Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evolution of Duality in Fantasy and Science Fiction

It is my great pleasure this week to host Terra Whiteman as our guest blogger on Heroines of Fantasy.   I met Terra when she attended the School of Health and Science at Avila University.  Terra was one of those students who makes it a joy to teach:  intelligent, dedicated and hard working; always bringing an insightful and focused presence to the classroom.  But it wasn't until I announced the forthcoming publication of my novel EOLYN that I learned Terra, like me, had a secret life as a fantasy fiction author.

The first installment of Terra's web serial THE ANTITHESIS was published on line in February of 2010.  By the time she finished the web serial in August of 2011, the site had received over 270,000 hits.  The serial was picked up by 1889 Ltd Labs and released in three print volumes this past summer.  THE ANTITHESIS takes our traditional vision of heaven, hell -- and the struggle that at once separates and unites them -- and turns that vision inside out.

In addition to her fiction, Terra writes a bi-weekly blogzine at 1889 Labs.  She currently works in the field of clinical toxicology and plans to pursue a PhD in microbiology/virology.  She is married and lives in Kansas City, Kansas.

Please welcome Terra Whiteman, and join us in a discussion of duality in the context of fantasy and science fiction.


Duality is a term that describes opposing forces; though, the opposing forces that mainly pertain to duality are placed within the topic of good and evil.

The basis of theology—most religion and belief systems, revolves around duality. We must be good and thwart evil. We must abide the laws and learn from the morals written for us, so that we can continue being good. For a large majority of the existence of human civilization, religion was the supreme force that shaped our societal, political and cultural beliefs. Some may even argue that it is still this way for many countries and societies.

Therefore, it goes without a doubt that many forms of fiction, spanning across all genres, somehow encapsulate duality. I'm sure you can think of several off the top of your head at this very second. Many of the classics deal with duality, and without it, we wouldn't have had fairytales either. Duality is a reflection of how us, as a human collective, view the world in the most basic sense.

But how exaggerated is this notion, when placing duality in the perspective of the real world, and real people?

The Enlightenment Period of history was when things began drastically changing. Duality was still there, but it shifted from 'good and evil' to 'right and wrong'. And, though these terms are definitely related to one another, they are not synonymous. During these times, literary fiction began changing as well. Even before then, the Greeks explored the spaces in between good and evil, or right and wrong, reciting epics of wars where not everything was simply one sided, and each character had their reasons for acting in certain ways. The Iliad, Paradise Lost (where Satan is actually more of an anti-hero) and The Divine Comedy are excellent examples of this. It was during these times that duality was approached and analyzed in a more philosophical way, leaving readers questioning whether their idea of 'good and evil' or 'right and wrong' was actually correct.

Since then, we've had a significant addition to character roles in fiction. Before, we simply had the hero/heroine and the villain/villainess. Later on, we switched the hero to the protagonist, which is a more ambiguous term for a leading character, because people began exploring main characters that were less than heroic. For the villain, it was the antagonist, which pretty much is described as the person the protagonist has a problem with. No longer do our 'villains' cackle from towers, attempt world destruction for no apparent reason other than for the fact that they are genuinely evil, or try to cook and eat children. No, now emerges characters that are a little more easily relatable to us; that deal with situations and are placed in circumstances that perhaps we have experienced as well.

Both the worlds of fantasy and science fiction are the leaders in this new evolved form of duality. Often, we are introduced to a number of characters on opposing sides, who despite being enemies, have some traits that we find likeable, or we can sympathize with. When the war begins, and ensues, we are challenged to decide what is right and wrong, given the circumstances, based on the characters we've grown to know (and sometimes love).

And I think this is very important, and crucial, because our world is actually one that is entirely subjective. The best stories were the ones that made us stop and think. They made us question our beliefs, or morals, or their message stayed with us for a very long time. Classics continue to be read for a reason, after all.

The evolution of duality—the black and white curtain of good and evil to the gray veil of right and wrong—has not only made fantasy fiction more complex and deeper, it also made it more personal. Making it more personal allows us, as writers, to touch readers in a way that we couldn't in the earlier ages of fiction. And ultimately, moving readers is something that writers aim for.

Because writing is art. Therefore we are artists, and art should both edify and evoke.

In the parting words of Archdemon Belial Vakkar on the topic of good and evil, from The Antithesis:

"I supposed the events of my life posed quite a good example of the fallacy that was ‘good and evil’. Though I’d occasionally done what might be considered ‘evil’ things, I was most certainly not an evil man. What was evil, anyway? I’d have liked to see a true definition, pointing out the prerequisites of ‘evil’. On that note, I’d have liked to see ‘good’ as well. Because by the standards given in the mythos and religion we’d brainwashed all of you with, I’d say with the utmost sincerity that I had never met a good man. Why?

