Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Epic Fantasy - how I fell out of love

It's Robert Jordan's fault really.

Let me explain.

I discovered fantasy fiction at the tender age of six, when my Grampy leant me his copy of the Hobbit. Two  years later I read Lord of the Rings, in a weekend, and I was pretty much lost to the world of realism from that point on. I'd already devoured books of myths and, as I come from a family of readers, trips to the library were common. I worked my way through the Green Smoke books, Rosemary Sutcliffe's historical novels and other books, but I always returned to fantasy and science fiction. This early deluge may be why, when my other Grandfather, who lived further away and seldom saw us, gave me Ladybird versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles they were digested and found to be somewhat disappointing. In retrospect it was the fact he told me my spine would break free of my body crawl across the floor... which it didn't, because they were Ladybird books.

This may be why I have a strange sense of how quickly people learn to read too, it feels odd that children aren't ready for the books I read at the age I was even now.

Back to Fantasy. I spent my teen years reading pretty much nothing but fantasy fiction, devouring everything from David Eddings and D&D novels to the weird heights of Michael Moorcock and Tad Williams. It wasn't until I went to university that I moved on in any significant fashion, and then not far, only to urban fantasy and horror. A big part of the move away from fantasy was that I'd overfaced myself, read myself raw. I was becoming jaded by scullions and farm boys that just so happened to be the long lost heir to the throne and somehow became real kings, not puppet rulers. I was tired of magic swords and what I suppose Twitter would call #fantasyworldproblems.

A big part of this was to do with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. It is a huge, thirteen book series that took something like twenty years to write, publish and develop and during which the author had a heart attack and would eventually die before it's completion. It is truly epic in every sense of the word and it hits just about every cliche under the sun. Poor boys with great destinies, check. Princesses in need, check. Hideous monsters in service to an undying evil, check. You get the picture. The teenage me enjoyed the books anyway, delighting in the power fantasy they represented. Every battle, every new piece of weirdness and sorcery was carefully treasured for about nine books or so. Even the Aes Sedai, Jordan's witches with their agendas and guile were cool when I was a teenager (to balance things, Elric of Melnibone seems a lot cooler when I was a teenager too).

Ultimately the series was too long, too involved and eventually too insulting for me to continue. My girlfriend (now my wife) pointed out how many women got spanked and how many of them were cardboard thin, caricature bitches, with few redeeming qualities and I started to feel uncomfortable with that - in the same way that I've become uncomfortable with orcs, unless they have a context outside of 'barbarous evil people who exist only to harass the heroes'. Even Tolkien added in context eventually, making the orcs twisted, brutalised elves.

So by and large I gave up on the genre. I read a little, mostly Deverry and tried to read Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series, but I didn't really enjoy it. I did enjoy things like the Lankhmar books and Poul Anderson's books, still Fantasy but on a very different scale and tapping into a very different atmosphere. Chiefly I enjoyed the new ideas and, Deverry aside, the fact that one book was one book: I didn't have to read a huge load in order to follow the story. Where there were sequels they also stood alone: Heaven!

Its only in the last couple of years that I've come back to Fantasy in any real sense.What swung it was actually going to FantasyCon and listening to writers talk about their work. Hearing Juliet McKenna and Adrian Tchaikovsky and others talk about their work was enough to pique my interest, as was the fact that, honestly, Fantasy has moved on. Elves and orcs have fallen out of fashion, as have wizards and for the first time I remember not only had Fantasy swung free of Tolkien's Shadow but also the shadow of the Cold War. A more republican feeling, of all things, has sprung up. The stories aren't of lost princes and pale princesses but thieves and spies, revolutionaries and slaves. I'm sure there are Fantasy books about the nobility (Game of Thrones for one), though a lot of that feeling seems to have gone to Steampunk, but the stuff I've read has been firmly grounded in other places and time. It feels as if the Medievalism of the 80s and 90s has been jettisoned in favour of something more in line with the here and now. Whither Tolkien's dark technocratic future in books like Shadows of the Apt with the Apt races' war machines and air ships, or in Lies of Lock Lamora's strange gizmos? Whither the king's return? If anything Fantasy seems to have adopted the same strategy as SF, holding a mirror up to the world wherever it can, something I welcome.

This isn't to say I'm entirely sold. I'm still going slowly, frightened that this blushing love of mine will sour. For the moment I'm going softly, reading slowly and savouring what I read.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Hidden Treasures: The Books Only You Seem To Have Read

I think we all have them, books we love that nobody else seems to have read, or even heard of. I was honestly taken aback to see a friend mention the White Crow books by Mary Gentle on Twitter the other day, if only because most people don't even seem to know who she is, let alone remember gems like Rats and Gargoyles.

