Quote of the week

“You’re welcome to try to convince them. They might dance with you. You’re lively enough. It’s damn boring having to listen to women prattle about nothing.”
“I’m aware of that,” she said. “But what do you expect them to talk about if they can’t go to university or take part in commerce or politics? It’s damn boring sitting around sewing.”

List of Lists: 2014 Most Anticipated

I have fallen way behind on blogging (holidays, family around, writing to do, cat emergency, perhaps a natural disinclination) so I’m going to try to resuscitate this with a List of Lists: Most Anticipated SFF for 2014. The Sleeps with Monsters and Bibliosanctum lists are women writers only; The Qwillery is specifically debut authors. Most of the other lists are pretty heavy on the male author epic fantasy. Please add other lists in the comments!












Book Probe Reviews has four (plus one on films not listed here), broken down by subject area:







B&N just put up theirs: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/the-most-anticipated-science-fictionfantasy-releases-of-2014/


1/15/14 — here’s SF Signal’s, with a really nice variety:


Repatriation to Geekdom

My credentials for being a successful SFF geek are pretty thin right now. There are a bazillion authors I’ve never heard of, let alone read; I still don’t game (not that I’m disinterested; I know that, once started, I would never stop); my book is being published by a literary imprint, not an SFF imprint; I know very few people in the community.

It’s not so much that I was in exile as it is that I was a lonely shepherd tucked away in the mountains of Geekdom and I have now come out and am making my way nervously to the capital. The landscape has changed since the last time I was on this road.


Being a geek is now chic.

Good prose matters.

Not everyone is a white straight male.

Genres are bent.


When I was growing up, I was the only girl I knew until I was about 15 who liked SFF. I lived in a small town in western Pennsylvania. There was one bookstore, Walden’s. When I went to the bookstore, I was treated to Tolkien rip-offs, Asimov rip-offs, and the covers of the Gor books. The library was tiny. College was better, but there was so much time spent a) studying and b) growing up that my genre fiction reading tapered off.

I went into an MFA program, where I learned that genre fiction or commercial fiction was undesirable. I went into a Ph.D. program, where I learned that it wasn’t quite so bad as all that and I could do scholarly work about it and be respected.

My husband got a job, we moved across the country, I got a job, we had a kid, I stopped reading anything but picture books. Every time I browsed the SFF section of the library I saw the same old books.

Somewhere in there the internet took off, but after spending an entire day at work staring at a computer and answering e-mails, I was not tempted by the siren calls of forums. I was busy, not poor but not flush with extra cash either, and an introvert, so I never had any desire to go to cons. I went to law school. Essentially I stayed in my hut, herding my sheep.


Then I sold the book. I joined the SFWA. Now I am tweeting and reading and seeing this huge landscape that is completely new to me. I feel a bit like a hick. As a writer, the most interesting thing to me is that there is so much imaginative and non-formulaic work coming out, and it has good characters and sharp sentences. It inspires me to do more creative and experimental things with voice, plot, character. It is humbling.

As a reader, I feel overwhelmed by all the choices — although, I only know about most of these books and authors from the internet. California libraries have no money, and it’s rare that I find a book on the shelf that is one of these new and interesting ones. I can get new ones, but I have to know about them and put in a hold request. So to find new authors to read, one has to know where to get the recommendations. Word of mouth matters so much. The internet is a tremendous blessing to readers.

As a person, I’m interested in how the demographic of Geekdom has shifted. There were always women and people of color, but now they aren’t in hiding. Everyone who has seen any of the discussions about the need for diversity in SFF is going to tell me – rightly – that the field is still dominated by white guys. Sexual harassment at cons is a problem. There are people who write on forums that women’s fiction is about emotion and men’s is about action, and that’s why they will never read women’s fiction. The field still has a tremendous way to go, mostly because the human race has a tremendous way to go.

But see, 15 or 20 years ago, no one was even HAVING these discussions in the open. Women in SF were talked about, sort of, but race was not on the table at all. It’s a huge change. It’s depressing as hell to read racist and sexist comments and to see how much people are still marginalized; but the marginalized people are shouting loudly, and they are getting support from the people on the inside. Awareness of the perpetuation of the dominant culture has come out of the closet.

Related to this is the other major change in demographics – people have grown up and had kids. Playing D&D is not an act of teenage bonding against the grown-ups; it’s a family event. And reading SFF isn’t considered an adolescent phase. The kids are growing up with the idea that they are part of a community, rather than being isolated as the weird one. While there’s a certain thrill to being part of a small group, to being proud of one’s oddness, that can lead to a country-club mentality that is damaging in its ideas about exclusivity, and I think that having SFF activities becoming a normal (or at least unremarkable) part of parenting can only result in more imaginative and open-minded kids.

