Monday, August 18, 2014

Is There in Truth, no.. Truthiness?

Landscape of Science Fiction by Luc Viatour
Howdy, y'all. Eric here.

Several times now, while trying to engage my significant other in conversation about a new movie, book, or TV show that's caught my attention, I hear the same question cross her lips.

"Is it based on a true story?"

It used to bring me up short. Why in the nine-levels of hell does that remotely matter? Yet she's somehow got it in her head of late that "true" somehow equates to quality. That a story, even a fictionalized tale, is better if there's even a slight grain of truth to it.

As if reality is something special.

There’s certainly no lack of scholarly and journalistic writing on the topic of fiction vs. non-fiction and which is “better,” most of it written by much smarter people than me. Some of it quite recently, as this is a topic that comes up a lot, apparently. Which I had no idea until the S.O. started feeling that even the most utterly made-up “based on a true” story was in someway better than the science fiction, fantasy, and other made up tales that make up the bulk of my entertainment. (And hers… this is a woman who thoroughly and willingly has immersed herself in Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Doctor Who with me week after week. She gets upset if I go to the opening of a Marvel Studios movie on opening night while she’s working--so I throw myself upon the sword of going twice. Yes, I’m that accommodating.)

But of course it gets me thinking when she knee-jerkingly asks this question. Does the work we fantasy writers pour our hearts into really matter? I’m not under any illusion that my own digital chicken scratchings are going to change how mankind thinks like some kind of 1984 or Clockwork Orange or Lord of the Rings. Should I even bother?

The answer--and I know you’re on pins and needles wondering--is hell to the effing yes. C’mon. The research all shows that not only does fiction do a better job of creating morally aware people, that it stays with an audiences psyche longer, but the anecdotal evidence just shows it’s a metric s#!+-tonne more fun. That bit of escapism that takes a person out of the real world for a little while, that’s worth every hour of clacking at the keyboard for any writer.

But maybe, just maybe, knowing there’s some little tiny smidgen of a story that might have once happened to a real person adds some importance for some. Not for me, but people like my gal. So the next time we sit down to watch a flick and she leans over and asks, “Is this based on a true story?” I will look at her and say, “Yes. Yes it is,” with all the conviction in the world. Even if it’s directed by Terry Gilliam and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fairy stripper and Summer Glau as a robot seamstress who makes him dresses. With a flaming sword. Named "Fartibartiblast."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

REVIEW: Raygun Chronicles

Title: Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age
Editor: Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Genre: science fiction / space opera
Price: $29.95 (hardcover) $17.95 (trade paperback) $6.99 (ebook)
Publisher: Every Day Publications
ISBN: 978-0-9881257-5-9
Point of Sale: various retailers via publisher's website
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I have to admit, when I was handed a copy of Raygun Chronicles, I was a bit daunted.  At 360 pages, the book would appear to make a fine doorstop.  Usually in such a broad anthology, I only end up finishing half the stories.  Not so with Raygun – I finished and enjoyed every single one!

Raygun Chronicles is the brainchild of Bryan Thomas Schmidt, and is an outgrowth of his now-defunct webzine Raygun Revival.  Basically, the book is a “best of” anthology with a few original stories added.  Since I hadn’t heard of Raygun Revival, everything in the book was new to me, and as I said above, really very good.

In general, what I liked about the stories was the characters.  In the serious stories (the bulk of the book) the characters were realistic and I found myself caring about them.  In the four humorous stories, the characters were just enough “off” to be believable in the context of the story.  Some specific stories that stood out for me:

Frontier ABCs: The Life and times of Charity Smith, Schoolteacher by Seanan McGuire: The lead-off story, this is a Firefly-inspired tale of a schoolteacher one should not trifle with.  It’s set in our Solar System, with the bulk of the action taking place on a terraformed Ganymede.

Rick the Robber Baron by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:  This was an interesting story in which the female lead starts by being tied to a wooden post on her own ship.  To make matters worse, the person who did the tying was somebody who had had a fling with our heroine.  It’s complicated, to say the least, but enjoyable.

