Friday, January 30, 2015

Love Fest 2015

The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt (1908)
Nadie debe, nadie puede, vivir sin amor.

This is a line from a song by Argentinian musician Fito Paéz. Roughly translated, it means,

No one can or should live without love. 

In a world where vitriol, cynicism, and the sheer sport of cutting down the 'other' seem to be fashionable, it's hard sometimes to keep track of this simple but enduring truth.

Lately on Heroines of Fantasy, we've been busy endorsing the positive aspects of community. Mark Nelson set that tone in his first post for the new year. He was soon followed by Kim Vandervort's very insightful reflections on The Art of Civility, and Terri-Lynne Defino's reminder that we are all in the same boat with her post about the Misfit Myth. Love, of course, is part of the recipe for a more supportive and productive community; and love will be our theme for the month of February.

Within the genres of fantasy and science fiction, love is often relegated to the realm of the tangential. It might be included as a reward for the hero once he's finished with the "real" business of the plot. We say "love story", and images often come to mind of endless streams of penny novels with cardboard characters and predictable plots. Love is perceived as fluff, adornment, a plot element without substance, a topic not worthy of true literary attention.

I may be setting up a straw woman here, but the truth is, I've run into these attitudes a lot; I've even recognized them in the way I myself have stereotyped certain genres. Yet in my own journey of writing and reading, I've come to this conclusion:

Love is the single most important experience we can write about. 

That's not to say our stories shouldn't contain other very important elements, but when push comes to shove, if we want to make our characters real, we must allow them to love.

Love is at the core of the human experience, eliciting a host of other emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. Love brings out the best, and occasionally the worst, in all of us. Love is not always romantic; there is love for siblings, offspring, friends, parents, family, strangers, pets. . . The list goes on and on. Love for our enemy has the power to transform the world.

February is the month of love, and we at Heroines of Fantasy invite you to celebrate with us in style. Starting on Monday, February 2, our contributors and reviewers will share stories of love, romance, and heartbreak from the various genres we represent. The full schedule of festival shorts will be posted on the right-hand bar. Join us as we honor the greatest of human experiences, and please share your own stories and thoughts with us along the way.

To get everyone in a Love Fest kind of mood, here's that song I mentioned earlier, Amor Despues del Amor, written by Fito Paez and interpreted in this video by Miguel Bosé. It's an old video, but a good song. Kick off your shoes and dance, and while you're at it, help yourself to the virtual champagne and heart-shaped cookies at the back of the room.

Let Love Fest 2015 begin!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sixteen-year-old Taka Yamabuki, royal by birth, but samurai by training, embarks upon her first mission: to deliver important dispatches to the capital. Untested and traveling alone for the first time in her life, Yamabuki encounters a vivid tapestry of natural beauty, unusual characters, unexpected friendships, and indiscriminate brutality and violence.

But an unknown assassin dogs her trail. And before she knows it, her life hangs in the balance.

A lyrical novella of adventure, young love, and self-discovery, Cold Blood brings alive the experience of a young woman warrior in 12th-century Japan.

When you’re bopping around looking for a new sword swinging read and you come across a tale of historical fiction based on the factual accounts of Yamabuki, a female Samurai from 12th century Japan, it’s a real eye catcher. First: there were female Samurai? Yes, apparently so and notable ones too.  I had some vague idea there had been, but  had seen no more concrete evidence of such creatures than I had of Bigfoot. Of course, I had also never looked for said evidence which may have contributed to my failure to find any.
I downloaded the sample of this in fear. (Fear ? No Samurai I.) Why be afraid of a downloaded sample from an author you’ve never heard from a press you’ve never heard of? Well, because I really, really wanted this novella/novel (132 pages by Amazon’s word count) to be good. According to her profile the author, Katherine M. Lawrence, has the academic and life credentials to pull this off, but too often the “credibility” and desire to tell a story does not a storyteller make. Fortunately, in this instance it did and before completing the free sample I bought the whole shebang.

As I was hoping, Cold Blood not only shows you the beginning of Yamabuki’s story as a teenage Samurai, also contrasts her life to that of the woman she would have been had she not opted to tread the warrior’s path. That draws out one of the best elements of historical fiction which is when it educated as well as entertains.  One thing you should know is that the period of Japan typically shown in Western media, like Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai which was set in the 19th century I believe, whereas, Yamabuki’s story takes place seven hundred years earlier. As the Lawrence herself says: “The 12th-century Japan was very different from the 17th century. This required leaving behind fond images of geisha, two-sword samurai with shaven pates and topknots, ritualized harakiri, Japanese baths, tatami mats, tea ceremonies, and a host of other things . . .” Now that said . . .

The early parts of the story do not move quickly nor are they filled with tension or suspense. That’s not to say that there aren’t many hints and observations by Yamabuki that make it clear that things are a’brewing it’s just that, as I recall it, there was no deadline as to when the important dispatches to the capital should arrive and the “fate of the country” wasn’t hanging in balance. She simply goes about arranging travelling while make close observation of her fellow travelers and even having a romantic encounter. Still, at no time was I bored or worried that major conflict would not be forthcoming, in fact the pace of the story mirrored the feel of the times, which was probably and intentional choice by the author. I can’t tell you why I believe that because it would be a spoiler. In fact, revealing any of the interesting things would be spoilers because they are all weaved together to create a strong ending in which Lawrence was deft enough to play off of reader’s expectations (and my own personal fear this story might tread down the well-worn road toward a condescending but common type of development) to create surprises toward the end which makes me confident she knew what she was doing. You don’t write an excellent story by accident.

Heck, it was so good I immediately bought a satellite novelette by Lawrence featuring Yamabuki called Cold Sake, and it takes something special to get me to venture below novella length. I highly recommend Cold Blood and I for one am eagerly awaiting the next book in the Sword of the Taka Samurai series, Cold Heart, coming out in March.

Buy Cold Sake on Amazon:   Kindle    Paperback 

Review for Heroines of Fantasy by Carlyle Clark

Monday, January 26, 2015

Feaux-History, a chat about Kay's Historical Fantasy

Mark here with a short stand in post for my guest. We suffered a minor technical glitch when an attachment failed to attach! So, here are a few thoughts on Feaux Historical Fiction/Fantasy...

In the headnotes to the revised version of LOTR, Tolkien mentions that he did not much care for allegory and preferred history, whether real or imaginary, as a much better alternative.

Such a simple sentence, and yet every time I read it I am reminded just how correct he was. For some of us, wandering in Middle Earth means taking up every scrap of ancillary material and re-devouring it from The Silmarillion, through Unfinished Tales and the Appendices. For the stout-hearted there are the History texts and various other assemblages like Micheal Martinez's excellent blog and attendant published material.  I wander in Tolkien's 'history' almost the same way I wander through Rome's annals, or Arthur, Napolean, and all the wars civil and world that spark interesting writing.

The professor showed us there was a place at the table for Historical Fantasy. I love historical fiction. I've written before about how much I enjoy Bernard Cornwell's stuff, but I also admire historical fantasy--especially when it is done well. And as far as I'm concerned, Guy Gavriel Kay just might be our best historical fantasist practicing the art today.  He has tried his hand at the Saxon matter, 14th century France, Spain during the Reconquest, Byzantium, and most recently has been exploring China.

I read Under Heaven previously and am now midway through  River of Stars. I am hooked. Again.

Kay's quiet prose style lends itself to recreating the big ideas and big moments we remember as history, and yet he manages to go beyond Tuchman's attention to real detail and give us fully fledged people in the bargain. He is not limited as Cornwell is by existing maps and pesky statistics. He has the freedom to borrow from culture and use it to tell a uniquely compelling story. Awesome.

And this is what I think is absolutely necessary for genre fiction. Make the people real. Take us on a magical mystery tour if you want to, but we have to be able to identify with the characters. There is a thing with wine that gets spoiled by bacteria and enzymes. When you get a bad bottle, it is called "corked" as in a bad cork spoiled the fermentation process.  The effect is a smell reminiscent of old, wet cardboard and wine that tastes almost too sour to use even for cooking.

Good grapes gone to waste, tragic.

Better writers than I have waxed prosaic about the ins and outs of character development. I'm sure I am guilty of breaking almost all the rules almost all of the time, but I do think I succeed in writing real people.  The environments within which they move seem at least recognizable. Their emotions are plausible, motivations reasonable--even if my bad guys are bad and good guys are good.  I was raised in the era of John Wayne flicks and it shows.  I've often wondered why folks like to trumpet the "conflicted-ambivalent-amoral-sinful-hero-anti-hero" construct as being the ONLY thing that will resonate with an modern audience.

I think otherwise, obviously, so sue me.  The reading arena, films, tv shows...seems flooded in this era by variations on what I think is an increasingly cardboardish theme/style/representation....almost as if the modern character transformed into a carbon-copy GI Joe figurine with accessories to match any plot need or personality tick for any occasion. I've had enough Vampire fiction.

I want more of Kay's feaux-historical fantasy. He takes us to real places only hinted at by our historians. He allows his stories to progress at a pace that speaks of time and myth and passion--and does it all within one or two volumes! There is more story in the single volume of Tigana than in the whole Wheel of Time series. Jordan insisted Arthur was in there, but I think he lost him in his own mythic mists...

In the end, I guess I want to remind everyone that much of what the big six purvey as beau-lit, is really only "corked lit" and that smaller presses, mid-sized, and subject to a different business model are the places where we will see more of this kind of fiction.  Kay is, sadly, the exception, which is why he is trumpeted so.  There should be 20 others along with him, instead we get shelf after shelf of trendy, bottled cardboard. Yuck.

Here's to history, real or imagined, because both versions hold up that metaphoric mirror into which we all must at times our peril or to our praise...the looking is all.

Mark Nelson

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Misfit Myth

misfit: a person whose behavior or attitude sets them apart from others in an uncomfortably conspicuous way.

It is a recurring discussion in my household of oddballs, this misfit myth. Just who are these "normals" we're not fitting in with? I don't know any. Do you? Like ROUS's, I don't believe they exist. (And if you got that reference, you might just be a misfit.)

The most successful stories, whether book, movie, television or comic, center around a misfit, or several of them. From Rudolph the Red-Nosed-Reindeer to Batman to the wallflowers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the message is clear. "We are different. We do not fit in. JUST LIKE YOU."

We identify with these characters because we are these characters. Who identifies with the mean girls in Mean Girls? Well, sure they exist! We all know or knew some, but 1.) they are in the minority, and 2) the so-called normal kids are almost always the villains. Why is this so? Why is the minority set up as some sort of example we must all aspire to, while the vast majority of humanity exists in this misfitness?

In The Breakfast Club, who are the characters we feel for before we know their stories? Bender (Judd Nelson,) Allison (Ally Sheedy) and Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) no? Why? Because they are, for all outward appearances, the misfits. But then we learn Claire (Molly Ringwald) and Andrew's (Emilio Estevez) stories, and we see that their normalness isn't normal at all.

left to right: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald
These last years have seen "the rise of the nerd" in media across the board. This media would have us believe that it's now cool to be different--and yet bullying is still a problem. There is a definite, social psychology at work here--the pack mentality/mob mentality is so hard-wired into our brains that we, as a world society, can't seem to shake it. The overall trend is positive, I believe. Do young men still get beaten for being uncloseted gay? Unfortunately, yes; but twenty years ago, those beatings were almost sanctioned by a society that believed such things would serve as useful warnings to others, and maybe "straighten them out." Today, not so much.

We have a long way to go, but I am hopeful. More people have to realize the misfit myth is just that--we are all misfits. Gloriously different, with our own experiences and minds and influences. Celebrate the misfit in you, in your loved ones and someday--call me an optimist--everyone will.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

REVIEW: Time Heist

Title:   Time Heist (Firstborn Saga) Volume 1
Author: Anthony Vicino
Genre: SF
Price: $3.99 (ebook) $10.73 (paperback)
Publisher: One Lazy Robot
ISBN:  978-0692336991
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

Anthony Vicino, the author of Time Heist, contacted me directly via email with what proved to be a compelling pitch to review his first novel.  I agreed, and was pleased with my decision.

Time Heist starts out as a futuristic hard-boiled mystery.  Our first-person narrator, Tom Mandel, is an ex-cop with less than a day to live.  He knows this because everybody is implanted with a Life Tracker.  This device counts down your allocated 70 years of life, and when it hits zero, it kills you.  Although Mandel has been abusing drugs for the past nine years since his wife was killed, nanotech means he’s fairly healthy.

 Also, Mandel is an “Intuit” – somebody who can intuitively navigate the all-pervasive cyberspace.  As I mentioned, the story starts out as a hard-boiled noir, with tired and world-weary detective doing one last job for the good guys.  Perhaps fortunately, Mandel’s last assignment, to find Malcom Wolfe, escaped prisoner and killer of Mandel’s wife, proves to be much more high-stakes, involving no less than the fate of all humanity.

Alas, I found the story curiously slow to get started.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of action from Chapter 2 thru to the end.  But for the longest time we don’t find out what’s at stake.  Malcom Wolfe, for example, killed nine million people!  He did this by hacking their Life Trackers, taking them instantly to ten minutes left.  Yet we don’t find this out until a good halfway into the book.  The world in general is so radically different as to leave me in doubt as to whether or not it was Earth, but again, that detail isn't provided until quite late in the book. 

The other thing I found problematic was the action.  I felt like I was in a first-person-shooter video game.  Mandel and other named characters shot their way through guards and police like they were shooting zombies.  The named characters did get hurt and complained of pain, but thanks to nanotech they were literally up and running in no time.  The entire novel takes place in just over 24 hours.

Having said all of that, I found Time Heist an interesting and enjoyable read.  Vicino’s writing is gripping, and his characters are sympathetic.  Although I would have handled some things differently, Time Heist was a good read.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Business of Writing, the Art of Civility

Many of you are most likely already aware of the current kerfuffle on the internets about YA author Stacey Jay and her decision to pad her now-cancelled kickstarter with funds for living expenses while she completes her next YA novel. Because of the ensuing controversy, Jay ended up pulling the kickstarter, cancelling the novel, and announcing her retirement from YA , but not just because of the controversy. On her blog, she cites an “increasing vitriol in the Young Adult community” that used to be a “warm, welcoming place.”

In my mind, this latest controversy inspires two important points of discussion: first, the idea of fair compensation for the artistic process; second, what on earth is happening to our community?

Unlike most professions, we get paid for the product, not the process, and we don't earn anywhere near fair compensation for the time we spend creating that product. When we do publish—well, unless you are J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, writing doesn’t pay. Even some of the better selling authors don’t make enough to put food on the table without a second job (or two). In his annual writing income post, Jim C. Hines reveals what look to most of us like fantastic numbers. He earned a writing income of $50,900 last year before expenses and taxes. He’s rolling in the dough, right? Well, he’s doing better than many of us, but here in California that won’t support a family, and it doesn’t pay benefits. Take the number of hours Jim most likely spent writing, revising, editing and marketing his books into account and he’s probably making less than minimum wage.

Mainly, we all write for the love (and to get the voices in our heads to stop). But love isn’t very filling, so we either work other jobs or, as many authors, editors, and even publishers have done, take to Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and now Patreon to help us not only publish our art, but close the gap a little financially. Jay's request to be paid for the process rather than the product to help her create said product would not be considered unreasonable in any other profession. And I do not believe for a moment that Stacey Jay is the only author out there who padded her Kickstarter numbers to help account for living expenses. She was just more open and honest about it, for which the community blasted her. 

Which leads me to my second point: the lack of civility in the writing community. Not even a decade ago, writers, particularly in the SFF and YA communities, were a friendly, supportive bunch. I remember meeting many new friends and fellow authors on livejournal and feeling like I had finally found my tribe—people with whom I could relate, who were encouraging, helpful and friendly to each other, whether they were seasoned authors or newbies looking to connect.

Perhaps the insidious nature of social media is partly to blame for a significant sea change in our community. From #racefail to the various SFWA controversies to the Jay Kickstarter drama, we authors seem more quick to judge others for their comments or foibles and less open to reasoned discussion. The Livejournal community has dissipated. Now, when someone makes even the slightest misstep in another’s view, twitter lights up with nasty zingers—all 140 characters or less, none of which offer insight or well-reasoned viewpoints. This most often leads to perpetuation of rumor and opinions based on emotion rather than facts. Some people even chime in only because they like the #drama. Facebook is no better; in many cases, only one viewpoint—and often that of the majority—is accepted. Judgment is passed before the offending person (or persons) can even offer their explanation or point of view. Those voicing the minority position are ridiculed or shunned, both online and in pe. 

At the end of the day, all of these incidents involve people. Our people. And all people make mistakes. Thanks to the internet, those mistakes are public, permanent, and apparently, unforgiveable once made.

Folks, most of us aren’t business people. We are artists. We create, and we do it not because it pays well, but because we love it. Artists need one another to survive, almost as much as we need food, water and air. Discussion in our community is healthy and helps us grow, but let's express our opinions with civility and compassion, and with the attention they deserve. If we lose our community, we have truly lost the best part of ourselves.

~Kim Vandervort

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wednesday Review: Guardian

Title: Guardian
Author: Jo Anderton
Publisher: FableCroft Publishing
Publication Date: June 2014
Genre: Science Fiction
Price: $7.99 Kindle or $15.09 Paperback
Where to Purchase: Amazon or Barnes and Noble
Reviewed by: Cybelle Greenlaw
Book Description: The grand city of Movoc-under-Keeper lies in ruins. The sinister puppet men have revealed their true nature, and their plan to tear down the veil between worlds. To have a chance of defeating them, Tanyana must do the impossible, and return to the world where they were created, on the other side of the veil. Her journey will force her into a terrible choice, and test just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the fate of two worlds.

Good afternoon! Cybelle here with another Wednesday review. This week, I enjoyed reading Guardian, the third book in Jo Anderton's Veiled Worlds trilogy. Since I hadn't read the first two books, I was a little concerned about starting at the end. However, it is an outstandingly engaging read and works well as a stand-alone novel. 

Anderton's story takes place in the distant future, where two worlds are separated by a Veil. Doorways between the worlds have been opened, and sinister puppet men that developed within the Veil threaten to destroy them both. The heroine, Tanyana, was once a high-ranking architect with the power to manipulate pions, the basic fabric of her world, but an accident reduced her to the lowly station of debris collector. Disgraced and shunned, Tan is forced to have a silver suit drilled into her bones, which leaves her scarred but almost indestructible. While battling puppet men in the Veil, she is swept into the world on the other side. There, she must convince the programmers who watch over the Veil to help her. Her difficulty is compounded by the fact that a powerful, destructive force, known as a flare, has attached itself to her body. She is rendered physically brittle, unstable and highly explosive. She had also been pregnant, and her unborn child has been taken out her body without her consent. Its unusual gestation has given it strange properties, and the programmers have found they can use it as a sort of energy conductor. Tan soon realizes that one of the programmers, Lad, had a strong connection to her in her own world, and he still feels obligated to protect her in his own. Their journey leads them into a confrontation with an ancient being known as the Hero, a man whose consciousness had been uploaded into the Veil long ago in order to protect the worlds. Over time, the Hero became demented and cruel, so a program called the Keeper was created to take over the job. The puppet men, however, threaten to destroy the Keeper and bring down the Veil. Tan comes to understand that only she and her infant can control the multitude of rival forces that threaten the worlds. 

The pacing of this novel is impressive, and the characters are wonderfully rich. Most are as badly scarred as the worlds in which they live, but their humanity and resourcefulness shine through. Tanyana's story is interwoven with that of her colleague and love, Kichlan. Anderton does a wonderful job of bringing them together from opposite sides of the Veil, as  they are drawn by the unknown properties of the materials they were forced to share. The structure of the worlds is mysterious and fragile, and the reader comes to understand it as the characters do. 

This book was really an unexpected pleasure, and I look forward to reading the first two in the series. I definitely want more back story on the characters, but I loved the fact there were no data dumps whatsoever in this novel. References to past events were subtle but provided enough clarity to understand motivations and actions. I highly recommend it!

Monday, January 5, 2015

"Well, I'm back," he said...

"Well, I'm back," he said.

As I sit here at the keyboard I find myself reconsidering Sam's contented sigh to his wife at his return from seeing Frodo and Bilbo off at the Grey Havens.  Jackson's Lord of the Rings films sparked a lot of interest in how the novel ended, with intense commentary on the positives and negatives of both film and written version.  I enjoyed all of it then, but I always thought folks missed the deeper, more relevant interpretation. To me, Sam's concluding words served as the tie that bound LOTR to the lightness that permeated The Hobbit.  More than just an allusion to the title, Sam's expression reminds us that he, as Bilbo, and all the others who played a role in the dark, joyful days of the great conflict, had returned from the trauma changed but aware of what was lost and what was saved.  Frodo tells Sam as much at the havens.  Bilbo handing Balin the tobacco jar is synonimous to Rosie handing over little Elanor: we have lived through a bad time, and memories of the storm serve to accentuate our appreciation of the sun.  Order has been restored, but with a difference. Both Bilbo and Sam return to the emotional tone Tolkien loved most: a mature understanding of civility and peace.  There is a reason why the professor spent so much time showing us how Sam used Galadriel's gift to recover some of the Shire magic.  New trees can only partially replace the old, but their shade is just as cooling nonetheless.

I think Sam got it, but when I consider the mess that we made of 2014 I wonder if we haven't missed something important, intangible and yet integral.  I'm referring specifically to what seemed like an endless litany of incivility, litiginous bufoonery, outright greed, character assassinations, calculated smear campaigns designed to do nothing save create reality-tv-type behavior and pompous publicity.   From the Hatchett-Amazon fight, the chaos within the SFWA, the proliferation of review wars, plagiarism, the near constant flood of sexist claims, ultra-sensitive feminist calls, race-baiting, racism,   orientation... I fear we have devolved into a coterie of pundits destroying culture rather than developing it.  I have reached a point where I struggle to find relevant discussion about genre fiction and the art of storytelling in general on Facebook or other net outlets.  Everyone seems bent on talking about anything BUT words, story, art--all the things I surf the net and publish my stories to explore.  Of course, I exaggerate, but still...

I think the real world should inform fiction not intrude upon it so much that it squashes all wonder, creativity, freedom, and experimentation.  I recall sitting on a panel about race in fantasy at Norescon in 2012, my first solo run at a con, and within the first five minutes I felt like the topic as I understood it had been hijacked by someone else's agenda.  I pushed through an hour of contextless deconstructed feaux-examinations about a handful of books and writers that eventually devolved to a rant about race association in the retail sector.  I did not know it then, but that was just a precursor to the chaos of 2014.  Cynicism renders discussion fruitless when we let it turn us into ideological advocates.  We post stuff without consideration (or with intent), create crap behind fake profiles to rile up emotions and sales, attack story and author in the same breath, dismiss one writer for being too white, another for not being ethnic enough and a yet another for being a presumptive gender.

All of that is the work of Saruman, and I wonder if we have our own box of Galadriel's wondrous dust to resurrect the wasteland we have made of our landscape.  Our art is supposed to elevate by reflecting on the real not become it. And I say this especially about genre fiction.  The word "escapist" has never been pejorative to me. Quite the opposite, actually.  To me genre fiction is my passport to Sam's mallorn seed. I think that is what we should be planting in 2015. We need to counter the dearth that was 2014 with quality stories, less assassination and more consideration, less childish, boorish conduct and more relevant discussion and support.


Because we are Sam, we have been through some dark days, and yet we are back, informed and armed by knowledge and experience, and we have work to do and stories to tell.

Here's to 2015. Get to it...

Mark Nelson