It got me thinking, what other books are there that nobody else I know seems to have read?

And so I made a little list...

1 Silk by Caitlin R Kiernan

Kiernan's first novel was a heady mixture of Lovecraftian horror and the Goth scene and established her voice as a genuine outsider, something that shoots through her work. I came to read it as a result of her her work on the Dreaming, and the chronicle of Spider Baxter's strange transformation and the legacy it left seemed strange and wonderful.

2 The White Crow novels by Mary Gentle

Beautifully written and esoteric, the first of the books, Rats and Gargoyles introduced me to a completely different type of fantasy, jettisoning a lot of the familiar stuff that mired Fantasy in the early 1990s. There were no young farm boys or scullions waiting for the quest to reveal their true identities, no good Gods warring with the evil outcast in a sub Tolkienesque world. Instead there were machines, rats and the Fane... It was heavy, literary and wonderful.

3 Lovely Biscuits by Grant Morrison

A collection of short stories that sum up so much of Morrison's work and which are by turns, strange, disturbing and breathless. Whether its the homage to Sherlock Holmes in the Room Where Love Lives or the sheer odd weight of Lovecraft in Heaven, Lovely Biscuits marks the road that Morrison has walked extremely well.

4 Jago by Kim Newman

Newman is probably most popular for his marvellous Anno Dracula stories, but Jago is the novel which disturbs me most, mixing Millennium Fever, psychic power and time travel in a heady, horrific mix rivalled only the Quorum.

5 The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Beautifully wrought, this novel traces an artist's encounters with the spirits of the Arizona desert as she seeks her muse. It's full of lovely images and has a deeply moving plot. Again, its one of the books I found in the 1990s after I moved away from epic Fantasy and onto the more Contemporary variety. In this case I'd read Blood Red, Snow White and was intrigued by the idea of the Wood Wife. It seemed very much in line with my interests.

All these books remain firm favourites of mine, though they don't get read as much as I'd like because of time constraints.

What are yours?


Something that's been rolling about in my head for a while is how weird communication is. We live in a world that's replete with ways to talk to each other but it only seems to make it more tenuous.

Most of us have probably sent emails that we feel are urgent, only to receive the inbox version of a tumble weed. We do it with texts too, letting them sit on our phones, unanswered. I suppose we do it because they lack the immediacy of a phone call; they're static things that don't complain they're neglected, in direct contrast to the nagging tone of the telephone. Even if the person who sent them is going frantic because the lack of response looks and feels galling, we can just ignore them: the object is divorced from emotion, and from time.

Social media seems to have the same timeless feeling. Something I tweeted ages ago (which went through to Facebook) sat untouched on my feed for ages. I expect that sort of  reaction with Twitter because, to be honest, I barely use it and I'm a novice there. Posting the same thing direct to Facebook over a month later, brought more responses but it looks as if people are still finding it. In some ways that's rather lovely, like having a tiny little surprise hidden on my timeline but it seems odd at the same time. It makes time feel chopped up, rather than linear.

You can be a time traveller at a click of a button, even if it is only in cyberspace (though that arguably applies to the whole internet).

To an extent this tendency to ignore the written is natural, most of what suggests communication is urgent relies on visual things, on things hardwired into body language; not a little red flag or sound effect.The rest of it is in the voice, not the words but the pitch, tone etc.

I like it, myself, but that's because my brain remembers things I read far more efficiently than things I hear. I appreciate the clean lines of it too, the fact that to use it properly you almost have to unpack what you're saying is something I find helpful as it lets me understand my point better. I do understand why other people aren't comfortable with it. I'm trying to cut back on the amount of email I send but I also think its important to understand there's a difference between saying, briefly, that you would like to discuss it face to face and just ignoring it. For one thing one opens up the experience of communication and the other is, to my mind, just rude (if inevitable).

I don't know what the solution is and obviously I'm not saying that you should answer all email, especially if the sender's offering you amazing deals on enlarging your penis or the chance to get lots of money from Nigeria. Those are definitely things to stay away from. I suppose I'm just noting the strangeness of it and the time twisting nature of the 'net and offering a plea to respond to emails or (safe) things you find on the 'web. There's someone else on the end of that email, waiting for your response after all.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ten Favourite Books by Ten Favourite Authors (who Happen to be Women)

This isn't the snappiest title in the shop, and I'm shamelessly stealing the idea from one of Juliet E Mckenna's recent tweets, where she said she'd love to see something like this in print (well, what else are you going to do?). With my act of daring theft done, I started to put this list together. It feels a bit odd, I'm conscious that I'm a man, and as such this may seem patronising, which isn't my intent here at all. I'm trying to approach it as a reader rather than being defined by anything else.

