Monday, July 27, 2015

Guest Post by Travis Heermann: The Emergence of a Heroine

For July's guest post, please welcome freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, and roustabout Travis Heermann. Travis is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind, The Ronin Trilogy,The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Alembical, the Fiction River anthology series, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online.

He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.

In 2015, he’s moving to New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and a burning desire to claim Hobbiton as his own.

A strange thing happened on the way to a trilogy…

I started writing the historical fantasy story that would become the Ronin Trilogy in about 1999, fueled by a passion for samurai films and anime.

Those early efforts focused on the development of the protagonist, the ronin Ken’ishi, and his story. I was in my late twenties, still clueless about a great many things, but striving to put together a story that would take the fiction world by typhoon.

At the heart of the Ronin Trilogy are two lovers, Ken’ishi and the noble samurai maiden Kazuko, torn apart as teenagers and both forever stuck in that awful, haunted realm of Coulda Been, fated to be close, but never touch, to have their love become the most dangerous kind of temptation.

As I look back at how the story came into being, the early development of Kazuko’s character was probably a case study in how to do it “wrong.”

I started off writing Kazuko as the Love Interest, simply the catalyst by which Ken’ishi would be tortured with longing. Unfair to her, and to female readers, but I did the best I could at the time. I hope she doesn’t come across to readers that way, but that was how she was conceived, labeled as such in my notes.

In Heart of the Ronin, Kazuko reveals glimmers of what my subconscious apparently wanted her to become, but her sole defining trait was beautiful. She was just a hot chick with a naginata (a Japanese halberd), fated to marry the wrong guy.

I’ve always been on board with women’s rights and equality, but like, I suspect, most well-meaning men, I spent a lot of time floundering in utter ignorance of the real challenges that women face daily, about the kind of characters they want to read about, or identify with, and with no real clue about the ways I was probably contributing to the problem. Duh, because I’m a dude, blind to most of the ways things are set up in my favor.

Since Five Star published Heart in 2008, a ridiculously recent date on the tapestry of history, there
have been tremendous upheavals on the front of women’s rights in the U.S., steps forward and steps backward. I don’t want to correlate my books with the earthquakes of the women’s movement, but it’s impossible to extricate a piece of art from the milieu in which it was created. A critical literary analysis might prise the author’s psychology from the text and argue that Kazuko’s development mirrored his awareness of women’s issues.

In Book 2, Sword of the Ronin, Kazuko begins to step out of the shadow of her husband’s power, and the shadow of her sundered love for Ken’ishi. To do that she turns to martial arts, first as a crutch, then as a joy, then as a path to transformation, and by the end of the book, she emerges as a woman of strength and conviction, tortured but steadfast. I wrote most of this book a couple of years after Heart was released, but there were pieces of it that had been written a decade previously, perhaps containing remnants of my younger ignorance.

The first time I took my eight-year-old step-daughter, a beautiful little budding nerd and Harry Potter fanatic, into a comic store, it was driven home to me that practically nothing was suitable or interesting for her to read. In a store of hundreds, no, thousands of titles, there were maybe two or three that interested her. As a kid, I had had dozens of titles to choose from, filled with supermen and batmen and spider-men and x-men, even in the old days of drugstore and grocery store comics racks. Had she been alive then, all she would have had was Wonder Woman. Oh, wait, that’s still all she has, really. She adores the medium, but there is nothing for her. It pains an old geek’s heart. (And don’t get me started on trying to find her a Black Widow action figure.)

I was not thinking about this as I was writing Spirit of the Ronin. Nevertheless, all of the travails of the women’s movement, which I was seeing all around me, particularly through the lens of my staunchly feminist girlfriend, now wife, could not help but percolate through my creative process. When I reached the end of the first draft of Spirit of the Ronin, I could look at Kazuko from a critical viewpoint, look at her character arc as a whole, and see my own journey.
In Book 3, she evolves into something with far more depth and complexity than the Love Interest or The Wife. She becomes a bad-ass martial artist and leader in her own right, a true samurai heroine, consumed by loyalty, honor, and love. By the novel’s climax, she becomes something I had not envisioned in 1999, or even in 2008 when Heart was first released: a full-fledged tragic heroine of Shakespearean proportions.
Kazuko’s journey from timid, foolish teenager to samurai heroine is why an illustration of her, not Ken’ishi, graces the cover of Book 3. By the end of the trilogy, she has claimed her rightful place with grace and authority. She does not overshadow Ken’ishi; they stand side-by-side. And isn’t that in part what the women’s movement is about?

I’ll leave it up readers to evaluate Kazuko’s character. But I will venture to say that she’s as real and vibrant in my mind as some of the greatest heroines of fantasy fiction. As I look back at the way the story developed, I’m struck by how much more complete she feels now. Isn’t that what character development is? Might there not be some development of my own in there as well?

My step-daughter is still too young to read the Ronin Trilogy (because it’s dark, gritty, and deals with some complex themes), but I don’t doubt that someday she will. I hope that when she does, she’ll find Kazuko worth reading.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: To Walk in the Way of Lions (Tails of the Upper Kingdom Book 2)

In the Survival of the Fittest, Not All Men are Created Equal. Some are Created Lions.

TO WALK IN THE WAY OF LIONS is the second in the powerful Original Series by H. Leighton Dickson and picks up where TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER leaves off. This is a sweeping post-apocalyptic tale of genetically altered lions and tigers, wolves and dragons in a world that has evolved in the wake of the fall of human civilization. Half feline, half human, their culture blends those of Dynastic China, Ancient India and Feudal Japan where humans are legend and kingdoms have risen in their stead. Fans of Tolkien, GAME OF THRONES, REDWALL or Japanese anime will be entertained in these intelligent and beautifully written pages in a blend of science, fantasy and zoological speculation.

The conclusion to the sweeping epic that began in 'TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER, the story picks up where Journey leaves off, in the harsh deserts of Khanisthan. The team is running under a very set of different dynamics than before, for not only will they be forced to confront enemies tracking from the North and a hostile force from the Palace following from the South, but they must face their own demons that are plaguing them from within. It's man against man, cat against cat, Seer against Alchemist, knowledge versus ‘the Way of Things’ – a Sci-Fi 'Pride and Prejudice and Lions', like you’ve never read it before.

From the ruthless wilds of Khanisthan to the wind-swept shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the beauty and savagery of the Upper Kingdom unfolds like a living thing before them as they travel and Kirin will find out what it means to follow the code of Bushido to the gates of death and beyond…

This is the journey of six individuals as they travel beyond the edges of the known Empire, into lands uncharted and wild. Theirs is a journey of magic and mystery, science and swords, romance and intrigue. It is a journey of different perspectives and unexpected kharma and love found in surprising places. It is a journey that takes place five thousand years or so in the future, naturally in the Year of the Tiger.

H. Leighton Dickinson's To Walk in the Way of Lions (Tails from the Upper Kingdom) is a highly-satisfying conclusion to the action-packed and emotionally wrenching quest began in To Journey in the Year of the Tiger (Tails from the Upper Kingdom), while also leaving plenty of room and in this reader desire to continue on with the series.

Often, early in an author’s career, the most intriguing of plot lines take a sharp right turn into cliché land, but not so with this novel. Dickinson perfectly handled the writer's task of giving me what I want, but still surprising me. She accomplished this by crafting an Epic Fantasy that is character/relationship driven. In fact, the driving issue of the tWitWoL, solving the mystery of the Ancestors, fell to secondary importance because I became consumed with seeing how the characters resolved their personal and interpersonal conflicts.

All of the main characters have romantic interests and their relationships are almost all directly part of the plot, except perhaps Kirin’s, which is great for me because romance as a sub-plot generally has me skimming to get back to the plot. Though the Captain of the Royal Guard’s love—long-distance and seemingly hopeless even though she apparently she loves him back—of the Empress may not have been strongly tied into the Ancestor plot, it was crucial to his character and his decision making and the ramifications of it are emotionally staggering.  Also the relationships aren’t predictable, for instance, there’s two mysterious characters who have somewhat complementary attributes. A less skilled author would have made those two a couple because they “fit”, which works in the real world, but is boring in a story. Dickinson is never boring.

Like the first novel, Dickinson left leeway for further novels in this world, but unlike in the first book there is an excellent, well-thought-out, resolution to the "story" of each character and the plot as a whole. They aren't all "happy" conclusions by any means, but for me that makes a better read because some tragedy makes the happier endings all the more sweet, and without pain few people, or characters, grow as they do in this novel.

To those who found even moderate enjoyment in the first novel and are on the fence as to whether they want to invest their time in this conclusion, I say you should definitely go for it. With the caveat that you must read Book One to get the full experience, I give To Walk in the Way of Lions (Tails from the Upper Kingdom) the highest recommendation.

Reviewed by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Darkhaven by AFE Smith

First, full disclosure: I’ve known AFE Smith for several years now and count her as a friend. Over those years we’ve read and discussed some our unpublished work (not Darkhaven, though, nor After the Ruin), and recently I took part in her online booklaunch and giveaway. She’s said some very kind things about After the Ruin. For all these reasons this isn’t one of my regular reviews, which is why it’s coming outwith my usual first Wednesday of even-numbered months slot.

Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place. 
When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?  
Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.

Florentyn, the firedrake lord of Darkhaven, despises his daughter, Ayla, because when she Changes she takes an unpure form (an alicorn; see the book cover). He despises her half-brother, Myrren, too, because he can’t Change at all. When, one night, a priestess is attacked in her temple by a shapeshifter, Ayla’s father charges her with the crime and orders that she be locked away. But Myrren frees her, bidding her hide in the seven-ringed city of Arkannen. And then Florentyn is killed by the same creature that attacked the priestess. Ayla, the only shapeshifter known in Darkhaven, is the sole suspect. Just because she is her father’s heir doesn’t mean she is safe from his harsh justice. Myrren needs to prove his sister’s innocence before the city guard capture her and impose Florentyn's sentence of life-long incarceration.

Darkhaven is fast-paced and exciting. Myrren teams up with the priestess to track down the murderer and clear his sister’s name, while, in parallel, Ayla herself joins forces with the disgraced Helmsman Tomas Caraway to find out the truth. Each soon discovers that Florentyn had been keeping secrets from both his children, secrets that Captain Travers of the Helm will stop at nothing to protect. His loyalty is to the Nightshade line, not to any individual Nightshade. Ayla, Myrren and Caraway all have to come to terms with what they are and with each other, even as they uncover the secrets Florentyn left behind, and Travers is keeping. It’s a thrilling read with kidnappings, swordfights, carriage chases… Nary a dull moment.

You’ll see from the cover and my summary that Darkhaven is very much a fantasy novel. It’s fairly low key fantasy: shapeshifters aside, there’s no evidence of magic and a fair amount of technology of a steampunkish variety. But it is certainly a fantasy novel, a high octane, action packed fantasy novel, and most of the reviews I’ve read discuss it as such. What I’d not expected when I opened it up was to find the structure of a classic whodunit mapped neatly onto the fantasy. I’m therefore going to take the shapeshifting abilities of the lordly Nightshade family as a given and point out instead the fact that it’s a locked room whodunit and owes as much to Agatha Christie as to Tolkien or Wynne Jones.

The most important aspect of the whodunit is the victim. It’s rare for the victim to have many redeeming qualities, because if they did not enough people would wish them dead for there to be the wide range of suspects necessary. Also, the victim, when alive, almost always had power over the rest of the characters, forcing them to live according to their will. There’s order at the beginning but it’s an order built out of coercion. This order collapses with the murder, just as an archway collapses when the keystone is removed. And, during the search for the culprit, other truths are revealed: all that has been hidden becomes plain. Thus, at the end, when truth outs and the murderer is revealed, a new order is established. Importantly it’s not a return to the status quo ante: the new order is based upon truth rather than power, choice rather than force. It’s no coincidence that most whodunits have romantic subplots and end with lovers united as well as murderers condemned. It’s a strangely moral form of fiction, moving from darkness into light.

Darkhaven hits every one of these beats. Although it is a fantasy it doesn’t attempt to subvert the form of the whodunit, playing a straight bat along the way. Ayla has a strong motive to kill her father. So does Myrren. So, it becomes clear, do several other characters. Florentyn Nightshade is thus a classic whodunit victim: he’s a tyrannical father, a harsh ruler, an arrogant man who’d do anything, including forcing his children into an incestuous marriage, to maintain the Nightshade line. Anyone in their right mind would see the world is a better place without him in it. And his death, as with that of Roger Ackroyd, upsets the established order, leading to a period of instability and chaos. Importantly, however, this a whodunit rather than a grimdark fantasy, everyone in Darkhaven appreciates that it is necessary to apprehend the murderer, that just because Florentyn was the sort of chap who ought to be murdered doesn’t mean it’s right to do so. As I said, whodunits are moral: the victim’s character provokes the murder, the murderer’s nature is often revealed as the nobler of the two, but truth matters. This contradiction is underscored in the Golden Age crime stories by the number of times Poirot, say, or Wimsey, having revealed the culprit, enables them to escape or forestall justice.

The clues strewn along the way should be recognisable to any reader of mystery fiction, even if dressed up in the trappings of fantasy. There are three romantic subplots. And yes, a new, better order is established by the end (with enough threads left loose for a sequel). My only real quibble came with the nature of Travers’ intentions as he schemes to fill the power vacuum left by Florentyn’s death. The feel of the book is such that it’s plain he won’t be allowed to reach his goal. To have done so would take the story into a place it clearly wasn’t going to go, and this undercut the tension and excitement. Balance matters, and in my mind the balance was off there.

So, does it work, this blending of whodunit with fantasy? I’d say, on the whole, it does. Darkhaven is not as intricately plotted as a Christie or a Sayers but it is a wildly imaginative ride through the rings and gates of Arkannen. It’s an honest mystery: it’s perfectly possible to work out the solution from the text. What’s more interesting is that it is done at all. Too often now books are pigeonholed into individual genres: romance, mystery, thriller, high/low/epic fantasy. This is fine as a way of putting books into a place on a shelf but can too easily become prescriptive, a straitjacket for readers and writers. Darkhaven’s type of cross-genre straddling is to be applauded. It’s a fast, fun read that provides some points to ponder later (as I hope this discussion shows) and I’ll gobble up its sequel as soon as I can.

Oh, whodunit? Well, as Peter Wimsey was fond of remarking, When you know how, you know who.

Harriet Goodchild

I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction in the Age of the Internet

It's my last regular post of 2015, so I thought I'd go right back to basics and talk about research.  And how the whole process of research has changed almost beyond recognition over the last couple of decades.
           When I first started tinkering with the idea of writing historical fiction, I was ruled by a zealous desire to get right back to primary sources, to seek out the truth behind myth and assumption , to leave no stone unturned (and a thousand other clichés) and in the end to write a historically informed story.
            This was back in the 1990s, and things were different then.  Detailed research meant sifting physically through endless documents and charters, located in countless archives up and down the realm.  Travelling to and from these archives cost money, and there was one slight problem. 
             I’d just been made unemployed, and I had no money.
             But if I’d learned anything useful from working in the cultural heritage sector, it was that history isn’t exclusive to a few interesting places around the world.  History is everywhere.  People make history; it’s how they live their lives that’s the grist to any historical fiction writer’s mill.
                Armed with that knowledge, I stepped outside my front door like some intrepid cub reporter and went in search of a story.  I visited the local library, checked out the local history section and read through some of the antiquarian accounts for the area.  I soon found inspiration in John, 1st Lord Sempill's rapid transformation in fortunes following the murder of King James III in 1488. 
              There followed an awful lot of research.  But thankfully, life was made easier by the fact that our antiquarian friends in the Victorian and Edwardian eras had this wonderful habit of persuading old families to open their charter chests and allow the contents to be transcribed and translated.  Many collections were subsequently published, but these invariably took the form of vast tomes which were usually released in very limited print runs. Consequently they tend to be found only in major reference libraries or in the reference sections of small local libraries.
               Using these volumes is similar to the kind of detective work which underpins any kind of historical research.  You find the period you’re particularly interested in, you seek out as many documents as you can, and you cross-reference exhaustively, until eventually you have the framework for a story.  At the same time, you must keep an open mind to your findings, because the antiquarians don’t always get it right and sometimes you get conflicting information which you either evaluate objectively or deliberately favour, if it so happens to serve your storyline better.  It’s great fun, but it’s also very, very time-consuming.
               Generations of historians have pillaged this raw material for years, which means that it is possible to cut out the middle man and use secondary sources in preference to the original primary data.  When I was writing Fire and Sword, I cottoned onto this pretty quickly.  I was happy to put my faith in the work of certain historians, because I trusted both their academic integrity and their abilities, and I'm still convinced that their work has not yet been challenged.  I don't think it's wrong to say that my historical fiction is as much a product of these secondary sources as it is the primary sources which relate to the actual events themselves, and to be honest, I don’t have a problem with this.  I personally think historical fiction should be a reflection of the intellectual frameworks in place at the time of writing, because let's face it, we'll never know what really happened until someone invents a time machine.
                 At some point, I will be settling down to write a third book in the series.  But next time, the research process will be very different.  In recent years, there’s been something of a revolution in the way in which historical sources are accessed.  I’m talking of course of the internet, and the ever-increasing range of digital resources which are available there.   
                I can now sit in the luxury and privacy of my study and surf the holdings of Scotland's national archives on-line.  That means I can map the timelines of each and every character I’ve recreated for my novels in a level of detail which has hitherto been unthinkable.  Many of the old genealogical volumes which I’d hunted for hours to find in countless libraries can also be downloaded free of charge..  The same is true for early mapping, and for a wide range of archaeological reports.  In other words, there is no excuse for shoddy research!
               Building a detailed but believable world is as crucial to historical fiction as it is to science fiction and fantasy.  You’d think with all these resources to hand, creating such a world would be easy. Instead, the challenge may now be greater than ever.  Before a writer can create something new and different and distinctive, their first task must be to sift through a veritable mountain of data and decide what is relevant and important.  The data is not the end in itself:  it is instead the starting point in a much more difficult exercise.  That is, creating believable and sympathetic characters who represent individuals who once inhabited a world which was real, and physical. 
                 You can’t do this in the warmth and comfort of your study.  You have to take a deep breath, and step outside, into the real world.  Then and only then can you apply what you've learned through your research in a more practical sense, experiencing the world as your characters once knew it and learning to see through their eyes so they can tell their own story in a convincing and believable way.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

REVIEW: Tin Star

Title: Tin Star
Author: Cecil Castellucci
Publisher: Square Fish
Genre: Science Fiction / Young Adult
Price: $9.99 (paperback) $7.09 (ebook)
Point of Purchase: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I think I found out about Cecil Castellucci's novel Tin Star from John Scalzi's The Big Idea section of his blog.  I find that part of his blog dangerous for my wallet - I keep buying books from it!

In any event, what caused me to buy the book was the premise.  Humanity has made contact with other alien species, but we are very much a Minor Species in the grand scheme of things.  Since, when the story starts, the galaxy is more-or-less at peace, that's not the worst place for humanity to land.  Our heroine and narrator, 14-year-old Tula, is traveling on a human ship to found a new colony when she gets abandoned on an alien space station.  As the only human and member of a Minor Species, she's very much on her own.

As it turns out, the galaxy is changing, in unpleasant ways, and Tula's somewhat precarious position on the station will have to change as well.  Tin Star, although quite readable for adults, is aimed at age 12-17, and so has a discussion section after the book.  In it, Castellucci calls the book "Casablanca in Space" after the 1942 film.  I saw the parallels as I was reading it, but since I enjoyed the movie I went along.

Our lead character, Tula, progresses very believably from scared 14-year-old to confident semi-adult, which was quite enjoyable.  As a semi-adult, Tula is forced to make some difficult decisions, and the final part of the book goes from just Tula's problems to issues that cover all of humanity.  In short, I found Tin Star very enjoyable indeed.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Chipping out of the Writer’s Block

Hello there, readers! It’s been six months since I was last up on Heroines of Fantasy, and I’d love to say I’ve been super productive during that time, finishing up my next novel, editing projects, and just otherwise moving forward on my stagnating writing career.


I did finish another draft of the never-ending novel I’ve been working on with a co-author for the last few years, and I am happy to say that it is now stalling out on my co-author’s desk rather than mine. I have almost completed edits for the lovely and talented Melissa Mickelsen’s next novel, her fantastic sequel to Nightingale (and if you haven’t read it, you should). But my own writing? The third installment of the Song series?


I have a couple of good excuses. Cancer, for one. That’s a good one! Then before my treatment fully concluded, I went back to work teaching seven classes to make ends meet. I truly did not have time for generating story. But when I completed the semester on May 22, I ran out of excuses. It was time to get down to business. I was excited to get started on outlining the next novel, and looking forward to making solid progress.

Then I opened the document. Nothing.

Next day: nothing.

And so on.

The summer started to fly by, and I panicked. Why couldn’t I write? Where were all of my ideas? I had never before experienced writer’s block to this degree. I was actually beginning to fear that I couldn’t write anymore, that I had quite literally forgotten how. On more than one occasion, I decided to just quit. Forget it, I told myself. Nobody cares about your third book, anyway.

But to my surprise, nobody quit on me. My friends kept asking me, “when is the third book coming out?” My answer, “when I figure out what to write,” made me feel even worse. I went onto Goodreads and discovered that people are continuing to read and review my books; even they are questioning where that next book is. I went from feeling insecure to trapped, and still no words would come.

At some point, I managed to sit down and plot out the beginning, middle and end in Scrivener, hoping that using a method and program I’ve never used before would help me break out of my own head. The problem, though, wasn’t ever that I didn’t have the beginning, middle and end plotted out. The problem is figuring out all that is supposed to happen in, you know, the rest of the book.

And then, magically, it happened.

While I was quilting with a friend, not thinking or talking about writing at all, an idea suddenly occurred to me. You see, all these many years, while plotting out the general path of the series, I had planned on four books. Book two, largely, was a vehicle to get to three, and three to four. But suddenly, while innocently sewing two squares of a memory quilt together, I realized that I could combine books three and four. The idea blew my mind.  Before I knew it, the possibilities were rolling around in my head. What if this happened, and that? How would that resolve?

The next day, I sat down to produce something for my writing group. I knew I had started this novel before (2011!), but in this iteration, I had been struggling to start with a different opening. However, time was short and I absolutely could not show up one more time without any writing! I opened the document, and was surprised to discover that the beginning was… just fine. A few revisions here and there, and it will be a fine first draft opening.

So what did I learn from this? First, writing is hard, particularly after a very long and foggy break. Like any other muscle, this one needs exercise to stay functional. Second, writing, at least for me, can’t be forced. The story needs to find its own way, and no matter of pushing and struggling on my part will make it fit into a certain prescribed pattern. Last, but probably most important, I need my readers. My friends, my writing group, my little coterie of fans—you are the reason why I do this, and you are what keeps me going.

That, and the voices in my head.

So, enough about me. Tell me, readers: what pushes you out of your writing slump?

~Kim Vandervort