I’m only seeing part of the landscape, of course, and I don’t have any idea what’s hiding in the woods on the side of the road out of bowshot range. By the time I get to the capital, it might have been overwhelmed with plague or firebombed by aliens. Perhaps civil war will break out, or the thought police will triumph. On the other hand, maybe when I arrive the trade bazaar will be thriving and libraries will be more important than palaces.

Whatever the outcome, right now the journey is fun and interesting, even if occasionally nerve-wracking, and I’m glad to have come down out of the hills.

10 Books That Have Influenced Me

There’s a Facebook meme going around that is, roughly, “List 10 books that have been influential on you or your views of literature.”  I did my list this morning and decided it would be useful to write a little further about them. Caveat: they would not all be on my list of Favorite Books or Best Books, and there are books on those lists which don’t make this one.  So here we go:


The Grey King – Susan Cooper

This book was one of the first that showed me how epic stories of good and evil had to have a human dimension, and that you couldn’t win without pain. Also, it made me fall in love with Wales.


Heart of Darkness – Conrad

I still reread this book frequently for its gorgeous language and imagery, its vision of evil, and the way the story being told by Marlowe intersects with the story being told by the narrator.


Virgin in the Garden – A.S. Byatt

I was entranced with this book by its omniscient narrator, its details, and its ability to make me care about events that I would normally dub “realism” and be bored by. I wound up writing my dissertation on Byatt, so obviously this book had a fundamental life-altering impact on me.


Absalom, Absalom! – Faulkner

This was my first real experience with stream of consciousness or modernist writing.  It was probably one of the first books that I really struggled through to comprehend, which is always a good exercise. It also really made me think about the sense of “place” in a writer’s life, how the South was its own character in everything Faulkner wrote, and that’s a theme that has stayed with me.


Beloved – Morrison

What can you say about this book except that it is astonishing and beautiful and painful and everyone should read it?


A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

SPOILERS!!!  Martin is a decent writer, but this book is not astounding the way the others in this list are. What got me about it, however, is what he is famous for – his brutality, his willingness to kill off protagonists. I’m so used to writers putting sympathetic characters in danger and then rescuing them that it blew me away when he didn’t do this.


Blood Meridian – McCarthy

This is another violent one. It was a tough read. But McCarthy’s prose is so outstanding that it’s worth it. This is also a great kick in the pants to ideas about what a historical novel is.  And McCarthy is another writer for whom place – the southwest – matters.  A good companion to Heart of Darkness.


Tehanu – Le Guin

This is a wonderful reframing of fantasy from epic and violent to domestic but just as charged with significance.  Her use of details in world-making is splendid. The first time I read it I was disappointed because it didn’t have swordfights and lots of magic and stuff, and later I’ve realized that it’s the quietness of the book that makes it so remarkable.


Salem’s Lot – King

King really excels here in his world-building and sense of place and use of details.  Reminds me of Faulkner in some ways. It’s also terrifying. The first time I read it was the first time I had been left alone for a week in the house when parents went away, and I was scared to go into the basement to clean the cat box. It’s a great model for creating fear.


and of course A Room of One’s Own – Woolf

All writers should read this, for what it says about language, about writing, how it uses language, and, unfortunately, for its continuing relevance about women writers.  One wishes what she has to say about women writers was now obsolete, but it isn’t.


Honorable Mentions:

“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” short story by Flannery O’Connor, which is hilarious, until it isn’t.  Another “I can’t believe that happened” one.


The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman. Terrific historical novel about Richard III that is gut-wrenching as the end approaches.


Girls, Boys, and The Hunger Games

So this past week there have been a lot of “Tell us what [insert category] of books you are thankful for” tweets going around.  I responded to one of the YA ones with the following tweet:  “Today, Suzanne Collins because she has made boys totally interested in a strong girl POV character.”  Then, yesterday, the following op-ed ran in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-1125-slack-hunger-games-covergirl-capitol-20131125,0,1264290.story#axzz2m3S50WAK (“Ad campaign (lip) glosses over ‘Hunger Games’ message: The disturbing marketing strategy by Lionsgate and CoverGirl turns an epic story about class inequality into a platform for the villains.”)

I was disappointed in the article because it turned out to be an advocacy piece for the Harry Potter Alliance.  While what they are doing sounds admirable, I wanted to read something about the ad campaign, The Hunger Games, and teenage girls.  So now I have to write it myself.

