Monday, February 27, 2012

A Fantasy Reader's Demands

Up on Heroines of Fantasy this week, our first male blogger for the spring! Peadar Ó Guilín is a writer of YA fiction out of Dublin, Ireland. His first book, The Inferior ranked among the very best books I read in 2010. It is available in the US. His second book, The Deserter, will be available in the US on March 12th! For more information on Peadar and his work, click on the name-ticky up there. Unless the Nork has incapacitated him again, he'd love to hear from you.

Dear Fantasy Writers,

I'm a writer too and what I want, is to be remembered. Oh, I'm not talking about eternity here. What I mean, is that five minutes after you have finished reading one of my stories, you'll still be able to tell a perfect stranger what it was about.

A humble ambition, you might think, except I suspect that like me, you have wasted far too much time being mildly entertained instead of thrilled.

People read our work for different reasons: some like wizards; some *want* to be wizards, or thieves or dragons. There are fantasy fans who dream of escape to what they imagine were simpler times, when people had purer motives and better dance moves.

But for me, the true power of the genre lies in its name.

Fantasy means "imagination". It is creativity gone wild, or rather, that's what it should be. As a reader, I enjoy the tropes, but deep inside, there's a part of me that yearns to be astounded. I long to use the word "marvel" again and again in superhero-free sentences.

Science Fiction writers do this to me all the time, or they aspire to it anyway and it blows my mind that so many fantasy writers are content to let their genre cousins steal this crown right from under their noses.

But there's profit in old rope, isn't there? Perhaps it's no accident that SF sales keep shrinking, their shelf space collapsing before a never-ending stream of dragon-this or dragon-that.

Which is not to say I have anything against dragons! Or any other trope you might name. The important thing, for me, Peadar the Reader, is that when you use tropes, you twist them so hard that my lazy eye finally uncrosses; that I forget to go to the bathroom until I embarrass myself; that my coffee goes cold in the flask. That's all I want. Something new. Something amazing.

Oh, I'll still visit ye olde medieval kingdoms from time to time, like so many branches of McDonalds, because, well, when I'm hungry, I'll plug the gap with whatever comes to hand and... and Good for you! McDonald's do great business and not everybody can blow minds with every steaming plate that comes out of their kitchen.

But I want you to try. I insist on it. This is my demand and it is non-negotiable.

Or maybe you'd prefer for me to forget you while I'm still reading your book?

Monday, February 20, 2012

What's the Weather Like?

Hurricane and Sun by Alexis Rockman, 2006

Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived the majority of my life in sunny, moderate climates without significant weather changes, but any kind of weather—particularly in the extremes—makes me cranky.  I detest snow.  It may look pretty, all white, fluffy and innocent on the ground, but I’m not fooled.  Snow is cold, wet, icy, and like to make one utterly miserable once it crusts up and turns to ice and sludge.  When it gets dirty, snow just looks tawdry and sad, like a hooker past her prime.  And it sneaks up on you.  I switched colleges simply because I could no longer tolerate the invisible black ice that coated the walkways and forced me to slide to my classes on my ass. 

Don’t get me started on rain, either.  A light mist frizzes my hair and makes me sticky; a downpour, as far as I’m concerned, is a fantastic reason to close schools and businesses and stay off the road, because nobody can drive in it anyway.  High winds?  Annoying, and there always seems to be one blowing on a rare good hair day.  Excessive heat?  Just fine, as long as I can stay indoors with the A/C.  Bitter cold (in Southern California, what I call any temp below 60 degrees)?  Give me a blanket, preferably heated, a fire, up the heater to at least 70, and pour me a hot chocolate.  Earthquakes I can handle; weather, of all but the pleasant, sunny-with-a-slight-breeze sort, I can’t.

Given my general attitude weather as a necessary evil, it’s no wonder that I tend to notice the weather (or lack thereof) in both the books I read and what I write.  And what I’ve found is that weather, in fantasy, seems to fall into one of three basic categories:

                1) Weather is present to characterize a place.
                2) Weather sets a mood.
                3) Weather is there to make the characters 
                     really uncomfortable.

Most authors who incorporate weather usually touch on at least one of the three.  On Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, dragons battle the thread that falls from the sky and burns like acid.  In my books, I tend to throw a rain or snow storm at my characters whenever I either want to make them miserable or slow them down.  George R. R. Martin probably makes the most effective use of weather, utilizing it for all three of the above purposes.  From the outset of Game of Thrones, the Stark words winter is coming prove foreboding and foreshadowing in a myriad of ways.  The winter is both an actual turning of the seasons and an indicator of trouble to come.  In contrast, the sunny, humid south feels just as unpleasant as the constant snows of the north.  I love how Eddard Stark is constantly changing his sweaty tunic for a fresh one.  He can’t stand the heat any more than some of the other characters can withstand his frozen north.  The weather impacts the characters emotionally and physically, and sets a tone for the series.

Fishermen upon a Lee Shore, in Squally Weather
by Joseph Mallord William
I have noticed, though, that Martin is singular in his use of weather.  Many of the novels I have read in the past year don’t really seem to have weather at all, particularly the YA dystopian novels I tend to favor of late.  Their characters must all live here in SoCal, where the occasional mild rain inspires the annual “StormWatch: 2012” and nobody seems able to drive the freeways safely.  Even though I’m generally pro-sun, the absence of weather in fiction bothers me.  It makes the worldbuilding less vivid, less realistic.  Because let’s face it: love it or hate it, weather happens.  And weather, as we have learned from the tragedies of the tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina, can be one of the most destructive forces on earth.  The wind alone can shape canyons over time, crumble ships like bath toys, level cities and decimate populations. 

So tell me: what’s the weather like in the books you’re reading or writing these days?  How is weather used (or not)?  Does it enhance or detract from the plot and worldbuilding of the novel?  What are some of your favorite uses of weather in fiction?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Heroes in Love

In the film Agora, Orestes of Alexandria loves the mathematician
and philosopher Hypatia.  Orestes is a worthy hero, but he will
not win Hypatia's heart. Nor will he save her life.
This week on Heroines of Fantasy, we’re going to talk about heroes. 

Now, don’t worry – the heroines won’t be left out of this discussion.  They can't be.  After all, in matters of love it takes two to tango.  (Or three, or more, if you and/or your characters are living the Chinese curse of having an interesting life…) So when we talk about how our heroes love, we must at least make reference to the heroines who have captured their hearts.

It’s a common complaint that female characters in fantasy have historically been confined to the role of Romantic Interest for the Hero.  She waits on the sidleines while he proves his worth, and her everlasting love will be his reward when all the manly adventures are over and done.  Scenarios like this one have rankled readers -- especially women readers – because they so often undermine the potential of female characters to reflect the true complexity of real-life women.

I am of a mind that clichés like this not only shortchange our heroines, they also shortchange our heroes.  By giving the heroes of fantasy an inordinately simple path to romantic fulfillment, we impoverish their characters, allowing them to escape the true complexity of real-life men.

Now, maybe this is what many are looking for in fantasy.  There’s probably more than one person out there who has finished that engaging book, or gone home (or to the bar) after that entertaining movie, and thought, “Wow.  If only the rules were that straightforward.  Slay the kraken; win the girl. Now that’s a world I wouldn’t mind living in…”

Whether or not your taste is for uncomplicated love in the context of fantasy, I’m going to ask you to indulge me this week and talk about male characters who experience the reality of love in our fictitious worlds. 

Tyrion Lannister, by Rafal Hrynkiewicz
To get the discussion started, I’ll put someone forward that not everyone would expect to find in the romantic hero pile:  Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion can be devious and cruel.  He is bookish and ugly.  (Ugly in the novels, not in the HBO series.)  No one expects him to ride to the rescue in a suit of shining armor.  Yet he is in his heart of hearts a romantic.  He has a well-hidden soft spot when it comes to women, and a great need to experience love.  We see this in his relationship with Shae; we hear about it in the bitter memories of his ill-fated marriage to Tysha. The discord between Tyrion’s romantic inclinations and the reality in which he lives is a source of constant tension; and it is one of the many threads that makes Westeros feel like a real place in history.

There’s my example.  Now it’s your turn.  Talk to me about heroes in love. Real love, in all its beauty and cruelty, with all its nuances, inconveniences, uncertainties and confusions. Who are these heroes?  How have they loved?  Who have they loved?  Did they get the woman in the end?  (If it was ‘real’, they probably did not.  But I’d like to know…unless, of course, the reveal would involve too many spoilers.) 

And here's something else to think about as the discussion moves along:  As we break boundaries in the ways our female characters live, are we also breaking boundaries in the ways that our male characters love? 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Tale of True Love for Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day. How the heck did a defiant priest become the basis for a holiday of lovers, celebrated with hearts and candy and engagement rings? There are many, many legends. My favorite claims that Valentine was jailed because he defied Emperor Claudius by marrying young men and women against the law--a law that said no young men were allowed to marry (in an attempt to boost numbers in his army.) On the eve of his execution, Valentine wrote "the first Valentine" to his beloved, his jailer's daughter (whom some legends claim was healed of her blindness by the saint) signing it, from your Valentine.

As that story goes, and all stories of Valentine, the man was executed and thereby martyred, attaining eventual sainthood. I don't like that ending. Not at all. Therefore, in Heroines of Fantasy tradition, we're going to turn things around a little and make it our own. Using this picture and the basic Valentine legend above, let's rewrite the story, and this time let Valentine LIVE!

Same rules as last time: FIVE LINES ONLY! No cheating. Please do not be offensive. Sex and/or violence is allowed, but please don't get too graphic. Posting ends midnight on Saturday, February 11th. I'll conclude with the last five lines, and post the whole collective story on Sunday, February 12th.

(picture removed)

And so it begins: the story of a boy and a girl, and love unattainable; at least, that is what their kin wanted them to believe. Her name was Adalaide, a maid small and slight even for her kind. He was Valentine, his temper wicked even for his. They met in the wood. They fell in love; and turned the world upside down.

Now it's your turn...