Because none of that rubbish actually existed. Not good, not evil;

Only justice.

We did what we did because of what was done unto us, period. Justice needed no good or evil, nor had it needed an ethical guideline to reference. It needed a reason, and that was all. And everyone had their reasons, right?"

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Matriarch

A couple announcements before moving on to our guest post by M.C. Chambers.

First, Heroines of Fantasy now has a Forthcoming Titles Page.  So, in addition to seeing our current novels (whose links are also listed on the right hand side bar), you can have a sneak preview of titles to be published in the not-so-distant future.  At the moment, Terri-Lynne DeFino's A Time Never Lived, scheduled for release in summer 2012, is listed.  Additional forthcoming titles from Kim Vandervort and me will be added as pitches and preliminary cover art become available. 

This week, Terri-Lynne DeFino, Kim Vandervort and I will all be attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, California.  As part of the kick off events, I will be at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore for an informal Meet and Greet the Authors event on Wednesday, October 26, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm.  Terri, Kim and I all have panels scheduled; to find out when and where please check out the Program Schedule for World Fantasy.  Finally, we will be at the mass autograph session on Friday, October 29, from 8pm to 11pm.  This is going to be a fantastic event, featuring all the authors at World Fantasy, including an impressive roster of Hadley Rille authors.  Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Those are the announcements for this week.  Onto our guest post.

M.C. Chambers is the author of SHAPERS' VEIL, recently released by Hadley Rille Books.  SHAPERS' VEIL is the story of Kawi, a hawk with the power to assume human form.  In addition to boasting stunningly poetic prose, SHAPER'S VEIL features a unique approach to the traditional magic of shapeshifting:  The "power" of changing shape depends on microscopic parasitic organisms called "Shapers".  This makes Chambers work a compelling blend of fantasy and science fiction, and a must read for fans of both genres. 

M.C. Chambers has also published science fiction short stories, including two in anthologies published by Hadley Rille Books.  She earned her first college degree in music, her second in computer science.  In addition to writing, she plays flute, programs databases, belly dances and walks in the wind.  She lives in Missouri with her husband, several of her sons, two cats and a cockatiel. 

Please welcome M.C. Chambers, and join us in a discussion of the Matriarch.


Some years ago I asked several women whom I admired what the word matriarch meant to them. Each of them named her own grandmother, and described how inspiring and influential she had been. Two things interested me by the responses: one, no one mentioned queens, politicians or world leaders, and two, it was not mothers but grandmothers who were given the title.
In mythology, a grandmother is an Elder, a wise woman, who protects and teaches the young.  I’m thinking now of grandmothers I have read about in fantasy. I remember wise and regal Galadriel, Arwen’s grandmother in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I remember the completely not regal but equally wise Nanny Ogg, an ancient, powerful and daffy sorceress who is also progenitor of half the county, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Thinking of the mothers portrayed in stories, I remember many unsavory characters. In fairy tales, the good mothers die and evil stepmothers take their places. The mothers Dara and Jasra in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber are protective but ultimately manipulative power-seekers: matriarch wannabees hoping to rule through their sons, except that these strong, ambitious women raised strong, ambitious sons who thwarted them. But some mothers in spec fic are noble in their protectiveness: Sarah Conner from the Terminator movies and Helen Parr, “Elastigirl”, from The Incredibles.
When writing my novel Shapers’ Veil, I wanted my heroine Gydana to be not just a strong character who is female, but a character who is strong because she is female. The sword-wielding warrior women I had been seeing more and more of in fantasy did not resonate with me. I wanted to write of a woman who was like women I actually knew. I wanted to write of a mother.
Gydana, like Demeter without Persephone, is a mother who has lost a child and has withdrawn from the greater world. Yet she remains maternally adoptive. Just as a nursing dog will adopt a piglet or a tiger cub, Gydana takes all manner of creatures under her wing - including the shape-shifter who pulls her into her quest. She is close to nature, having learned where to find and how to use the plants and waters and heat that her world provides. This knowledge is her defense and her weapon. She understands the nature of things, and understands her strange companions, adversaries, dreams and the hungry force that threatens all life as part of all nature. Understanding them, she grows in her journey first to acceptance, then to mastery. She rejoins the greater world as an Elder, a titular Grandmother.
The grandmothers described to me by my friends were not rulers in the political sense. To some eyes, they may even have seemed ordinary women. Their true mastery lay in their understanding of life, and their ability and willingness to pass the legacy of their knowledge to their children’s children. This is what gave them power and influence. This is what made them Matriarchs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Reality of Horses in Epic Fantasy

Horses. They are the most common mode of travel in fantasy novels, and yet how many authors actually get it right? Forget about Gandalf's Shadowfax who could run like the wind...indefinitely. I'm not interested in such magical or magicked creatures. I'm talking about horses. Regular horses that, as much as we might wish they could, can't gallop for hours on end, cover full countries in three days, or survive blizzards without shelter.