Sword of Saladin by Michael S. Roberts:  In this tale an enemy tells the captain of the Earth battlecruiser Himalaya that she should have sex with herself.  She thinks that’s a fine idea – on the bridge of his ship!

Holly Defiant by Brenda Cooper:  The titular character is one heck of a singer.  She also appears to be the target of some evil men, and our narrator decides to help.  There are several turns in this tale, none of which I saw coming.

The Slavers of Ruhn by Rob Mancebo:  This is another Firefly-inspired story, in which a woman’s dress proves critical to saving the day.

The Heiress of Air by Allen M. Steele: A rich young woman is kidnapped, and our daring band goes forth to save her.  Again, things are not what they seem.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Following In The Footprints of Giants...

Hello, everyone!!  It’s Louise here again, and believe it or not, this post marks my final contribution to the Heroines of Fantasy blog for the year.  Where has the time gone, I wonder?!

After scratching my head and wondering how best to mark the occasion, I’ve decided to go back to basics and look at the roots of the historical novel.

I’m sure I’ve confessed previously that before I started writing historical fiction, I hadn’t really read much when it came to this particular genre. It was only when I started work on Fire and Sword that I started exploring the genre and it was then that I finally discovered what exactly I’d been missing through the years!  In 2004, I became a great fan of Hilary Mantel’s work when I read her novel of the the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety,  and it was around the same time that I discovered the work of Linda Proud, who writes about Renaissance Florence.  

But there remained a yawning chasm in my ‘Have Read’ shelves, and that was the classic works of historical fiction written by my fellow Scots.

This is, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration.  Through the years, I’d read a bit of Tranter.  I’d read a bit of Dorothy Dunnett’s list, too (her work is top of my ‘To Read’ list for 2015).  I’d read some of the classic Scots historical novels like Robert Louise Stevenson’s Kidnapped and John Galt’s Ringan Gilhaizie.  And I'd really enjoyed the historical novels of Reay Tannahill.  But I’d never read the classic Scottish novels penned by the father of historical fiction writing himself:  Sir Walter Scott.

So over the summer, I’ve been reading Scott’s first novel Waverley.  

I’ll admit it right now.  I’m a modern reader, with modern literary tastes.  Though I find a lot of contemporary writing a bit too fast for my liking, I find big, heavy 19th century novels quite difficult and – dare I say it! – too tedious to be what I’d call a fun read.   

Soon as I opened it, I realised that Waverley was precisely that kind of novel.  Reading it soon became a chore: I found the hero exasperating, and the level of description exhaustive.  Despite this, I persisted.  Before long, I found myself relating to the book not as a reader, but as an archaeologist. I found Scott's picture of mid-18th century Scotland incredible for the amount of detailed information it gave about the times Scott himself lived in, and about the Jacobite Rebellion, which was a period still considered to be in the recent past by his reckoning.  

Scott’s depiction of Scotland’s past still resonates in the present, colouring the way in which our native country is viewed both at home and abroad.  As I chugged my way doggedly through, there came a point when I realised that it had shaped Scotland’s literature, too, to the extent that when I looked with a critical eye at Waverley, I can see its resonances echoing even in my own book, Fire & Sword. The relationship between the hero of Waverley – Edward Waverley – and the anti-hero, Fergus Mac-Ivor, paved the way for a juxtaposition between hero and anti-hero which is more familiar to us all, I think: the dynamic between the upright, honest Davie Balfour and the swaggering, charismatic Allan Breck Stewart (who was based on a real historical figure) in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

When I wrote Fire and Sword, it wasn’t my intention of continuing this tradition.  If anything, I wanted to react against it.   But when I look afresh at my own novel , I see that one of the key themes is the way in which  the young, inexperienced John Sempill of Ellestoun (who tries hard to do the right thing and uphold the chivalric code he values so highly) finds himself allied with Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie –  a man whose morality is dubious to say the least, and who can at best prove unreliable and at worst downright treacherous. With this relationship underpinning the story,  I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line, my muse must have tapped into this long-standing tradition and created something which pays homage to it.