I don't know that there's a particular order to the books, mostly I've just put them down as they occurred to me.

1) Storm Constantine: The Monstrous Regiment

One of the Constantine's first novels, Monstrous Regiment depicts a matriarchy on an alien planet and it pulls no punches. It strips the fairytale or golden age elements from the idea of this system of government in favour of a full bore assault, reflecting the idea that power corrupts, and power corrupts absolutely. Is that in anyway indicative of the time the novel was written, when Mrs Thatcher was in power and being disowned by feminists left, right and centre? Perhaps but the fact remains that Monstrous Regiment is powerful and hard hitting.

2) Lauren Beukes: Zoo City

The first Beukes I read, shortly after FantasyCon in... ooh 2010 I think. The subject is fascinating and the
novel provides a window into a different culture, one that is a curious mix of Western and African. The ideas in the book pop and left me wanting more - if only to get an explanation of why the animal spirits had emerged in the first place, why they chose the people they did and what the purpose of it all was. The characters are vibrant and exciting, Sloth in particular made me smile.
3) Margaret Atwood: Year of the Flood

To my shame I haven't read Atwood's most famous novel yet (I have it on my Kindle, waiting). Year of the Flood really impressed me though, the story it tells is strong, apposite and (whisper it) good science fiction. The world is well told and feels as if it might happen in a few decades' time, which is rare. The action of the novel feels apocalyptic all the way through and the way the plot develops illustrates not only the destructive way capitalism undermines society and community but the dangers of fringe religions.

4) Poppy Z Brite: Liquor

The first of Brite's non horror novels, Liquor focuses on two gay chefs setting up their own restaurant where
everything is alcohol related. It's well written and was a good move away from her horror books, essentially she reinvented herself through the book. The book is coarse and shallow, wonderfully so and the characters jump off the page. Brite does not pull her punches, choosing to let her creation breathe and flow, throwing little jokes; the book is more human than her horror novels.

5) Caitlin R Kiernan: The Red Tree

One of my favourite writers, Caitlin's work reaches out to the dispossessed and the lost. The Red Tree is a particularly strong example, focusing on an author who takes a house on Rhode Island in an effort to get her mojo flowing again by cutting the world away and in doing so opens a Pandora's Box of terrifying events with a singular tree as the central motif. The work taps into many sources, from Lovecraft to New England's folklore and creates a scarier, nastier feeling to the closest thing I can think of (in this case, Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood)

6) Juliet E McKenna: Darkening Skies

This book slew me. Not in a funny way, but in the way it presented a realistic slice of fantasy fiction and
forced me to think about how different a medieval culture would be to the one we have now. The characters are well rendered, the action well written. The relationships between men and women are strikingly drawn, leaving no doubt what lies at the heart of the novel beyond the concept of 'what if wizards went to war'. I remain of the opinion that McKenna is one of the writers doing the most not only to write good fantasy but to attach it to some sort of reality and use it to comment on the real world.

7) Freda Warrington: Dark Cathedral

I read this during the 1990s and only once. That's not to say it's not a favourite, it is well written and gripping
and a good read. But its quite nasty in a very human way and once experienced I found I did not really want to go back to it. Warrington makes good points about the fringe of Christianity, the churches that are more cult than congregation and about the nature of the faith itself, underscoring it with a good foundation of Pagan thought. At times it does peter off into cliche but the plot keeps moving and I'd recommend it to anyone. Just only read it once.

8) Sam Stone: Zombies of New York and Other Stories

Sam is definitely a unique voice in the horror and, whilst she's an acquired taste, this book of short stories is
fantastic, especially when the stories move from her vampire fiction to more general horror tales. She writes lushly, illustrating her tales with enough detail to unsettle but not enough to sicken, even in the Toy Maker's House. The book is a lovely little collection of stories that demonstrate the range the author has, tackling killer clowns, Jack the Ripper and other subjects in all their grisly glory.

9) Emma Newman: Between Two Thorns

Another author I rave about, Emma Newman's work is vibrant and passionate. The Split Worlds series is brilliant in that it confronts our obsession with the past (in British culture at least) and pretty ruthlessly comparies it with the lot of people who aren't members of the upper classes. The books, which are in part 'pure feminist rage' in the author's own words make a nice parable for the modern age, where so much of the time we're told that battles have been won and now things can be allowed to progress 'naturally'.

This underlines for me one of the great things about the genre, the fact it can call out things about the world we live in and discuss them.

10) Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

A beautiful collection of fairy tales, written from a feminist perspective, the Bloody Chamber does a lot to
break the image of women as pale, pure victims of circumstance to being protagonists in their own right - it explores the idea that there's a 'beast in woman too'. Carter's voice is powerful and intelligent, compassionate and wise.

And that's the lot!