Despite what we have been programmed to believe, the ground a horse can actually cover in a day is not as much as you might expect. In fact, a person on foot can feasibly cover as much ground. Sure, a horse can kick it into a gallop in the blink of an eye, but it's built for evasion, not sustained periods of speed. They need to run faster--a little bit longer--than that lion giving chase; that's all. Depending upon the breed and training, size of the rider and terrain, certain horses can go longer, faster, but no breed can gallop for hours on end, or even an hour, or even half an hour.

The reality of traveling horseback is that the animals themselves are designed to walk. Plod even. Horses need to drink and graze often. Like other grazing animals, they eat most of the day just to get enough nutrition to graze again the next day. If ridden, even at a walk, for several hours a day, a horse can't simply be staked to graze through the night. When would it rest? A working horse needs grain to supplement its diet or it will starve, quickly. To carry that grain entails having a pack animals of some kind, which in turn slows things down considerably. Of course, ye ol' stabling a horse can work sometimes, but that comes with a whole different set of obstacles like the expense.

Horses are expensive--and that's another reality of horses in fantasy. They're fine and dandy for the royalty and wealthy in a story, highwaymen and brigands maybe--that quick getaway being kind of important-- but few of your locals are going to own horses. As for travelers using horses, the sad fact is that trading a spent animal for a fresh one would be a lot more realistic than properly caring for a beloved horsey-companion.

Horses in fantasy fall into the category of other such realities we've discussed this month in Heroines of Fantasy. If we were after authenticity, we'd see more mules--smarter, hardier, and all around stronger--than we do horses. But would Lady Godiva (above pic) strike as romantic and lovely a pose if she were riding a much more stalwart and practical mule?

And there's the biggest reason I see fantasy employing the horse when the reality would do no such thing. Not only have most readers been programmed to see horses through these rose-colored glasses, but we want to suspend that belief. They are beautiful animals, almost magically so. They are part of our fantasy backdrop--like those non-menstruating sword-wielding warrior women--and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Have you ever seen a realistic depiction of horses in a fantasy novel?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reality Check: How Much is Too Much in Epic Fantasy?

My post last month led to a fantastic discussion of a variety of things, including the concept of realism in fantasy.  Commenters brought up many excellent points, including the idea that maybe it doesn’t matter if a girl can’t really heft that big sword; isn’t it nice to suspend a little disbelief now and then and believe it could happen?

My answer?  It depends on the talent of the writer and the sensibilities of the reader.  One of the things I LOVE about Tolkien is that, as a medievalist myself, he pushes all of my scholarly buttons.  I enjoy seeing the seeds of our own culture in Middle Earth.  But I also love that he’s taken those seeds and grown totally unique flowers.  One of the things that turned me off about Steven Erikson’s Malazan Empire series is his unrelentingly realistic depictions of torture and violence.  While I understand that he’s not reinventing the wheel here—historically, human beings have developed a marked appreciation for the varied ways to harm one another—but the image of hundreds of crucified children will never burn out of my brain.  That was more realism than I could handle.  Another reader’s mileage may vary.  Regardless, both authors do a bang-up job of making their fantasies realistic to the reader, whether they’re historically accurate or even probable—and that’s good craft.

Sometimes it’s not the big things, but the little details that intrude too much into the story.  One of the things I liked about Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion was that whenever the army stopped moving, one of the first things the soldiers did was dig the poop-trenches.  I found this to be an excellent small detail that made a lot of sense and said a great deal about the organization of the army, its priorities, and the pecking order (because that definitely wasn’t a job handled by the highest-ranking members).    However, I quickly put down another fantasy novel because the main character was constantly menstruating and passing out.  It was messy and gross and really took me out of the story.  Unless it’s important to the story in some way, I just don’t need to read about certain aspects of reality.

Most importantly, characters should be as realistic as possible in the context of their own world.  I will only judge a fictional character by modern standards if the writer hasn’t done a good enough job of convincing me that his/ her world is “real.”  And characters need to connect with the reader in a human way, regardless of profession or social status.  Whether I’m writing or reading about a princess or a servant, I need to care about the character in order to feel engaged with the story.  Everything else is just window dressing.

Ultimately, the question of how much reality is too much all comes down to craft.  If I want to drop a couple of female ninjas riding pink hippos into a pseudo-medieval setting, I can—presuming I can get the reader to buy that this is totally plausible in my world.  The worldbuilding doesn’t have to be historically accurate for readers to buy in; the real trick is selling the world so well that the reader doesn’t even question whether or not something could or could not happen.