As writers, we strive to be original, to create something completely new and unfamiliar.  But we’re just the latest in a long line of literary craftspeople, and however hard we try, we can’t escape the past entirely.  It shapes us, makes us what and who we are.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit back and take stock, and to realise where exactly we fit in with those who have gone before.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eolyn's Amazing Audio Book Tour and Giveaway

Hi Everyone - Karin checking in to let you know we are celebrating the release of the audio edition of EOLYN with a month-long blog tour and giveaway. This is the last stop on the tour, but you still have a couple more days to enter the giveaway for a FREE copy of the audio edition, narrated by Darla Middlebrook. Darla is also working on the audio edition of HIGH MAGA, the companion novel to EOLYN, which should be released later this fall.

This has been an exciting tour with a lot of fun posts and interviews. I'm providing all the links below so you can browse some of the topics we've discussed, ranging from systems of magic to romantic leads to the technical aspects of producing an audio book. Many many thanks to all my hosts, and especially to The Magic Appreciation Tour, for helping me put this together. In addition to being great people, my hosts are all talented authors, so stop by their blogs and check out their work. You just might find your next favorite book! 

Of course, the best part of the tour is the opportunity to win a FREE copy of the audio book! Just sign up for the Rafflecopter Giveaway below, or at any of the stops on the tour. Five copies are being raffled, and there are many opportunities for entries. The winners will be announced on August 11 at my blog Eolyn Chronicles

Enjoy this virtual adventure through the Kingdom of Mosiehén, and good luck with the giveaway!

July 14-Aug 11 Eolyn's Amazing Audio Book Tour and Giveaway  

Scroll down to enter for your chance to win one of five FREE copies 
of the audible edition of Eolyn. Winners will be announced on August 11th. 

July 14  The Places that Inspired Eolyn's World: Talamanca. Eolyn's source of magical power can be found in the South Woods, a dense wilderness inspired by the highlands of Costa Rica. Learn about these forests and why I love them so at DelSheree Gladden's The Edible Bookshelf.

July 16 Author Interview at The Story Teller's Inn. Join me and fellow author Susan Stuckey for a virtual cup of coffee and a chat about all things magical

July 18  Magic in Eolyn's World.  A full overview of the history and structure of magic in the Kingdom of Moisehén. Join us for a discussion of this and other systems of magic at Daniel Marvello's The Vaetra Files

July 21 Dragon. Author Lori Fitzgerald's recent release The Dragon's Message provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the role of Dragon in Eolyn's world. Stop by and share your favorite dragon stories, too!

July 23 The Origins of Magic.  Every young mage and maga learns this story. Now, thanks to a special request by author Matthew Reuter, you will learn it, too!

July 25 Author Interview with Heidi Lynne Burke.  My second author interview on the tour.  Questions about what inspired Eolyn, why an audiobook, and what to expect next from Eolyn's world.

July 28 Aen-lasati: The Magic of Love and Desire One of my favorite posts about one of the most intriguing yet controversial aspects of Eolyn's world. Check it out at author Tracy Falbe's blog, Her Ladyship's Quest.

July 30 The Romantic Leads of Eolyn.  A visit to Marsha Moore's blog Illusions of Intimacy inspires the romantic in me. Learn about the men who compete for Eolyn's heart -- and the readers' hearts, as well!

August 1 Born of Fire: the Ancient Forests of East Selen.  The forests of the Pacific Northwest reflect the wild beauty of the home of the Clan of East Selen, an ancient and powerful line of mages and magas. Explore these forests with me on Linda Ulleseit's blog Books Books Books.

Aug 4 Chat at the Independent Bookworm.  Author Will Hahn and I kick back for a friendly chat about the ups, downs, ins, and outs of producing an audio book. Bring your questions, and help yourself to the virtual brownies at the back of the room.

