Thursday, 28 April 2011

Guest Post by Lauren Beukes: Worldbuilding Through Found Objects

I am immensely pleased to announce a guest post today by Lauren Beukes, the enormously talented author behind Zoo City and Moxyland. I was delighted to meet Lauren at Eastercon recently, and found her to be fantastically humble, down-to-earth and slightly bewildered by all the attention being showered upon her!

Without further ado, I hand you over to Lauren, who is planning to talk today about Worldbuilding Through Found Objects:




Blame movies. Blame the Interwebs. Blame Alan Moore.

There are few things worse than the info-dump – that moment in a novel or a movie when cool insider draws the protagonist aside, usually to a bar, and explains How Things Are.

It was something I really, really wanted to avoid when I was writing Zoo City. But in constructing an alternate reality where something fundamental has changed in the world, I needed to show at least some of the back-story and the global ramifications of the rise of Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism (AAF) or the “zoo plague”.

The conceit of the novel is sometime in the mid 90s (or, some cases indicate, even earlier) something in the world shifted. It started with reports from incredulous journalists of an Afghan warlord appearing on raids accompanied by a penguin in a bullet proof vest. He would become known, incorrectly, as Patient Zero of the new phenomenon unfolding around the world that touched off panic and lead to quarantine camps and medical testing in democratic countries and far uglier things elsewhere, before the world settled into an uneasy truce with the new ontology.

There are lots of theories about what the animals are, tying in to old belief systems, from totem animals to witches’ familiars, guardian angels, the devil on your shoulder, the monkey on your back, the scapegoat for your sins. And new beliefs too; scientologists believe the animals are physical manifestations of thetan energy, while some radical Hindu environmentalists believe that it’s toxic reincarnation – where pollutants like BPA have caused part of your karmic soul to breaks off and comes back as a separate reincarnation prematurely. What is clear is that you only have an animal if you’ve done something terrible – and that when the animal dies a seething, howling black cloud called the Undertow or Siah Chal comes to claim you.

In India, the animalled are a new caste, below the untouchables. “In China they execute zoos on principle. Because nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side.” In South Africa, where the novel is set, zoos are discriminated against and segregated, not by official government policy – in fact the constitution protects the rights of the animalled – but because no landlord in their right mind is going to let someone with an aardvark or a silverbacked jackal rent an apartment in a decent building. Zinzi, the novel’s protagonist describes her sloth as a furry scarlet letter”.

That’s a lot of information to dump right there. So I decided to avoiding dumping it altogether and instead create “found objects” that would reveal some of the back-story in a way that could be organically woven into the narrative - and allow readers to fill in the gaps themselves.

I’ve always admired the way Alan Moore uses everything from burlesque songs to Victorian erotica to beat fiction inserted between to make his stories richer and deeper.

But it’s also very much in keeping with our experience of the world where we gather context from absolutely everywhere. The newspaper headline posters tied to street poles, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, office gossip, a snippet of overheard conversation, dinner party debate, movies, TV, music, advertising, pop culture. It all infiltrates and builds our understanding of current events, the world and our place in it.

I tried to do the same in the novel - to expand on my universe and the characters, using everything from a music magazine profile on antagonist Odysseus Huron and his new teen afropop sensation, through to extracts from a book of prison interviews, an academic paper on the Undertow in a psychology journal, a snippet from a real book on African mythology explaining the idea of mashavi – the uniquely South African theory that lost spirits of the ancestors take the form of an animal, a gossipy crime-watch newspaper column, and an IMDB-style website listing on a 2003 documentary called The Warlord and the Penguin: The Untold Story of Dehqan Baiyat, complete with spammy p0rnbot comments linking to explicit zoo sex videos.

I even got guest writers in on the operation who brought a new perspective to the found objects, namely Sam Wilson, Charlie Human and real-life music journalist Evan Milton.

It felt more natural and more interesting to write and, hopefully, to read.

If you've read Moxyland and/or Zoo City, then how about leaving a comment for Lauren, telling her how awesome she is!

With enormous thanks to Lauren for the post, and to Lee Harris at Angry Robot Books for arranging.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Message From Japan

I have just been doing some admin work for Genre for Japan - finalising a few details, contacting the last few people, and came across this message in the comments. People, you did this. Be proud.

Dear all,



I have just come across this site and learnt the activity. I know I am not in a position to represent the whole nation of Japan but just wanted to express my personal gratefulness for your attention and concern for the difficulty caused by the natural disasters. I cannot imagine how much painful for those who have been suffering in the North as I live and work in Tokyo but even life in Tokyo has been quite difficult and disturbing, both in physical and in heart. Up until the end of March, time limited power cuts due to the power plant cripple have demonstrated some impact on our normal life. Even more crowded trains due to limited services, empty shelves in shops due to petrol delivery difficulty, traumatic feeling of “shaking all the time”, etc. Saving mode (not purchasing unnecessary goods, skipping or postponing leisure) of consumer attitude is affecting sales of various sectors.


Having said that, the life in Tokyo is getting back to normal and many people are trying to do something for the recovery.


Again, thank you all for your concerns,


Best regards,


Kazuomi Ikeda, Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Eastercon - Illustrious - Duckcon!

I spent the past weekend at Eastercon, held at the Hilton Metropole next to the NEC at Birmingham. This was my fifth convention, in stark contrast to last year's Eastercon, which was my first. Despite this fact, I was distinctly nervous upon arrival, hoping to meet up with people who would consent to hang out with me. I really needn't have worried! As is usual, the genre community are amazing, outstanding, and welcoming in the extreme. I was able to worm my way into other conversations, join debates, have company to the few panels I wanted to attend, and generally felt awesomely looked-after. The people make these sorts of events, and Eastercon this year felt very special, which should tell you what sort of people were in attendance.



I arrived on the Friday afternoon, and one of the first brilliant things to happen was meeting Lou Morgan and Ro Smith in actual, real life person. These are two of my Genre for Japan compadres and, up until now, we'd just communicated via Twitter and email. Lou and Ro are truly lovely women - a brilliant example of the type of women making the genre community an exciting and intelligent place to be. We did some mutual back-patting about our achievement - even boasted a little about it - and generally got to know each other. I would love to spend more time with Lou and Ro, and hope to meet them at an event soon.

I also caught up with Adrian Faulkner, Mark Chitty and Steve Aryan - we three had not been together and chatting in person since Alt:Fiction last year, so it was nice to have dinner together and catch up. So much talking about books and writing and blogging! Was excellent.



On the Friday night a ceilidh was put on - an excellent idea, in my opinion! I danced frequently, skipping like a crazy skipping thing - and, thanks to how these things worked, ended up meeting various folk who I chatted to over the course of the weekend. Ceilidhs should be at every convention, especially involving the head chap of the band, who managed to communicate the steps effectively to seriously inebriated people.

Also, I want to make known my views on the convention bar which served the real ale and cider. Despite some properly bemused staff, the service was efficient, there was plenty of choice and decent prices (in comparison to the rest of the hotel anyway!) Whoever picked the real ales available knew what they were doing, because there were some delicious options - of which I partook frequently and often *blush*

Since I have touched on prices, I will just say that I snuck out of the hotel as often as possible to eat at more reasonably priced locations - until I realised that the snack menu in the bar served decent portions for almost normal prices. Yes, the Hilton was massively expensive. I've stayed in Hiltons for business, and I knew that they were pricey (something you don't mind when work is paying), but this one seems to actively take advantage of the fact that they have a captive audience - even more captive on an Easter weekend when the NEC is barely open. (Anyone else creeped out walking through an echoing and practically empty NEC??) In most cases, a convention the size of Eastercon should have at least a little leverage when it comes to prices - offering a happy hour in the bar, say, or having a guest drink each evening which is cheaper than the others - but either the convention committee did not try to arrange this or the Hilton was being super greedy and obstructive.