One of the most wonderful things for me about these books is that Katniss is such a strong girl character without ever being a “wannabe” boy.  She’s complicated. The first book opens with her out hunting; she comes back to the house and helps to make her sister neat and presentable for the Reaping. She’s capable of knocking a tracker-jacker nest onto one of the other Tributes and then laying out flowers and singing for Rue.  She’s fierce and angry and not ashamed to love.  These are people qualities which mainstream American culture still divides into boy qualities and girl qualities.  Take a look at the hideously gendered toy aisles in most retail stores and you can see how little culture has moved forward in the past 50 years.  Fortunately, a lot of boys and girls are reading and watching The Hunger Games and seeing that those stereotypes are unnecessary and that strong girl characters can be everything strong male leads are.  The boys reading these books are identifying with a girl! A girl! The importance of this can’t be stated enough.

It’s of course also important for the girls reading the books to see that you don’t have to be either pretty and subservient or tough and callous.  Katniss doesn’t choose between boy qualities and girl qualities; she does what is necessary for her to survive without losing who she is.  As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Peeta first makes the point about not wanting to let the Games make him someone he is not, and his character has many “feminine” attributes. It’s not just Katniss who’s a complicated character in terms of gendering.

This preservation of the self is what makes the idea of Hunger Games make-up absolutely appalling to me.  I think the LA Times article has it right in equating cosmetics with the capitalist oppressor; in the Capitol, make-up is not about gender, it’s about conspicuous consumption.  But it’s also about disguise.  People in the Capitol hide from each other and from themselves, because if they could see the truth of what Panem is and how they support it, they would hate themselves. (I admit: that’s a huge generalization, obviously, and is based on the assumption that people are mostly good, which is arguable.) The first thing that happens to Katniss upon arriving at the Capitol is being turned over to her stylists, who comment on how hairy she is.  The job of the stylist is to strip of her authenticity.  Which is why Cinna is such an amazing character – he subversively restores her authenticity and gives her more.

The message of the strong complicated girl character is so powerful in The Hunger Games, and so necessary, that it should not in turn be subverted or obscured by the signals CoverGirl is sending with a make-up line.  American girls are screwed with enough by the culture – CoverGirl and Lionsgate should not be able to get away with twisting and hollowing out one of the most substantive counter-messages to come along in years.

A boycott would be one way to tell CoverGirl and Lionsgate to pull the product, as would letters to retailers.  But I think the more effective and important action is to make the product irrelevant by getting girls and boys to remember who Katniss is.  Talk to them about why they like her and what it means to have an authentic self, teach them how to be who they are, and that might make the make-up obsolete.

Epic Fantasy (What and Why), Part 2

The typical epic fantasy includes a fairly hierarchical class structure with a ruling nobility, members of whom often feature prominently in the storyline.  This is pretty much de rigeur.  Heroes might be thieves, or farm boys making good, or struggling artisans, but they get swept up into adventures that include, in one way or another, the ruling elite.  This seems to be part of what makes an epic epic. The best example of an epic fantasy that I can think of that doesn’t rely heavily on this trope is Steven King’s The Dark Tower series, but even that has its origins in Roland the Gunslinger back in the castle. (I admit to being underread, and I would like to be pointed to an epic fantasy that takes place in a communal society, for example.)  Of course lots of fantasy doesn’t feature an aristocracy, but that fantasy is not generally classed as epic.

There are at least two significant reasons for this.  One is literary tradition.  In The Poetics, Aristotle sets out the ideal tragic hero as a person of a notable family, in the enjoyment of prosperity and riches; this is the person whose fall will be greatest.  Shakespeare’s plays all feature kings or lords or Italian dukes or what have you.  Traditional epics – The Iliad, Beowulf – have kings as heroes. Fairy tales are full of princes on quests and faerie queens. And of course, for the modern fantasy writer, the shadow of Tolkien, with the story of the restoration of the exiled king, looms large.

(I digress here a moment to point out that these examples are in the Western European tradition, and that there may be epics from other cultures which are not so focused on important kings or leaders.  This post is pretty Euro-centric, and examples of differences are welcome.)

The other significant reason for fantasy featuring an aristocracy is that these characters are the people in power, and power is what makes things tick. Power is sexy. If an epic involves world-changing events, it has to happen on a greater scale than a conflict between a shoemaker and a village witch.  This is not to say that one can’t write a really great fantasy story about such a conflict; it just isn’t likely to be an epic.  The people with power have the resources to mobilize the armies, hire the best wizards, and so on.  The stakes are higher when a nation is involved.