On August 11, Winners of the Audio Book Giveaway will be announced! 
Good luck to all our participants. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wednesday Reviews: Harriet's Summer Reading

I’m doing something different this month. Rather than a single review, I’m talking about the historical, fantasy and science fiction I read whilst I was on holiday last month. Some books are old, some are new, some small press, some Big Five and some self-published. All are, I think, worth the reading, although it should go without saying that I enjoyed some far more than others. I’ve made no real attempts at critical analysis, because holidays are for relaxation and so, as I read, I let the words wash over me in gentle waves. I’ve listed them in reverse alphabetical order by author’s surname and included a link to Amazon UK (other retailers are, of course, available).

A Darker Moon J.S. Watts
This is a short, very intense story with touches of gothic horror. Abe is a foundling, the only link to his family a photograph of a beautiful woman tucked into the blankets wrapping him when he was abandoned on the steps of a synagogue. I’ll not summarise further, because it would be very easy to spoil this story and that would be a shame. About halfway through, the clues dropped earlier start coming together; Watts knows well the fine line between giving a reader enough and too much information. The end isn’t a surprise – it can’t be; it is, however, very well judged. What I enjoyed about this story was the stirring up of familiar, well used tropes into quite a different brew entirely. The writing too is lush and beautiful. Watts is a poet as well as a writer of fiction and this shows in every sentence of her prose.

The Mask of Apollo Mary Renault
An old favourite, this, and not a book I’d taken with me, but finding a copy for 25p at the village fete led to a most enjoyable rereading. It’s set in Athens and Syracuse in the late fifth/early fourth centuries BCE, during the tyrannies of Dionysios the elder and younger, and is narrated by Nikeratos, an actor. It touches on the roles of religion and drama in society and the limits of philosophy – the failure of Plato to train up the younger Dionysios as a philosopher prince drives a major part of the story. But this dry summing up of plot misses the point of reading Renault completely. One reads for the emotional intensity, the depth of description of character and scene, for the total immersion in her world. In this book, the description of the sack of Syracuse never fails to move me with its horror and pathos and yet – as in Greek tragedy – all the violence occurs entirely offstage. If you’ve not read any of her books, do give them a try. (I note that this month’s Guardian reading group choice is her Alexander trilogy.)

Athena’s Daughters: Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Ed. Jean Rabe
I’m not, in general, a reader of short stories but this was recommended to me. Anthologies are like variety boxes of chocolates: if you rummage round you’ll find something to suit your taste. A couple of weeks after reading, the two stories that remain with me are Vision by Alma Alexander, which explores perception and perspective, and in doing so slides easily between myth and sci-fi, and Cynthia Ward’s Whoever Fights Monsters, a gaslight horror inspired by Dracula.

No Earthly Shore Jilly Paddock
This is a quiet, lovely, very gentle novella about first contact with intelligent life on a terraformed planet. Like much good sci-fi it plays with perceptions and expectations, and holds up a mirror to reality. It’s also a love story. As well as being beautifully written, it feels possible and its aliens like real creatures. Intelligent Ediacara, perhaps. Paddock is a biologist and her knowledge shows through in just the right way: no turgid infodumps here, but all the small details are coherent and consistent. I’ve read several of her books now but this one has become my favourite.

Carthage Ross Leckie
The final book in Leckie’s Carthage trilogy (following on from Hannibal and Scipio), this tells of the final and total destruction of a city, and a civilisation, at the culmination of the Punic Wars. It’s a war story, with little relief from all that builds and wages a war. Unlike the other two, it’s composed of ‘found’ material, letters and other documents, weaving together Cato’s implacable desire for destruction with others’ to avert it. It’s cynical and brutal, with stark descriptions of violence. I should note that this book is a fiction, not fictionalised history. Carthage was, of course, completely destroyed by Rome but both the central characters, bastard sons of Hannibal and Scipio, are invented; some readers dislike this playing fast and loose with historical fact but I don’t mind if the result works as a story, and I think this does. To my mind it’s not the strongest of the trilogy – I’d say that’s Hannibal, which has a broader range of emotional tone – but it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve read recently and provides a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Arms and the Women Reginald Hill
I read six of Hill’s books whilst I was away. All were rereads, five were from his Dalziel and Pascoe* series, and I enjoyed every word of each. I’m cheating a bit including one on this list but I reckon it can be filed under historical fantasy thanks to the inset tale describing Aeneas’ wanderings after the fall of Troy. In his later books, Hill pushed the police detective story to – and sometimes well beyond – its limits (comedy, tragedy, whimsy, polemic; there’s even a sci-fi novella with Dalziel and Pascoe detecting on the moon). In this one, Ellie Pascoe, never one to lurk in her husband’s shadow, takes centre stage.