Kim Vandervort 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Love and Sex in a Heroine's World

A maga cannot be possessed by any man, and she will love many, if the Gods look upon her with favor before they call her home. 
– Briana of East Selen

This semester, students in my first year seminar Environment and Politics in Central America are reading Gioconda Belli’s compelling memoir The Country Under My Skin, which recounts Belli’s involvement with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua during the 1970s and 80s.  My students tend to love this book; they find Belli’s prose very accessible and come to admire her as a modern day heroine who risked life and family to take up arms against an oppressive and violent regime. 

That admiration is being undercut, however, for at least one of my students, who has found that the multiple love affairs Belli reports having had during those tumultuous years is beginning to get on her nerves: 

She [Belli] has gone from being an admirable, strong woman,” this student recently wrote, “to my idea of why women are so weak.  They rely on men’s strength for comfort.” 

This statement has been echoing in my head ever since I read it a couple weeks ago, and has me wondering in a broader sense about the relationship between love, sex and the image of strength in our heroines.  Women with multiple lovers are often called “fickle”, “inconstant” and “weak”, or any number of much more uncomplimentary words, but does calling them all these things make it so? 

Is a female protagonist with multiple lovers by definition weak?

When I began crafting the world of Eolyn, I had it very clear in my head how sex, and especially women’s sexuality, would be seen by the subculture of the Magas (the particular tradition of witchcraft that Eolyn inherits). I even allowed Magas to use the term ‘sexuality’ in the original draft of the novel, until Terri-Lynne DeFino challenged me on this because, as she argued, sexuality as a concept didn’t really exist in the Middle Ages, making the word anachronistic in the context of epic fantasy.

On the one hand, I thought Terri had a point, but her comment put me in a difficult dilemma.  While sexuality may be anachronistic in the context of pseudo-medieval societies, it was not in any way anachronistic for the Magas of Eolyn’s world, who understood the concept of a woman’s desire (shall we say, “needs”), and considered it an integral part of women’s magic.  There was no way I could sacrifice the concept of 'sexuality' without losing a very important pillar of their worldview.

With a little bit of thought and some help from a friend, I invented the magical term ‘aen-lasati’, which literally translates to the ‘fire within’.  So the word was changed in the final version of the novel, but the concept remains.

Aen-lasati is considered one of the gifts of Primitive Magic, the most ancient, powerful, and least understood class of magic recognized by Mages and Magas in Eolyn’s world.  Aen-lasati is divine in nature, and Magas (as well as Mages) are taught to respond to it with joyful reverence, not with fear, and certainly not with prohibition.

There is no such thing, in a Maga’s world, as meaningless sex. All sex, when freely shared, is considered sacred. On the other hand, there is no maxim that sexual relationships must be bound by rules of “love” and “fidelity”.  Indeed, according to some lines of thought, the whole concept of fidelity flies in the face of a true understanding of aen-lasati.

(This is a little [ahem] different from how I was brought up as a Kansas girl from a Catholic family.  But that’s another story. . .)

The perspective of the Magas is unique even in the context of Eolyn’s world, where women are generally expected to fill the traditional roles we associate with patriarchal medieval societies.  This causes no small amount of tension and conflict, not only for Eolyn, but for all the Magas who have come before her. 

From an author’s point of view, the practical implication of aen-lasati is that my heroine has no qualms about sleeping with a man she does not intend to stay with forever. She can also embrace the possibility of loving two (or perhaps more) men at once.  Now, there is a hero in her story who is the wonderful, complex alpha-type guy that most readers would expect the heroine to commit to when all is said and done.  But there is no guarantee that Eolyn will, even if given the opportunity. As a maga, she is generally reluctant to promise herself to one man because she knows (or has been taught) that sooner or later aen-lasati will kick in, and that the Gods may very well direct her toward another union with someone else in the not-so-distant future.

Does this make Eolyn weak?  I really don’t think so.  But it sets her apart from many of the heroines I’ve known, most of whom seem clearly destined to settle with the one heroic guy who is “right” for them – even if they sleep with multiple partners along the way. 

I’m certain there are exceptions to this rule; Guinevere comes to mind as an example, and I imagine we’ll hear others in this week's discussion. But for the most part it seems to me there is one hero out there for every heroine; and that we typically expect the Heroine, in her heart of hearts, to wait, like the legendary Penelope, steadfast and true to her Man. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. . .

Note:  I have tried to construct this essay in a way that avoids spoilers for those who have not yet read my novel.  For those of you who have already read EOLYN, I would very much appreciate it if you do the same with your comments. Thank you! 

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich