of an anti-hero.

Locke Lamora is a thief and a liar, and as Scott Lynch paints him out, Locke is the best thief and liar in the city of Camorr. He doesn’t operate on his own, however: Locke has his coterie of “brothers” (and one, absent “sister”) and they style themselves as the Gentleman Bastards. They consider themselves to be consummate con artists rather than ordinary thieves. Their depredations on the wealthy of the city have led to the rise of the legend of the Thorn of Camorr.

Even Barsavi, the de facto leader of Camorr’s underground, is unaware of how fabulously wealthy the Gentleman Bastards are: For all their diversity, Locke, Jean Tannen, the twins Calo and Galdo Sanza, and the young Bug, as well as Sabetha (whom I hope to meet soon) are a devastating team and their exploits are both audacious and hair raising.

And should the Gentleman Bastards be unmasked as preying on the wealthy of Camorr – and that they are contravention of the Secret Peace that protects the upper crust of society – they would be in a world of trouble.

Of course Lynch is a masterful spinner of webs that, as the story progresses, grow gradually more tangled and complicated. I often paused and tried to imagine how the hell Locke and his companions were going to extricate themselves from their muddles.

The book does get off to a bit of a slow start, and I will admit that the writing style nearly put me off completely. But I’m glad I pushed on through, because I can state with all confidence that Lynch is one of the very few authors out there who can successfully write a stunning, slightly omniscient third-person point of view.

You get the idea that it’s Lynch telling the story while it unfolds, often digressing to fill in with a bit of back story to give context, before going on with the epic. This hopping between past and present may annoy some, but I loved the bigger picture it offered. Lynch feeds his readers just enough hints and tidbits to give sufficient depth to the characterisation and narrative.

The world building is breathtaking, tactile and vast in scope. The city of Camorr reminded me of Venice, and such magical elements as there were, didn’t overshadow the storytelling. But, be warned, Lynch pulls no punches, and if you take a leaf out of the Great GRRM’s books (A Song of Ice and Fire style), don’t get too attached to characters.

The moment I finished, I thought, wow, this would work as a film, and though I see it’s been optioned, nothing much has happened. The Lies of Locke Lamora may take time to get up to speed but it’s nail biting at the end. This is fantasy at its best, and it’s the kind of book that I’ll reread at some point.