* If you only know D&P from the TV versions the books are another thing entirely. Not all translations are accurate.

Harvest Jim Crace
I know. There’ve been many rave reviews of this and it was on the 2013 Booker shortlist. You don’t get much more mainstream than that. But it is, still, a quite wonderful book. It’s also surprisingly hard to pin down. The tale is of one time and place, but the time is not specified and the place unnamed, and there are hints here and there that reading it as pure historical fiction may be misdirection. It’s also one of the most intense books I’ve read in ages. It’s short but I had to pause several times to work off my sense of mounting dread. The second read will be easier and likely even more rewarding.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims Toby Clements
This was the stand-out book of my holiday. It was an impulse purchase based on a recommendation from someone whose taste I trust completely, and it was even better than she said. It’s a ground up view of the Wars of the Roses, so lots of battles (lots of archery, and the damage done by arrows) and the mud and blood and injury of the aftermath of those battles. It’s a study of friendship (and weather) and of a quest (in the cold, across desolate landscapes, with time running out) and of the quiet triumph of hope over adversity (and lots of mud). There’s the best (i.e., worst) villain I’ve come across in ages too, positively mired in bad faith, and some stunning imagery woven through the text. I’ve read it twice now and I’ll be giving it as presents. Go read.

The view from the window as I sat reading:

Harriet Goodchild


Monday, August 4, 2014

All Dressed Up With Nothing to Do

Black Widow.
On June 16, 2014, Tasha Robinson posted a great article that’s been circulating the internet: “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.” In the article, Robinson argues that the media is, at least on the surface, creating “strong female characters”; yet these women still have no agency, and often fade away as the story progresses rather than take an active role. She cites examples from The Matrix, How to Train Your Dragon 2, the second Hobbit movie and other recent mainstream sci-fi/ fantasy movies as examples of female characters who seem smart and tough, but don’t actually do anything. Sometimes, she argues, they devolve from strong characters in ridiculous ways as the story progresses.

Unfortunately, Robinson is right. Most of these female characters play a minor, if any, role in the story. Tauriel is an embarrassment in The Hobbit, and actually insults my intelligence. First of all, I would have been happier if Peter Jackson had never decided to include a randomly made-up, kick-ass girl elf in the story. I am a purist, and would have been just as happy watching all the pretty elf boys do crazy CG ninja tricks without breaking a sweat or tangling their flowing hair. But ok, he gave us Tauriel, whose sole purpose seems to be mooning over a cute little dwarf, to the extent that she hangs up her bow and arrow to pine at his bedside. Because, you know, when we women see cute boys, we just no longer want to be awesome warriors, but instead must become swoony nursemaids. She is, effectively, out of the story thereafter.

Tauriel is in good company. The lack of agency in the main plot, as Robinson points out, is the rule rather than the exception. And when showrunners, producers and novelists do succeed in creating some well-rounded female characters with a purpose, they often find other ways to discredit or diminish them. On February 27th, 2014, Karen Valby of Entertainment Weekly published “Hey TV: Stop Raping Women,” arguing that rape is often used as a story device to weaken a strong female, create compassion for an “unlikeable” female character, or give a “boring” character something to do. This, too is an ugly trend. Valby cites shows such as Scandal and Downton Abbey, but one need only look as far as Game of Thrones to find evidence for this trend. Rape abounds in GoT, but one of the greatest controversies this season surrounded the rape of Cersei Lannister by her brother Jaime—a scene that was clearly depicted as consensual sex in the novel. Why did the showrunners find this change necessary? What purpose, other than diminishing a strong (and much-disliked) female character, does such an alteration serve? The most disturbing question is this: are we, the viewers, supposed to feel compassion for Cersei, or rejoice that she “had it coming?” Anytime we see a rape onscreen or read it on the page, we should ask ourselves the purpose of that scene, and examine our responses. Maybe then this particular trend will fade away, and violence against women will no longer become an acceptable way to remove agency from or create sympathy for our otherwise capable female characters.