But – and here’s the question that really started my thinking about this – why do the people with power have to be kings instead of elected presidents?  To say that the answer is in the faux-medieval setting of most fantasies begs the question – why that setting?  Is it intrinsic to epic?  Monarchies and travel by horse and “heavy oaken doors” are glamorous, but the setting is also a breeding ground for cliches and sterotypes.

This is especially interesting to me as an American.  We cut our teeth on the Declaration of Independence; why are our epic heroes not based on Jefferson and Adams and Franklin?  Why are there not more epic fantasies set against the backdrop similar to Colonial America or the Revolutionary War?  Would a novel with a main character of a wizard who comes to a new settlement as an indentured servant and fights a magical battle to save a Boston-like city not be an epic fantasy?  There are plenty of other events in American history that would make great settings for battles of magic that change a nation.

These are questions.  I don’t have answers to them.  My own book certainly uses all the traditional tropes, although, now that I have it out of my system, I’m not going to write 20 more books just like it.  A related discussion to have would be the potential for fantasy novels to act as agents for social justice a la Dickens, rather than reifying undemocratic systems of government.  (GRRM does a pretty good job at depicting poverty and the slums, but in end it’s a game of thrones, not a French revolution.)  Another whole topic is the pyschological need of people to escape into a world where rules are clearer and stories are predictable. And there are big questions about genres.

In the meantime, I’m going to conclude with this thought: writing epic fantasy involves embracing certain tropes, but they don’t have to control the story.  It’s the writer’s job to find ways to push the limits and keep the tropes from getting stale. And class is a biggie.


My attention this morning was caught by a couple of online discussions about what “epic fantasy” is, one on Mythic Scribes and one on Fantasy Faction.  Both got my mind spinning in various ways.  I’ve realized that I have a lot to say on the subject, so this will be more of an introductory post, followed by more analytical posts.  A lot of thoughts from my earlier post about conventionality also are part of this discussion; I think a lot of non-readers of fantasy imagine the entire genre to be epic fantasy with its particular conventions, despite the numerous subspecies of the genre out there.

So what are the conventions of epic fantasy?  Plotwise, they seem to include a quest or mission, forces of evil, magic, swords, royalty, and something that makes the world very distinct from our earth: fabulous beasts, non-human sentient races, angels, dragons, minor deities, and other such things from folklore, fairytale, myth, and legend.  The discussions on the blogs referenced above describe epic fantasy as a narrative of a great change in the characters’ world, not just in the characters – a sort of paradigm shift. The empire crumbles or the kingdom is restored, the Ring goes in the fire, a great threat is removed from the world.  Etcetera.

I like this description of the subject matter of epic fantasy.  Epics are about great events.  But what about the fantasy part?  In some ways a good epic fantasy is not that different from a really well-realized historical novel; Sharon Kay Penman’s novel about Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour, has everything that I want in an epic fantasy except magic, and I don’t actually miss the magic much.  Conversely, I’ve heard it said that George R.R. Martin’s books are a more accurate description of the Middle Ages than a lot of historical novels.  The dividing line between the two is that in the fantasy, things happen which can only happen in imagination.

Epics can’t rely on magic, though.  A Song of Ice and Fire is not free of magic – the dead walk, dragons rouse, Melisandre kills with shadows, Bran sees through the eyes of wolves, and so on.  But what is really seductive about the books is the vividness of the world-building and the transformations of the characters.  Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf only does a few acts of actual “magic” in the entire trilogy, and the books are so wonderful because they drop us into Middle-earth.  All the magic in the world won’t make a good epic if the world-building isn’t there.

Epics may have narrative arcs that span upheavals in the realm or world or universe, but they are also firmly grounded in things which are both small and ordinary. For us as readers to appreciate the earth-shaking events of the story, we have to understand the earth before it’s shaken.  My absolute favorite sentence in the trilogy comes in the Tom Bombadil chapter in Fellowship:  “The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”  It’s simple, largely adjective-free, and specific. The Earthsea books are similarly full of domestic details and plain language.  The best writers of epic fantasy have a streak of Hemingway in them.

It’s not just detail that matters, however.  A writer can be very detailed in describing a dragon or the magical ingredients of a potion.  An epic also needs to be full of the real.   Fellowship begins with that most ordinary event: a birthday party.  The Return of the King ends with another ordinary event: a father holding his baby on his lap.  All the magic and wonder happens in between those two very domestic and familiar bookends.

The writer of epic fantasy needs to be able to hold together the large by working hard on the small and create the strange by setting it against the familiar. Because the scope of an epic fantasy is so great, it’s easy for the writer to let the epic-ness run away with the book.  (I think Robert Jordan fell victim to this, which is why The Wheel of Time was so interminable.)  But the epic-ness needs to be reined in with an equal joy in the mundane.  Writing is an act of balance.  And epic fantasy requires one to be particularly graceful.


Coming up next:  Epic Fantasy and issues of class.

Thoughts on “Conventionality”

The two mentions of Moth and Spark in review publications thus far (Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal) have both used the word “conventional” to describe the book. This is true so far as the plot and much of the setting, and I have used the word myself. The conventionality exists because the book has its origins way way back in my teenage years, when the fantasy available to me in the relatively small town where I lived was mostly Tolkien knock-offs. That’s what I read, that’s what I wrote.

As I got older and my reading widened, my writing changed too (though never departing very far from worlds where magic of some sort mattered, which can be the subject of a future post). Most of the time I spent learning to write involved working on things such as creating tension through dialogue, experimenting with verb tense and point of view, cutting off dead wood, structuring a story, not being too wordy, and so on. I was also trying to be daring, original, and experimental.

In those years, I wrote my MFA manuscript, a fantasy novel, a bunch of unfinished stuff, and a major rewrite of the fantasy novel which was more innovative for me in terms of structure. (I also wrote a dissertation in there too, ahem.) But all this time the romantic fantasy story with the usual trappings (dragons, princes, magic, etc.) has been struggling to get out of me and trying to hijack my other writing.

So finally I decided to get the story out of my system and write the book my 15 year old self was craving, and then I could get on with other books. I did move the setting from a faux-medieval era to one much more like the early 1800s, mostly because I had tired of medieval a long time ago and because I really wanted to steal from Jane Austen. (Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I am surprised by how contemporary her language seems.) But I didn’t push any major plot or setting boundaries – instead I worked on character development and language.

After several drafts, I realized that I really did want to give a shot at getting the novel published, and I started playing around with various other less-used mythical elements, none of which made it to the final round. When I acknowledged that my inner romantic had won, that was when I had a story.

A conventional story – a love story, a quest, dragons.

So . . . Is this a bad thing?

The answer is yes if conventional means relying on stereotypes. But there’s a difference between a familiar trope and a sterotype.

In Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, he lays out patterns and elements common to folk and fairy-tales, elements which necessarily fall in a sequence. Not every story has every element, but the elements in the story are familiar and come in a predictable order. I don’t want to go into great deal about Propp here since it’s a long time since I’ve read it; what is relevant is that he finds the same tropes repeated over and over. (A.S. Byatt’s story “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is a great take on what happens when the tropes are pushed aside; the Eldest Princess realizes that she won’t achieve the quest no matter what, so she decides to leave the path and make a new story.) Part of the human appetite for story and narrative is an appetite for familiarity.

Stories and novels are wonderful when they push limits and create a level of discomfort in the reader that makes the reader self-examine. They are wonderful when they have amazing ideas and are creating new things or mashing up stuff that is never found together. When they fiercely tackle cultural norms, they can be spectacular.

And, stories are also wonderful when they are familiar. Kids like to hear the same story or watch the same show over and over. Adults re-read and re-watch too, just not as insistently. Stories themselves endure for centuries. Fairy tales and legends especially seem to get retold over and over. The stories we hear since childhood become a part of our identity, our self-narrative, our sense of culture and world.

Obviously that can be restrictive and even damaging – think of the stories and expectations surrounding how women should behave. But familiar stories are also a home base of sorts, a place to retreat to and regather, a way to restore order to a fragmented self.

Fantasy and science fiction books being published now have such awesome and creative stories, and I love the genre blending that is in so many books. I wish there had been that much variety during my formative years. In my next books I hope to be a lot more innovative all-around. I need to keep pushing myself and beware of getting stale.

But I don’t think it’s chance that Moth and Spark was accepted for publication when my previous books weren’t. It’s a better book. And some of the reason that it’s a better book is that it relies on my oldest experiences with stories instead of fighting them.

First Review!

Well, this is kinda weird because it’s mostly summary and the endorsement, such as it is, is more implied than stated (the impression I get is “fun take on an old story” sort of thing), but hey, it’s Publishers Weekly.  And I’ll take “clean prose” as a compliment any day.


Moth and Spark cover for the UK edition

(I really wanted to write “anarchy for the UK” in the title there.)

And here’s the cover for the edition being published in the UK by Headline Publishing Company.

Moth and Spark Headline cover

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