I also want to talk about the panels. I'm sure the feminists among those who attended will make clear their views on the fact that "Women Invisible" was scheduled at the same time as David Weber's guest interview, and that Women in SF was scheduled at the same time as Peter F Hamilton's guest interview... I don't know about other ladies, but I, quite frankly, cannot be in two places at the same time - and I do have interest in both, yannow? Not cool, Eastercon committee.



The titles of the panels were, in the most part, insipid and unclear about what would be discussed, which made it very hard for me to get enthused about them. There were some truly bizarre combinations - I sat in on a reading with Suzanne McLeod (urban fantasy with a sexy side) and...... Dan Abnett (military science fiction author extraordinaire). The mind boggles, honestly. Both did fantastic readings, and luckily the particular fans of each were polite and attentive to the other reading - but did the organisers not consider that possibly James Swallow would have combined well with Dan Abnett? And how about Mike Shevdon with Suzanne McLeod? Those combinations are just off the top of my head, but I think they would have worked far better.

My final point about scheduling, I promise, is that NOTHING should be scheduled at the same point as the BSFA Awards - show some respect for the people nominated and awarded with prizes.

Negatives, negatives, negatives... I don't want to be negative, because I had such a fantastic convention in the end, but hopefully these come across as more constructive than not.

I attended just two panels - one of them was the Gemmell Award panel and the other Warhammer 40K: There Is Only War. The former was interesting, albeit with some flawed ideas (rather like the award itself - I might have further comments about this in a future post) and the latter was entertaining thanks to James Swallow's genuine enthusiasm for what he does, but very very unfocused, with a whole diatribe concerning Eve and World of Warcraft, which was dull dull dull for anyone wanting to talk about 40K and the Horus Heresy.



As I said towards the beginning of this post, the people make the convention. I had some wonderful encounters and talks. I loved sitting in the sunshine on Saturday with Chris Wooding, Adrian Faulker and Steve Aryan, knocking around thoughts on various recent controversies, including the matter of subgenres.

It was great spending time with Saxon and Emma - and their friend (and now definitely mine!) Tom. Alongside these three, and Andrew Reid and Charlotte and Sam, I had possibly the most funny time EVAR! All thanks to the duck, of course. It's definitely a 'pimp my duck' situation, people. Oh, and the giggle hats! Aren't in-jokes awful to read about? I'll stop immediately!



Great to see Cara Murphy again, especially since we both attended Eastercon as our first convention last year - and, yes, Kev, you are actually a nice person.... *winks*

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting various Angry Robot people, and I'm afraid I might have gushed a little at Lauren about how brilliant Zoo City is. It was cool seeing Adam Christopher on the other side of the fence, but I missed him as a proper con companion. Looking forward to reading your book, Anne!



And I had a REALLY fun time freaking out various folks who had forgotten they were wearing a name badge by greeting them by name *grins* Oh, on that point, well done convention organisers - having the name in large font on both sides of the badge was genius.

Anyway, this has become LONG and RAMBLING, so I shall quit while I am ahead and possibly still have your interest.

Thanks to everyone - all those I have mentioned and all those I haven't (kick me in the comments!) - you made this my best convention so far. Let's get together again soon.

P.S. There should be a heap more photographs HERE!

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is Lauren Beukes’ second novel for imprint Angry Robot, and has been nominated now for numerous awards, including the Arthur C Clarke, which is the reason for me finally succumbing and picking it up. Until now I have found myself oddly reluctant to read Zoo City, due to what I perceived as “hype”. In fact, I now believe it was hyped for good reason – there is a buzz surrounding this exciting novel that is entirely deserved. (I feel there is a difference between hype and buzz – the former driven by publishers to entice people to read novels; the latter created by a groundswell of popular opinion).

Zoo City explores a present day, but alternate, Johannesburg, following the story of Zinzi December, one of the animalled – people who are linked to animals due to crimes they have committed in the past. The eponymous Zoo City is the place in Johannesburg where the animalled live, ostracised by the rest of the population. Zinzi lives hands to mouth, sending illegal spam mails to pay her debts, and providing a service to people who have lost items. Her one rule is never to find lost persons, but she can’t resist the money offered to find one half of a famous singing duo – this, however, might be a decision she’ll come to regret as she stumbles across a rather horrific series of grisly murders.

Lauren Beukes writes with a real “zing”, an exuberance celebrating the darkness, the vivid life, the uniqueness of Johannesburg. The location of her novel is as much a character as the many bizarre people who share Zinzi’s life, and she is not afraid to show the grim aspects of living in South Africa.

The pace of Zoo City is fast and frenetic – almost too fast towards the end of the novel, where the mystery of the murders is revealed in a series of punchy scenes that arrive furiously and left me wishing I had more time to take on board everything that was happening. Beukes could have quite easily put in an extra few hundred pages, and I think it might have served this particular novel well. Usually I would complain about additional pages for the sake of it, but, with Zoo City, I actively wanted to read more about Zinzi.

Zinzi is a character to love, accompanied by Sloth, her particular animal and the outward appearance of her guilt. She is spiky, determined, and compassionate despite the difficulties of her life. Her dialogue is sharp and funny, and she lights up every page. She is not a character who requires any man to define her – in fact, the men she associates with are almost incidental, in some respects. They help drive the plot forward, but do not drive Zinzi’s actions, which is a refreshing change and something I appreciated. In addition, Zinzi is not some kick ass babe, who wields weapons and takes on enemies with gay abandon. She uses her wits to survive, and the experience she’s gained through her time as a journalist and then in prison. The reason I mention this is because Zoo City reads like an urban fantasy, but Zinzi is not your usual clichéd character.

The prose in Zoo City helps to keep the pace driving forwards – it is scattered with local colloquialisms that add flavour to the style of the writing. This is not a graceful method of writing, but it is incredibly vital and relevant.

In all, Zoo City is both fascinating as a study in modern literature, and exciting to read. It is one of those books that feels incredibly special as you read it, with a timeless quality. I hold my hands up: I should have read this months ago. Zoo City is a wonderful novel, and Lauren Beukes has instantly become a go-to novelist of mine. A stunning achievement.

Arthur C Clarke thoughts: Ah, here's the crux of the matter.... The award is for science fiction, but I think Zoo City is urban fantasy. However, with the Clarke Award having set the precedent last year of allowing a non-sci-fi (as stated by some) novel to win, then why not allow Zoo City to win? Personally, with other "true" science fiction novels on the shortlist, I think Zoo City will struggle to win - especially with the quality of some of the other works. However, the only factor that should mean it doesn't win is the fantasy vs science fiction aspect of the discussion: based purely on excellent writing and brilliant plot, Beukes would walk it...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In Absentia

This blog is going to go suddenly silent.

I have Eastercon this weekend. I have my birthday on Tuesday. I'm working up in Leeds for month end all next week. I am celebrating with family and friends the following Bank Holiday weekend.

It amounts to about eleven days. There will be the odd posts cropping up here and there, but nothing regular, and I'm going to have to skip out of 30 Days of Genre and come back to it once I'm a permanent presence on the blog again.

So... Enjoy a break from me and I'll see you all soon!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 7

Day 7 of our little canter through some of our personal highlights involving genre, and this is Favourite Couple in a Genre Novel.

You're getting three books for the price of one from me, since this couple features in a trilogy - and one that I have only recently finished reading. It would be Todd and Viola from the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.

They are so wonderfully natural together, so clearly belong together. Their yearning when they are apart is so reminiscent of first love. From the first day when they truly connect to the very last page of the final book in the trilogy, they blaze their story across every page.

Plus, the path of love does not run smoothly. They have to battle against Mayor Prentiss as they strive towards the city of Haven; they both make tough decisions for the sake of their love; they doubt; they mourn. Todd and Viola, above all, are incredibly realistic.

Just brilliant.

An A-Z of Heroic Fantasy (N-Z!)

Here is my introduction once more to the A-Z of Heroic Fantasy - you can find the letters A-M discussed HERE:

Today I aim to provide you with a quick overview of Heroic Fantasy through a handy A-Z list (this post will cover letters N-Z; a previous post took you from A-M!). We'll be examining heroic fantasy through various forms of media, some of the most famous proponents of heroic fantasy, memorable characters, and familiar tropes.

First, a background:

Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that came into being from an early age - The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur: all were early examples of heroic fantasy. It tends to deal with a hero and his exploits in a serialised fashion, defeating monsters and man at a micro level of fantasy. It is not the sweeping look at civilizations and cultures provided by epic fantasy, nor the more magic-dominated sword and sorcery. It tends to be darker and gritty, although not without moments of great humour. Absolute evil and absolute good tend to be absent from tales of heroic fantasy. Many heroic fantasy tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of epic fantasy.


N is for...

No women!

I intentionally included Jirel of Joiry in my list, so that it wouldn't be entirely masculine. Heroic fantasy is not an area where you'll find a great deal of strong female characters. There are women, but they tend to be very much of the 'serving the menfolk' ilk - whores, meek princesses and the like. In fact, heroic fantasy is distinctly biblical in that sense - women are all to do with temptation and weakness, and little to do with fire and passion.

There is most definitely a gap for a strong character-driven and female-led heroic fantasy novel! I know for sure that I would read it...

O is for...

The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. Indeed it is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature.

The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War.

Many, many modern works steal shamelessly from the Odyssey - but its influence can be felt in a broader fashion. In any tale that involves a first person narrative telling tall tales, you can see echoes of The Odyssey. Without this seminal work, I doubt we would have seen many of the pieces of classic literature that led forward to the canon of heroic fantasy we now enjoy.

Indeed, the themes that have been identified in the Odyssey are present to a greater or lesser degree in most modern heroic fantasy: homecoming and hospitality; exile; identity; temptation.


P is for...

Prince of Persia.

I'm talking here about the computer game on which the film is based, although I guess both could be counted. The eponymous Prince is the hero in question, battling evil and trying to return the Sands of Time to the hourglass in which they belong. There have been several entries into the computer game series - involving royalty, quests, spirits, and demons. They are heroic fantasy distilled into computer format, and provide an entertaining twist on the usual heroic fantasy, being set, as they are, in a land that contains Persia, India and Babylon. It is an odd alternate land to ours, since the unnamed Prince also visit the Island of Time, which I doubt you'll find on many maps!

Prince of Persia examines deliciously the idea of time travel, and the effects of playing with time. Well worth a try, if clever heroic fantasy is your ideal.

Q is for...

Quests.

I mean, come on... Who isn't on a quest in heroic fantasy? Retrieving various magical artefacts, saving princesses, attacking mythical beasts.

Quests are an absolutely integral part of all fantasy fiction, but seem to be especially beloved of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery. The trope (or cliché, if you will!) lends itself beautifully to the type of story dealt with in heroic fantasy - it allows there to be an over-arching plotline while the hero can face various encounters en route to successfully achieving his quest. I guess this is why heroic fantasy is so well-represented in the computer games arena as well.

R is for...

Robert E Howard.


He really is the grand-daddy of heroic fantasy, and deservedly takes his place besides such luminaries as Tolkien, in terms of influence on the field of fantasy that he helped to shape.

The list of his works is simply astonishing, especially considering the fact that he committed suicide at age thirty. If he hadn't, it is unthinkable the amount of output he could have produced. He was enormously prolific, most of his genre works finding publication in Weird Tales.

He is probably best known for his creation Conan, who is comparable to such icons as Tarzan of the Apes and Sherlock Holmes.

He and his works are still beloved by many today, and this directory demonstrates as much.

S is for...

Sword and Sorcery.

And this is where all the confusion starts... See, sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy are pretty bloody similar. Alright, there might be a few mages throwing fireballs in sword and sorcery, and more axes in heroic fantasy, but it's not like the difference between heroic fantasy and epic fantasy.

Check out this description of sword and sorcery: "Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy and historical fantasy, generally characterized by swashbuckling heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural."

Swashbuckling heroes? Hmm, that sounds like it should be heroic fantasy! To be honest, the terms are used in an interchangable fashion, in the most part, and I doubt you'll find many who dispute the term you use.

Apparently Fritz Leiber coined the term 'sword and sorcery': I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961)

T is for...

T. H. White.

Or The Sword in the Stone.

Or The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Or The Ill-Made Knight.

Etc.

I could equally have picked Le Morte d'Arthur, except, y'know, it doesn't start with T...

So, King Arthur - and one of the most beloved tellings of that particular story. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are truly the epitome of heroic fantasy - quests, monsters and chivalry galore.

The story of King Arthur has been told down the centuries, from pre-Galfridian traditions that focus on Arthur as an historical figure to the aforementioned Le Morte d'Arthur, which focuses more on Arthur's legendary companions than the man himself.

King Arthur takes his place as one of the earliest heroes of heroic fantasy in this list, and there is no better telling of the tale than The Once and Future King by T. H. White.


U is for...

Undeserved Reputation.

Heroic fantasy is laughed at a little. It is seen as pulp fiction, as disposable, as easy entertainment. But I consider it to be so much more than this. Many teenagers will cut their fantasy reading teeth on such heroic fantasists as David Gemmell and I hate to get all heavy here, but the Gemmell books explore such concepts as right and wrong, balancing one life against many, compassion, bravery in the face of the greatest danger. Sure, sometimes these themes are overdone, but I do think that lessons can be learnt from the writing.

In terms of the prose on offer in the heroic fantasy field - well.... Some people list The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss as heroic fantasy, and finer prose you will not read.

I do feel the slightly sneering reputation at this arena of fantasy is undeserved. Sure, it's no New Weird. Maybe it doesn't use fancy words all the time. But it is exciting, and immediate, and incredibly entertaining.

Highbrow is over-rated anyway!

V is for...

Vallejo (Boris) - and let's throw in some Bell (Julie) as well.

You want heroic fantasy artwork? These are two of the most recognised names in this field. Okay, so maybe they don't help the undeserved reputation, presenting, as they do at times, half-naked barbarian ladies wielding huge swords, but their work is nothing but heroic fantasy.

Check it out:


W is for...

Warriors.

I'm talking here about the anthology of short stories chosen and edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois:


The aim of the anthology is to tell stories of warriors - some of the tales are incredibly traditional, and some take an unusual slant at the idea of warriors. I included it here because a) it's very good, b) it presents a good entry point into heroic fantasy and c) many of the authors featured have written heroes of their own that you might consider reading about in the future.

The table of contents is as follows:

"Stories from the Spinner Rack," by George R. R. Martin
"The King of Norway," by Cecelia Holland
"Forever Bound," by Joe Haldeman
"The Triumph," by Robin Hobb
"Clean Slate," by Lawrence Block
"And Ministers of Grace," by Tad Williams
"Soldierin'," by Joe Lansdale
"Dirae," by Peter S. Beagle
"The Eagle and the Rabbit," by Steven Saylor
"Seven Years from Home," by Naomi Novik
"The Custom of the Army," by Diana Gabaldon
"The Pit," by James Rollins
"Out of the Dark," by David Weber
"The Girls from Avenger," by Carrie Vaughn
"Ancient Ways," by S. M. Stirling
"Ninieslando" by Howard Waldrop
"Recidivist" by Gardner Dozois
"My Name is Legion," by David Morrell
"Defenders of the Frontier," by Robert Silverberg
"The Scroll," by David Ball
"The Mystery Knight," by George R. R. Martin

X is for...

Who else?

Xena: Warrior Princess.


I love Xena. She is strong, courageous, brave and clever - everything you would want a warrior princess to be. She makes mistakes, she falls in love, she creates enemies and has adventures galore. This TV representation of heroic fantasy is like a modern-day, female Conan the Barbarian.

It gives us girls a genuinely strong heroine to care about, and yet follows all the ideals of heroic fantasy. Brilliant!

The series narrative follows Xena (played by Lucy Lawless), a warrior in a quest to seek redemption for her past sins as a ruthless warlord by using her formidable fighting skills to help people. Xena is accompanied by Gabrielle (played by Renee O'Connor), who during the series changes from a simple farm girl into an amazon warrior and Xena's greatest ally; her initial naïveté helps to balance Xena and assists her in recognizing and pursuing the "greater good".

It ran for six seasons, and showed 134 episodes, between 1995 and 2001 - and, damn, I miss the humour, silliness and genuine joy in the concepts of heroic fantasy.

Excuse me, I'm off to buy the DVDs...

Y is for...

Ye, yesteryear and yonder.

Or, in other words, faux medieval settings. This is how you will experience much of your heroic fantasy. Hence all the axes and swords and things. In fact, I don't know of any modern heroic fantasy, honestly, that brings the sub-genre up to date. Would love to hear if you can think of any examples!

Z is for...

Zelda


Way back in 1986 a game was released called The Legend of Zelda, considered now to be a spiritual forerunner of the many RPGs which flourish across all gaming systems. Set in the fantasy land of Hyrule, the plot centers on a boy named Link, the playable protagonist, who aims to collect the eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom in order to rescue Princess Zelda from the antagonist, Ganon.

Umm, can anyone say quest? Featuring a hero? This is a very early example of computer games reflecting heroic fantasy precepts.

Here is a little more detail about that there plot: In an attempt to prevent Ganon from acquiring the Triforce of Wisdom, another of the pieces, Princess Zelda splits it and hides the eight fragments in secret dungeons throughout the land. Before the princess is eventually kidnapped by Ganon, she commands her nursemaid Impa to find someone courageous enough to save the kingdom. While wandering the land, the old woman is surrounded by Ganon's henchmen, though a young boy named Link appears and rescues her. Yep, that's definitely heroic fantasy!

The Legend of Zelda is often featured in lists of games considered the greatest or most influential, and its commercial success helped lay the groundwork for involved, nonlinear games in fantasy settings, such as those found in successful RPGs. The Legend of Zelda spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs and is one of Nintendo's most popular series.

So, there we have it!

That was my journey through the A-Z of heroic fantasy? What did I miss?

For me, the main authors to go and seek out now (if this article interested you) are David Gemmell and Robert E Howard. Consider going back to some of the epics that are the source of modern heroic fantasy. And then, after all that, kick back watching some Xena! That should have you immersed in the heroic fantasy canon.

Look out for future A-Z's in the future, taking a look at other subgenres of fantasy!

Monday, 18 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 6

Hee, Most Annoying Character today in the 30 Days of Genre celebration, started by Bibliotropic!

It's rare that I'm annoyed by a character, actually. I can be frustrated by characters, and I can be horrified by their behaviour, but sheer annoyance is rare, thankfully.

There is one, though. A girl about whom I have read recently. She does not grow up or change in the course of a novel, she thinks it makes sense to head out on one of the most dangerous nights in living memory, she doesn't think about the consequences of her actions.

I'm talking about bloody Kiska (and that is how I referred to her in my head whenever she came 'on-screen'). I read her story in Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont. If Mr Esslemont intends Kiska to be an annoying character, then he succeeds beyond imagining. If he thought she would be beloved by readers, then, boy, he pitched her wrong. I found myself gritting my teeth at her attitude, her dialogue, her innate recklessness. Bah! Just thinking about her is making me feel all riled, so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead and look forward to Day 7 *grins*

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men is the third and final novel in the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, and has been shortlisted for the Arthur Clark award, which is what led to me picking up the novel. Monsters of Men deals with war, the settlement of a planet, how to establish peace, to what extent control is required with other men. I don't want to say much about the plot, for fear of spoiling this or the other two novels in the series for anyone reading the review. These are definitely three novels that you want to come to with no expectations and no knowledge of plot details, because the twists and turns will be all the more explosive for it.

Monsters of Men shows brilliantly the different facets of war - invasion, terrorism, trying to eradicate a way of life, segregation and fear of the unknown. It explores the manner in which words can be used to indicate "sides" in a war, such as this exchange:

"...as far as any objective observer can see, the President is a mass murderer and Mistress Coyle is a terrorist."
"I'm a general," the Mayor says.
"And I'm fighting for freedom," says Mistress Coyle.

Above all - and as with the other two books in the trilogy - Monsters of Men is about choices. The choices we make that define us; the choices thrust upon us; the choices influenced by others. From the moment in the first novel (The Knife of Never Letting Go) where Todd has to decide whether to use a knife, to the very end of Monsters of Men, Todd and Viola show incredibly effectively how their choices affect the very outcome of a war.

This novel is both softer and more tender than the previous two, and also more visceral and nightmarish as the settlers descend into outright war. There are moments of heartbreak, where I found tears in my eyes, and moments where I wanted to put the book down and never pick it up again because I was so frustrated by some of those aforementioned choices, or so frightened by what was about to happen to the characters I've grown to love. Ness makes you feel EVERYTHING, assisted tremendously by the first person perspective which, in this novel, switches between Todd, Viola and a member of the Spackle race.

The ending is incredibly ambiguous and might leave some readers feeling a little let down or confused, but I loved it. I thought it was the perfect way to end this trilogy, after everything that has gone before. The hope and the pain fit beautifully with the events we've already seen.

I honestly don't believe that anything else I read this year will live up to the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. This is something incredibly special, and I'm honestly surprised that more people haven't been shouting at me to read it. Well, consider this me shouting to everyone else: READ THE CHAOS WALKING TRILOGY BY PATRICK NESS! It is suitable for all ages, and for both sexes (which I find incredibly unusual). It is brilliantly written, with vibrant voices and very immediate characters. It is a true rollercoaster ride. Just perfect.

Clarke Award thoughts: Well.... It says something that, when the shortlist was announced, I wanted to read all six novels put forward. After reading this one, I have little interest in the others in comparison. It was so powerful, so thought provoking, and yet also so much fun to read. It is the perfect distillation of a reading experience - something that makes you wonder and contemplate at the same time as being a breeze and a joy to pick up. The fact it is YA, and the fact it is the third in a trilogy, might make the judges hesitate to hand the prize to Patrick Ness. Even without reading the other five novels, I want Ness to get this. I want the judges to celebrate YA and the way it is pushing boundaries, more so right now than any other area of literature. Monsters of Men is an absolutely deserving winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award *crosses fingers and wishes*

Sunday, 17 April 2011

I Owe An Apology...

Well, I possibly owe many apologies! But the apology today goes to Gwyneth Jones.

You see, around this time last year I was reading the Arthur C Clarke shortlist and one of the novels that featured was Spirit by Gwyneth Jones. I was rather harsh in my review. I don't want to retract every word of it - I still recall the prose as being rather challenging and the characters hard to love - but I do want to revisit the review.

The reason for this is thanks to a film day at Casa de Jager! Liz and Mark are the most wonderful hosts, and welcomed Alex and myself into their house with a wonderful repast:


I especially appreciated the Pimms and chocolate cake!






We talked books, watched Liz demonstrate the correct way to eat cake (see below) and watched The Count of Monte Cristo.


Now, last year I knew that Spirit was based on The Count of Monte Cristo, but up until now I have not read the book or watched the film.

Apart from the fact that the film was truly brilliant - featuring Guy Pearce, James Caviezel and Richard Harris - it lifted my appreciation of Spirit to the point where I am desperate to revisit the novel. I now believe that Gwyneth Jones did a cracking job bringing the 'spirit' (no pun intended) of The Count of Monte Cristo to her novel - from the distinctly unfair imprisonment, to the bewilderment and horror of her main protagonist, to the biting satisfaction of the revenge themes.

It is rare that I return to a review and decide to tell my audience differently from the original review - but here I am. If you have read or watched The Count of Monte Cristo, then Spirit will offer you a unique perspective on this story and it is well worth the read. This is one situation where my lack of prior knowledge meant my review was not all it could be. And, for that, I offer Gwyneth Jones an apology!

30 Days of Genre - Day 5

Here we are on Day 5, and I've already experienced a little slippage on getting these posts out - I fail on regular blog posting! *grins*

The topic today is Character you feel you are most like (or wish you were)

This topic gave me my usual woe about how few genuinely awesome female characters there are in genre novels. I could list you umpteen fantastic male characters but the women are in short supply, in comparison.

I am already running a series of Formidable Female Protagonists posts to highlight the women in genre who I feel shine forth.

And my choice for today's category is one of these: Alanna the Lionness, from the Tamora Pierce books.

Hell, I wished I was her when I first read the books! I still do. Bolshy, determined, never one to shy from a challenge, talented, not beautiful but attractive. Faults galore, including being supremely stubborn and independent. I just luuuurve her.

Not only that, but she decides that she wants to be a knight and that women can totally do as well as men, which appeals to be on every level.

Alanna the Lionness is awesome. And I really wouldn't mind being in her shoes!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 4

Here we are moving swiftly onto Day 4 of the 30 Days of Genre! I hope you're keeping up and enjoying these little snippet posts that provide a little insight into my genre tastes. If you have joined in, please link me YOUR day 4 posts in the comments so that I can check out what you've written today.

The topic today is your Guilty Pleasure Novel.

Hmmmm.... This is actually the toughest category so far for me. I am quite discerning with my fantasy novels. I usually investigate what I'm going to read fairly ruthlessly, and don't ever re-read any of the easily discarded fantasy that doesn't fulfil my needs. If we were just talking reading in general, then it would no doubt be a Maeve Binchy novel.

I class Guilty Pleasure novels as those you turn to for comfort - usually easy reading, and slightly embarrassing to confess to.

Aha! I have it! Definitely ANYTHING by Laurell K Hamilton - it is definitely genre (featuring, as it does, necromancy, vampires, shifters of all varieties and various other ghosts and ghouls). I lap them up, at the same time as being quite disgusted with myself for reading them *grin*

How about you?

Friday, 15 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 3

So, day 3 of the 30 Days of Genre celebration and today we're talking about:

A Genre Novel That is Under-Rated

My personal choice here is actually a series of five novels - a little bit of a cheat, you might think, but they're irretrievably interlinked.

This would be The Tales of Einarinn by Juliet E McKenna. They are traditional fantasy, with well-drawn female characters and some stunning battle sequences. The prose is no-nonsense and effective, and there is a deliciously warm centre (rather like a chocolate melt!) to the plotlines.

I really liked these when I read them, but I simply cannot find anyone else who has read them!

Have you read them? If so, what did you think of them? Would you agree that they are under-rated?

Thursday, 14 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 2

Okay, you know the score! I started this yesterday alongside Ria from *coughs* Bibliotropic, who came up with this fab little genre meme.

Day 2 (alongside most of them that are forthcoming) is a real head scratcher: Your favourite character. I can pick loads that I really enjoy reading about. I can pick many where I appreciate their dialogue, or their attitude, or maybe even admire their extreme hotness. But a favourite character? Out of everything I've read? (which is a DAMN LOT!) That is going to take some doing....

Let me muse...

Should it be one I've discovered more recently, since I am now a more discerning reader? Or should it be one that has been beloved for years?

My choice, dear reader, might come as some surprise. You may be familiar with him looking like this:


That chap is Bigwig from Richard Adams' Watership Down - or, to give him his true name, Thlayli. I read Watership Down at a young age, and it impacted on me a great deal. I think I've read the novel a good seven or eight times, and the character that always leaps out at me is that of Bigwig.

He is bolshy, independent, fiercely loyal, cynical - everything that makes a character beloved in my book. Here are a few key quotes:

[Confronting Bigwig leading a mass defection of Efrafans]
General Woundwort: Bigwig, you traitorous...!
[to a subordinate]
General Woundwort: Captain, get this miserable group back to their marks. I'll settle you myself, Bigwig. There's no need to take you back.
Bigwig: Come and try, you cracked-brain slave driver!

Blackberry: You're beginning to sound like a chief, Hazel. 'Hazel-rah'.
Bigwig: Hazel-rah? That'll be the day I call him chief, that will.

And my absolute favourite:

General Woundwort: Come out!
Bigwig: My Chief's told me to defend this run.
General Woundwort: [Stunned] YOUR Chief?

A simply awesome character. One I adored from the first page he appeared and still love all these twenty years later.

How about you? Who is your favourite character? What do you think of my choice?

A Sickness or Completely Understandable?

I welcomed four books to my house yesterday - all of which I purchased. The first of them is extra, extra, extra special. Seriously. Y'all know that I've been doing the Malazan Re-read for Tor.com and I have been falling deeper and deeper in love with this series with every page that passes. So when Steven Erikson put up two signed copies of the Subterranean Press edition of Gardens of the Moon for Genre for Japan, I knew that one of them would be mine - no matter what I'd end up paying. Going into an auction with no upper limit is both scary and exhilerating! I was one of the lucky winners and duly paid over my cash (available to see on the Genre for Japan Justgiving page...) and yesterday this BEAUTIFUL hardback edition arrived in my house.

From the stunning cover art:


To the internal illustrations:


This book is flawless. Needless to say, I have pre-ordered the Subterranean Press version of Deadhouse Gates as well, and now plan to collect all of them. It is the first time I have lusted over a special edition, but, if it were to be any novels, it would be these - they hold an incredibly special place in my heart.

The other three books that I purchased yesterday are a trilogy - one that I already own. This sounds a little silly, non? But let me explain... This is a case of cover art ABSOLUTELY doing the job it is meant to do.

I own the following three novels:




These three covers are okay - fairly pretty, fairly generic fantasy.

I had IMMEDIATE book lust when I spotted the covers that Gollancz had commissioned for the trilogy on its re-release in the UK. Check these out.....




Simply gorgeous, aren't they?

So I re-purchased three books I already owned to get them in the same format and showing such lush covers.

A sickness or completely understandable?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

30 Days of Genre - Day 1

Ria of Tea and Tomes has come up with this awesome genre meme where we explore the following 30 subjects over the next 30 days:

30 Days of Genre
Day 1 – Very first genre novel.
Day 2 – Your favourite character.
Day 3 – A genre novel that is underrated.
Day 4 – Your guilty pleasure book.
Day 5 – Character you feel you are most like (or wish you were).
Day 6 – Most annoying character.
Day 7 – Favourite couple in a genre novel.
Day 8 – Best fan soundtrack.
Day 9 – Saddest scene in a genre novel.
Day 10 – Best writing style, or the style that resonates most with you.
Day 11 – Favourite genre series
Day 12 – A genre novel everyone should read.
Day 13 – A genre novel you’ve read more than five times.
Day 14 – Favourite book trailer from a genre novel.
Day 15 – The cover from your current (or most recent) genre read.
Day 16 – Genre novel with the most intriguing plot
Day 17 – Favourite antagonist.
Day 18 – Favourite protagonist.
Day 19 – World/setting you wish you lived in
Day 20 – Favourite genre.
Day 21 – Genre novel with the most interesting character interactions
Day 22 – A sequel which disappointed you.
Day 23 – Genre novel you haven't read, but wish you had
Day 24 – Favourite classic genre novel.
Day 25 – A genre novel you plan on reading soon.
Day 26 – Best hero.
Day 27 – Most epic scene ever.
Day 28 – Favourite publisher of genre novels.
Day 29 – A genre novel you thought you wouldn’t like, but ended up loving.
Day 30 – Your favourite genre novel of all time.

I just couldn't resist joining in with this, and hope to see more of you jumping on the bandwagon. As Ria says, I think some of this topics might provoke a little discussion - hopefully, anyway!

So Day 1

My very first genre novel is definitely The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. My dad read it to me when I was a very young girl - a beautiful hardback version he borrowed from the library. I was allowed just one chapter a night before bed, tucked on his lap, and marvelling at the thought of other worlds, magical creatures and evil witches.

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

It is incredibly hard to write any sort of synopsis for The Ask and the Answer - this is a novel that relies on the reader groping their way blind through the story, being double crossed by the author's supreme talents, and learning for themselves the themes that are strongly conveyed. I do not want to spoil anything for those coming to this series for the first time - part of the rollercoaster feel to the novels are that you never know what is around the next corner. In essence, you have a situation where Viola and Todd have arrived in Haven, to discover the Mayor already waiting for them. They are split up and both suffer various events thanks to the formation of both the Ask and the Answer, opposing forces who want very different outcomes. By the end of the novel, war is imminent. And that really is ALL I can say!

My overwhelming feeling while reading The Ask and the Answer is that it should be handed to ANYONE who questions the relevance and importance of YA fiction. Some of the themes are as weighty and difficult to fathom as in the hardest philosophical discussion - themes such as power, control, the nature of tyranny, the reasons for war, love. These are powerful themes, yet presented in a manner which will thrill, scare and horrify young adult readers.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ness plundered periods in history to examine these themes. In the 'A' graffitied through New Prentisstown during the attacks of the Answer - and the fact the force is formed entirely of women - we have shades of the suffragettes, fighting for the right to be heard and have freedom. In the imprisonment of people, and the manner in which they are tagged and interrogated, we can see concentration camps, especially since people are segregated. Oppression and terror throughout history are represented here, from Nazis, to Communists, to the Chinese government.

We are also shown segregation and prejudice of people other than ourselves, thanks to the spackle and the fact they are treated much like slaves. Reminds me very much of the white man's treatment of black people...

So much happens in this novel that it would be far too breathless were it not for the very strong characters to fix upon and root for. These characters are drawn realistically in shades of grey, rather than absolutes. They commit cruelty because they believe it to be right; they make mistakes; they are distrusting at times. Some characters you hate to begin with become sympathetic characters by the end, and vice versa.

And once again, for me at least, an animal steals the show everytime she is on the page - this time Angharrad, Todd's horse, and her constant desire for reassurance, to feel the rest of the herd around her; her mutterings of 'boy colt' when she sees Tod. I adored her.

Honestly, I cannot understand why anyone with a deep love for science fiction and strong characters isn't picking up this trilogy. If you are put off by the YA label, and the fact that you believe The Ask and the Answer is for younger readers, you couldn't be more wrong. There are timeless qualities about this novel, ageless qualities, and the ability to present those themes that cut right to the heart of most human beings. The Ask and the Answer is, impossibly, a stronger read than The Knife of Never Letting Go, a novel that truly astonished me. Visceral horror and cruelty, moments of great tenderness and poignancy, and a central duo to fall in love with - The Ask and the Answer is a novel of supreme power, and touched me deeply. A tour de force.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

An A-Z of Heroic Fantasy (A-M!)

Today I aim to provide you with a quick overview of Heroic Fantasy through a handy A-Z list (this post will cover letters A-M; a future post will take you from N-Z!). We'll be examining heroic fantasy through various forms of media, some of the most famous proponents of heroic fantasy, memorable characters, and familiar tropes.

First, a background:

Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that came into being from an early age - The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur: all were early examples of heroic fantasy. It tends to deal with a hero and his exploits in a serialised fashion, defeating monsters and man at a micro level of fantasy. It is not the sweeping look at civilizations and cultures provided by epic fantasy, nor the more magic-dominated sword and sorcery. It tends to be darker and gritty, although not without moments of great humour. Absolute evil and absolute good tend to be absent from tales of heroic fantasy. Many heroic fantasy tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of epic fantasy.


A is for...

Axes! And weaponry in general. But mostly axes. Conan the Barbarian carried a sword, but Druss the Legend (from various novels by David Gemmell) carried an axe he called Snaga. In heroic fantasy the weapon of the main character often has a history of its own - either handed down from forbears, or hard-won in a duel/quest. The typical hero will look after his weapon carefully, and, during many quiet campfire scenes, can be found polishing it.

B is for...

Beowulf.

This is one of the early examples of heroic fantasy, being written somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, battles three antagonists: Grendel, who has been attacking the resident warriors of the mead hall of Hroðgar (the king of the Danes), Grendel's mother, and an unnamed dragon. After the first two victories, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and becomes king of the Geats. The last fight takes place fifty years later. In this final battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded. After his death, his servants bury him in a tumulus in Geatland. There are echoes of modern heroic fantasy in this ancient epic poem - the episodic nature, the great hero defeating his foes, funerals of note.

We do not talk about Ray Winstone, people.


C is for...

Classical Epics.

This fits neatly with the mention of Beowulf. Alongside this incredibly famous piece of heroic fantasy history, you can add The Odyssey, Norse sagas and the Epic of Gilgamesh. All were heavily linked with oral traditions of storytelling, and it has been demonstrated that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it.

D is for...

David Gemmell.

One of the greatest proponents of heroic fantasy - from his writing we have such heroes as Druss the Legend, Waylander, and Skilgannon. All are extremely typical of heroic fantasy - reluctant to perform heroic acts, often simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, definitely shades of grey rather than black and white. Their heroism can mostly be attributed to an attitude of 'looking out for number one' and personal gain.

Gemmell has provided a lasting legacy in the field of heroic fantasy, and has never been surpassed.

Since his untimely death, other authors have been celebrated with the Legend award for writing fantasy fiction that follows in Gemmell's footsteps.

Still missed and never forgotten. If you haven't read any David Gemmell, go out immediately and pick up a copy of Legend or Waylander or Sword in the Storm. All are brilliant examples of his strong heroic fantasy.

E is for...

E. R. Eddison.

Eddison was one of those authors who rode the early wave of heroic fantasy - somewhere between Gemmell and Alexandre Dumas. His most noted work is probably The Worm Ouroboros, at the end of which the heroes pray for the revival of their enemies so that they may defeat them again!

The style of Eddison's prose steals rampantly from Homer and Shakespeare, Norse saga and French medieval lyric. His influences can be seen most strongly, and all are from a field that has fairly strong ties to the subgenre heroic fantasy.

Fantasy historian Brian Attebery notes that "Eddison's fantasies uphold a code that is unbashedly Nietzschean; had he written after World War II, his enthusiasm for supermen and heroic conflict might perhaps have been tempered."


F is for...

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

These two are commonly classed as sword and sorcery heroes, but they follow the usual parameters of heroic fantasy: named weapons, periodic adventures, down-and-dirty survival with little magic. They are the creation of Fritz Leiber, who wanted to write about more humane characters than those such as Conan the Barbarian.

Fafhrd is a tall (seven feet) northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known as Mouse and a former wizard's apprentice. Both are rogues, existing within a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and—most of all—relish true adventure. The series includes many bizarre and outlandish characters. The two who most influence—and, some would say, cause the most trouble for—Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their sorceress advisers, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. These two lead the two heroes into some of their most interesting and dangerous adventures.

Gollancz have handily included the first four tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in a handy omnibus called The First Book of Lankhmar, so there is no better time to catch up with the barbarian and the thief.

G is for...

God of War.

Here we move away from literary interpretations of heroic fantasy, and plunge into the world of computer games. Many computer games are heavily influenced by heroic fantasy, and this is one of the best examples of such.


I have to confess, I've never played God of War (1, 2 or 3), but a good friend of mine has - so here are his words on the subject and a link back to his review of God of War 3:

Kratos is not a happy man.

Kratos was never a happy man.

Kratos pretty much does what he’s doing to Helios there, except to everyone. He did it to the former deity of war: Ares. He did it to the former deity of wisdom: Athena. And now, having slaughtered close to a fourth of the Greek pantheon, he has returned, riding atop the backs of the formerly imprisoned Titans, to finish the rest of them off, climbing Mount Olympus to kill vengeful Zeus and eviscerate, decapitate, decimate, annihilate and sometimes masticate all of the mythical Chimeras, Minotaurs, Gorgons and Cerberi standing in his way.

The single word that would summarize this game is epic. There is absolutely nothing about this game that isn’t cranked up to 11, graphics or content-wise. From the great, primordial Titans that carry Kratos to face the Gods, brimming with their own heavenly fury, everything about this game is completely balls-off-the-wall.

Kratos is our anti-hero here, our chap who faces down man and God with gay abandon. He adventures across the world, reluctantly performing feats of heroism to be reunited with his family and to commit revenge against those who have wronged him. And it is very pretty.

H is for...

Highlander.

And now a quick hop, skip and jump into the medium of film. Highlander couldn't be more heroic fantasy if it tried! Mighty swords, epic battles, and characters who live forever.


From the Dawn of Time we came, moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the Time of the Gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you, until now.


Yes, the film is cheesy - the dialogue, the hammy acting, the bombastic soundtrack provided by Queen - but I adore it. I love the exploration of ideas such as what it would mean living forever, and watching loved ones die. The sword fights are tremendous, and the aforementioned music is *cough* a guilty pleasure of mine.

Just please.... don't watch the sequels!


I is for...

Iron Gauntlets.

This is an RPG produced by Precis Intermedia (formally Politically Incorrect Games and Spectre Press).

Here is the sales spiel:

Remember when fantasy roleplaying was simple? Go back to basics with Iron Gauntlets and create a customized campaign to fit your style. The rules are simple, yet robust, and keep the action moving. No classes or experience levels, Iron Gauntlets keeps it simple with consistent and flexible rules. The game is designed for people to tinker with it--because gamers almost always do. Add your own races and skills, or even create new magical powers.

FEATURES:

Traditional Fantasy
Elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, skeleton warriors, swords, treasures, magic... They're all here, just like you remember. 8 player races, 12 player backgrounds, 17 player vocations...

Versatile System
Iron Gauntlets is both easy to learn and easy to play. The rules are simple, yet robust, and keep the action moving using ten-sided dice. Diceless play is also possible when used in conjunction with Active Exploits Diceless Roleplaying. Or use with genreDiversion i games like HardNova 2, Coyote Trail and EarthAD 2 for 2D6 play.

Customizable
Create your own special abilities, races, creatures, and even combat and magic styles. Iron Gauntlets provides a foundation with which you can play, but it also gives you the freedom and guidance to go beyond.

Versatile Magic
Four forms of magic (crafting, divinity, essence and totem) give you the diversity you need with enough flexibility to create your own effects and styles. What you won't find are tons of spells wasting space and forcing you to read information you probably won't use.

Sample Setting Included
Amherth is a base setting for Iron Gauntlets, providing an overview of the world and its gods, as well as detailed information for several locations, peoples, lands and its focus, the Kingdom of Tyr. Plus, several story seeds and a sample adventure are included to help guide directors.

Ready-to-Run Adventure Included
In addition to the short introductory adventure included with the Amherth setting, a longer, more involved adventure is included to get your players into the action more quickly.

Obviously the greatest RPG heroic fantasy was Dungeons and Dragons (but I couldn't possibly relinquish David Gemmell from my list, so we have Iron Gauntlet instead! *grins*)

J is for...

Jirel of Joiry

Heroic fantasy is heavy on the men, no doubt about it. Rough barbarians carrying large weapons - truly, a masculine paradise. Jirel of Joiry is one of the few women to gain a foothold in this subgenre. She is the proud, tough, arrogant and beautiful ruler of her own domain - and is probably more sword and sorcery than heroic fantasy, if I'm honest (although the lines blur frequently and often between these two subgenres of fantasy). I wanted to have Jirel in this list to demonstrate both that women could be written, and to show how very few there are. A gap in the market, perhaps? At the moment the only female heroic characters that I can bring to mind are those written in the Tale of the Einarinn by Juliet E McKenna (a decent heroic fantasy series that is often overlooked).

The esteemed Mark Charan Newton read some tales featuring Jirel and had this to say:

Then, onto C. L. Moore, the first lady of weird fantasy. I read the collection Black Gods And Scarlet Dreams, the Masterworks edition, and even in the first story, I could see it contained more imaginative power than a lot of this year’s combined fantasy output. My initial excitement wavered a little after that, for there were endless descriptions of psychological reaction, of emotion, of fear, of abstract shapes and entities. And I’m all for a little exposition, but some of this was way beyond heady. I admit I stopped halfway, after the adventures of Jirel of Joiry – a hugely important character in genre taxonomy, because she was the first proper female warrior/lead. I was impressed: Jirel was utterly non-sexualised, not made into some leather-clad male fetish – she was properly hard as nails, the equal of any male warrior.


K is for...

Kull of Atlantis.

Another creation of the legendary Robert E. Howard (alongside Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, amongst others), I decided to focus on Kull because he presents a different take on the heroic fantasy setting. Rather than faux medieval, Kull exists 100,000 years BC, born onto pre-cataclysmic Atlantis. Kull spends time as a slave, a ship captain and a gladiator, all occupations which are found time and again within heroic fantasy, so we can see a direct link between these works and modern heroic fantasy.

Amusingly (to me, anyhow - I'm very juvenile), in the Finnish translations of the short stories Kull was renamed "Kall" since the original name is in many common grammatical cases (including genitive) the same as a slang name for a penis.

L is for...

Legend.

That would be the book. By David Gemmell. Love it or loathe it, this novel is pretty much the definitive article when it comes to heroic fantasy. Its importance cannot be understated, and Legend certainly had a hand in developing future works such as A Song of Ice and Fire and the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Joe Abercrombie's gritty anti-heroes owe an awful lot to Druss the Legend.


Here are links to a variety of reviews of Legend:

Fantasy Book Review: This is not Gemmell's best but surely his most important, a great place to start if you have not read any of his work before and a great blend of sword, sorcery and heroism. A MUST read for any heroic fantasy fans.

Graeme's Fantasy Book Reviews: Fantasy literature has moved on a lot since ‘Legend’ was published (1984) but it remains a book that’s worth going back to for a re-read. The message might be coming across a little too loudly but the story itself is first rate.

The Ranting Dragon: Legend undoubtedly earned its place in the canon, and thus deserves to be read by those interested in the development of the genre, but it is dated. It lacks the sophistication that experienced readers of modern fantasy tend to demand. It has potential as an entry point for new readers who would be scared off by typical epic “doorstop” tomes. The story is enjoyable if generic, but I have never seen an ending kill a book like this.

M is for...

Mythology.

Our last entry for today - and, fittingly, one of the first locations of heroic fantasy. Linked into classical epics, the traditional oral storytelling involving Gods versus Man was a place that heroic fantasy had its roots.

Take a look at this description, for instance, of Gaea:

She was the mother and wife of Father Heaven, Uranus. They were the parents of the first creatures, the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Giants - the Hecatoncheires (Hundred - Headed Ones). Uranus hated the monsters, and, even though they were his children, locked them in a secret place in the earth. Gaea was enraged at this favoritism and persuaded their son Cronos to overthrow his father. He emasculated Uranus, and from his blood Gaea brought forth the Giants, and the three avenging goddesses the Erinyes. Her last and most terrifying offspring was Typhon, a 100-headed monster, who, although conquered by the god Zeus, was believed to spew forth the molten lava flows of Mount Etna.

That is some pretty heavy duty storytelling and heroics right there!

My personal favourite of the myths is Bellerophon and Pegasus - but then I've always been a sucker for a horse in a story!



Both Greek and Roman mythology has been plundered in the writing of modern heroic fantasy. In more recent times we've also seen people turn to Mayan myths and culture (Aliette de Bodard), Indian (Ashok Banker), and Norse (M D Lachlan). It is a rich garden of morality, monsters and magic.

Thanks for bearing with me in this initial look at the A-Z of Heroic Fantasy, and join me soon for Part 2!

Monday, 11 April 2011

And Then What Happened?

On 14th April the paperback edition of Stories (edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio) hits the bookstores (look out for my review shortly). It is packed to the brim of highly original short stories by massively talented authors - working on the premise 'And Then What Happened?'

Sam Eades - publicist extraordinaire at Headline - wanted to celebrate the publication of Stories with something a little special and invited a crew of bloggers to band together and each write 100 words of a short story. The fun began when we realised that we would only receive the previous 100 words, and so would have no inkling of the final story.

I've just received the story in full and MAN, did I giggle! With enormous thanks to fellows bloggers Catherine, Caffeinated; Caroline Smailes - In Search of Me; High Heels and Book Deals; The Speculative Scotsman; Dot Scribbles; The Book Smugglers; The Book Zone; Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover and Wondrous Reads - this was terrific fun to be part of!

Here is our tremendous 'book' cover:


And here, for your reading pleasure, is the short story we concocted with our feverish imaginations. Honestly, I'm a little worried about the collective state of our minds *giggles*. Enjoy!


Crash!

It happened so quickly.

The screeching metal bit, anyway.

The actual impact.

This came as a surprise to Michelle, who in idle moments had imagined a car crash must feel like it was happening in super slow motion. Seconds become minutes, and all that jazz. Wasn’t that what they said on those accident investigation programmes?

But now here it was, really happening, and it had been but a blink. It had happened so fast, in fact, that it wasn’t until a pair of feet appeared by Michelle’s forehead that she realised the car had flipped. They were upside down.

Blink.

Michelle woke in a bed, not her bed. The air was full of garlic and red wine. She could hear voices in a different room, people were singing and laughing.

‘Where am I?’ Michelle croaked into darkness.

‘Safe,’ a voice replied but no one stepped forward. ‘We were able to make you better,’ the voice whispered.

There was something in the murmur of the word that made Michelle ask, ‘Better?’

‘Enhanced, innovative, kinky,’ a voice replied. ‘The surgery was successful.’

Michelle tried to swing her legs off the bed but they wouldn’t move. It was then that she realised. She was tied to the bed. No, she was shackled to the bed. She tried to sit up but her wrists were shackled too. Wait. She could lift her head! Her eyes flitted around the room. She didn’t recognise anything. Where the fuck was she?

A bright light came on. Michelle noticed the walls were covered in padding - some sort of sound proofing. But she’d heard music, people. Had she been dreaming?

And then she saw him.

‘You said I was safe!’ She screamed. ‘If you touch me again, you mad bastard, I’ll fucking…’

Daniel came towards her holding not a knife, or even a needle. Of all things, the whitecoat bore towards her bearing Tupperware.

‘You’ll fucking what?’ Daniel teased as the dead-zone between them diminished.

‘You’re ours now, Michelle. You’ll do what we tell you, when we tell you. The sooner you make your peace with that, sweetheart, the easier this’ll be.’

But she wasn’t listening. She was transfixed by the red-black mess spattering the walls of the clear plastic container, whose horrific contents Daniel stooped to show her.

‘What... oh God, what is that?’ she choked.

His thin smile said it all.

‘Don’t you recognise your own brain Michelle? Hmmm, I would have thought anyone would recognize their own brain?.’

Michelle felt cold, Daniel was still smiling at her, a sick, twisted smile. She lifted her hands to her head and felt that it was covered in bandages.

‘How? I don’t understand? I’ve been here all the time, how am I here if you have that?’ tears welled up in her eyes.

‘Oh don’t worry,’ Daniel threw his head back and laughed, ‘We didn’t take it all and we filled in the gap with our own little device, as I said, you’re ours now. Now here’s the plan…’

Daniel went on (and on) babbling about his ridiculous evil plan but Michelle paid little attention to what he was saying. She almost rolled her eyes at the absurdity but managed to control herself just in time. She let him go on and cried a bit more so he would think she was utterly defeated. Little did Daniel and his minions know, she had the upper hand as her brain could regenerate and would eventually absorb the device.

‘They think I am theirs now, do they? Well, let’s see what they think
about the fact that they are about to become minions to a HIGHER POWER!’

With a wriggle of her nose that was unnecessary to the casting of the spell, but that Michelle knew was the cutest thing she did, she flung her arms wide and summoned the demon Anamalech. She smirked as the eyes of Daniel and his sniveling minions grew wide with panic. In front of them appeared a ball of smoke, which span and hissed and grew to man-size proportions. Michelle coughed discreetly into her hand as the smoke hit the back of her throat then cleared to reveal a confused looking gentleman. As a result of that ridiculous nasal twitch Michelle had inadvertently summoned a morris dancer called Derek.

‘Magic and vanity do not mix well,’ Daniel hissed. ‘It is a precise art, where even the smallest twitch can ruin a spell.’

‘What are you afraid of? His handkerchiefs?’ he shouted to his followers. ‘Finish her off!’

Daniel’s drooling slaves surged forward as one, with Derek caught right in their path. However, the moment one of them touched him, there was a jangle of bells and another white-clad man appeared by his side. And then another. And another until Michelle could see Daniel no longer. Then came a flash as he summoned a lightning bolt and with one bound was free. In panic Michelle wriggled her nose again and prayed that this time she got it right. She felt herself whirling with lights flashing all around and shrieks of dismay from the Morris dancers who had been caught up in the maelstrom. She could hear cackles of laughter as Anamalech exerted his mighty power and she knew she had overestimated her control over him.

‘You are mine’ he shrieked. ‘Your brain may absorb the device, but I shall extract it from you and then I shall rule the world with my accomplice’ as he revealed Daniel at his side.

‘You did not think for one minute I was going to help you did you?’

But he underestimated British backbone and the dancers with their bells and sticks and cries of ‘Get them chaps’ turned on the deadly duo and soon had them lying on the ground crying for mercy.

Michelle watched full of gratitude that the whole ghastly business was now at an end.

‘So what exactly is this device’ asked Derek as he came towards her with a disconcerting gleam in his eye and an evil look on his face and Michelle realised with a sinking heart that no matter what she had done she was now helpless and alone and in the power of a bunch of Mad Morris Dancers...

Daniel wrestled his way up from the ground and through the Morris dancers, not even stopping to comment on their excellent choice of attire. That could wait, he thought; fashion wasn’t going anywhere, but he soon might be. He made his way over to Michelle, who stood rigid in front of Derek. Was this dude for real?

‘Get out of my way’, Daniel shouted, before pushing Derek to the side like he was nothing more than an unwanted hat stand. ‘Michelle, are you okay? We need to get out of here, like, now’.

‘But you don’t like me’, she sneered back. ‘You just spent half an hour trying to kill me, you bloody idiot’.

‘I know, but I just had a brainwave, if you’ll excuse the pun, and I don’t want to be anyone’s lackey. Least of all Anamalech’s. He’s starting to bore me, and you’re much more interesting. For one thing, I’m now much smarter than you. So, come on. Let’s go!’

With that he faced the open window, and a pair of giant, irridescent wings emerged from Daniel’s shoulder blades, bathing the room - and the Morris dancers - in bright light.

‘No fucking way’, grinned Michelle. ‘You’re TINKERBELL!’

THE END.

I hope you enjoyed! With thanks to Messers Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio for inspiration (go buy the book!) and to Sam for making it all happen.