I haven’t even touched on the concept of strong female characters as object, which I believe is a huge part of why we even see so many leather-clad, buffed up, or even half-naked beauties in our movies and comics. Sometimes, “strong female character” seems synonymous with “token hot girl”. I love Black Widow, particularly in the Avengers franchise. She's skilled and smart, and I wish the male superheroes’ club gave her more cool things to do. However, I suspect a large percentage of moviegoers are content with just the occasional ninja kick, because let’s face it: she looks hot. Me, I’m looking forward to really seeing her use her brain. Maybe someday even in a Black Widow movie, should we be so lucky to see more movies in which strong females actually drive the whole story.

The ongoing synergy between movies and theme parks also sends a clear message about the roles of female characters. When my younger daughter was about 9, her dad took her to Magic Mountain, where they have many cool superhero themed rides: Batman, Superman, Joker, Spiderman. When she had the opportunity to meet with the new president of the park, she asked, “Why don’t you have a Wonder Woman ride?” He told her it was a good question; they would work on that. She’ll be 15 this summer, and she’s still waiting. With movies like Wonder Woman constantly “in development,” who knows if she will see a female character –themed ride in her lifetime.

Are we doing better? Yes. But we still have a lot of work to do, as both creators and consumers of entertainment. The biggest problem seems to be determining how to define the word "strong" when it comes to our female characters, and deciding what kind of message society is willing to send about the roles of women. The creators have their role, but we have a role to play, too. We need to demand more from our entertainment: better representation of gender and diversity, more agency for all characters. There’s been a great deal of progress since I was a kid, but I don’t want my daughters have to wait until they’re 40 to see some legitimate female characters onscreen and on the page.

~ Kim Vandervort

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: The Fifth Knight by E.M. Powell

THE FIFTH KNIGHT, E.M. Powell’s debut medieval thriller, reached #1 on Amazon and with good reason.
The Fifth Knight is an “intimate” thriller, which focuses on a handful of characters, good and bad, that you get to know very well, instead of dozens as one might find in continent or globe spanning thrillers, historical and contemporary. Being so delightfully focused, The Fifth Knight does not require an extensive dramatis personæ for the reader to keep track of, who works for whom or who begat whom. This allows for excellent character arcs and, in the case of the villains, character(less) revelations.
Speaking of villains, Powell’s main antagonist, Sir Fitzurse has the three “Rs” one always wants in a thriller – he is resourceful, relentless, and ruthless. His mission is allegedly to Arrest Archbishop Thomas Becket and abduct the mysterious Theodosia, a young naïve anchoress who has spent most of her life willingly dwelling in a prison-like cell as she strives to make herself worthy to serve God as a nun. The arrest goes awry and, as we know from history books, Thomas Becket is killed.
Sir Fitzurse’s scheming was nearly flawless, his only mistakes being the enlistment of Sir Benedict Palmer and allowing the young knight to hear of the diabolical torture that Sir Fitzurse has planned for Theodosia. Though desperate to receive the pay that Fitzurse promised, Palmer’s conscience won’t allow him to be a party to Fitzurse’s evils. In fact, Palmer aids Theodosia in making a daring escape.
Romance blossoms between the headstrong anchoress, Theodosia, and the tarnished knight, Sir Palmer, as they are forced to their wits’ end to elude capture by Fitzurse and his minions. All the while, they struggle to determine the secret Theodosia unknowingly holds. The hope is that learning the truth that Fitzurse so desperately desires just might save them.
The Fifth Knight is highly recommended for those who want a thrilling read with protagonists you can root for and watch grow.
Review by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy