Friday, August 1, 2014

"Ripples, Receding"

Sweat soaked Lee's shirt. The camera's chatter kept time with his wife's urgings to "smile, Tommy." Family photos at the beach in July.

Gracie's voice piped from water's edge. "It's cool, Dada."

Lee went to her, patted her perspiring head. "Sweetie, it's scorching."

She stared out with a toddler's inscrutability. "Not here. Below the waves. That's what they're singing."

"Darling!" Lee's wife urged from above the beach's slope. "The photographer's ready for you both."

Lee had turned at her call. Later, he'd swear he'd heard Gracie say, "Cool sounds nice." All he saw when looking back, though, were ripples, receding.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Walters on Pretty Heroines in Fantasy

Over at The Federalist, Elise Walters (Tentyrian Legacy) talks about why pretty heroines and romance shouldn't be taboo in fantasy. Excerpts:
Debut author Erika Johansen, who made headlines in 2013 for landing a seven-figure advance from HarperCollins to publish her first book called The Queen of the Tearling, would like us to question the very place where beauty and romance abound. ...

She takes issue with two main themes in fantasy fiction: first, their heroines are just too darn pretty; and second, they have plot lines overly reliant on romance, and therefore men. In conclusion, Johansen urges audiences to demand more from their books and for heroines to reflect "real women with their priorities in order, to whom both male and female readers can relate."

That last point, who can argue with that? Wouldn’t books where women demonstrate they get how the real world works and with whom readers can relate be a success? Yes, and they are. So why are we acting like these books are few and far between? ...

The fact is, books with pretty heroines and love lives reflect aspirations that we don’t need to be ashamed of or reject in books. And when they are coupled with a captivating story, we should celebrate those books, not shun them as outdated and oppressive tools of some secret plot in the literary world to advance a patriarchal agenda.
Read the whole thing, and note that Walters is offering an argument far beyond the whole fantasy-is-escapism trope with which literary types have tarred genre lovers ever since Tolkien. Rather, she drills down to the truth that storytelling can be aspirational: "The most fundamental human expectations and dreams remain what they’ve always been. We are attracted to beauty. We believe in love. We think romance is something to be cherished if we have it; something we want if we don’t. This is the 'happily ever after.' All of this comprises what it means to be a human being. So naturally these themes find their way into our books."

A valid point. However, I'd also add that narratives can be didactic: An author turns a character's beauty towards the themes he wants to emphasize. Walters notes how "Katniss Everdeen, Daenerys Targaryen, Susan Pevensie, Dominique Francon, Anna Karenina, and Scarlett O’Hara" get noticed apart from their beauty "because they are interesting and exquisitely rendered as complex characters with emotions that seem all too familiar to the rest of us." But Nurse Ratched and Catherine Tramell draw our attention for entirely different reasons. By all means, let's have robust discussions over the role of beauty in genre, but let's try to first comprehend what the author's trying to do with it.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Sabrina Krilic)

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Subtle Skill of Royal Assassin

When I write reviews, I try very hard to keep a conciliatory tone. Often that means I don't name names or toss off combustible assertions. I'm afraid, though, that I may end up doing both with this one, dear readers, so I beg your patience. See, while I was reading Robin Hobb's Royal Assassin, the sequel to Assassin's Apprentice and second volume in The Farseer Trilogy, I kept thinking of Patrick Rothfuss. Rothfuss made a big splash in the fantasy world, and for good reason: The man knows how to write and isn't afraid to let his talent take center stage. You can tell an author likes a literary panache when he pens titles such as The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Robin Hobb, though, takes almost an entirely opposite tack. The two books I've read from her so far are plainly titled and simply written. Yet such simplicity proves deceptive, because behind it lurks compositional complexity, understated linguistic flourishes, and plots more immensely satisfying to me than anything I've read in years.

The boy who kills for King Shrewd of the Six Duchies has finally taken a name -- FitzChivalry, bastard of now-deceased Prince Chivalry. Court intrigues during his uncle Verity's wedding nearly killed him, and he returned to Buckkeep, the high court of the Six Duchies, broken in both body and spirit. The kingdom has fared little better than himself during his absence. Red-Ship Raiders still harry the coasts, capturing poor peasants and stripping them of all human emotion through a terrifying magic known as forging. Discontent brews amongst the inland duchies, who see no need for new taxes and levies to guard against a threat they've yet to face. King Shrewd has fallen desperately ill, and ambitious Prince Regal has quietly begun scheming to seize the throne. FitzChivalry knows numerous ways to kill a man, but how can he handle political schemes that may send him to his grave?

Like Assassin's Apprentice before it, Royal Assassin moves at a leisurely pace. Part of that is due to the constraints of verisimilitude. The last book ended with FitzChivalry poisoned, half-drowned, and battered by his uncontrolled use of the Skill (an honored magic only those with royal bloodlines can tap), and Hobb grants him an appropriately lengthy convalescence. That makes not only for a more convincing protagonist -- a deeply damaged yet still dangerous killer rather than the typical prophesied-farm-boy-who-saves-the-world -- but also allows subtle conspiracies to slowly unspool. Here is where Hobb really shines, tossing off a bit of dialogue here and a scrap of description here that later forms the fabric of major power shifts and treasonous betrayals. Though Royal Assassin is an easy enough read, it would be more than a little challenging to outline. So little feels wasted or extraneous and everything connects to something else. It's a triumph of composition made all the better by Hobb knowing the precise moment when it's best to impress. A page of pun-laden, ribald joking from the court jester. A moment of jaw-dropping horror during a battle. A sudden shift in perspective as she expands on the books' magic system. Such subtlety shines brighter than blatant skill.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Hani Amir)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Phraselet No. 129

Maxentius doesn't hide his feeling much; the man's all surface, glossy and deep as a four-color page spread.

- Margaret Ronald, "Sunlight Society," Clarkesworld Magazine (Issue #66)

Phraselet No. 119

Topper liked his treasures portable. He was a man who'd left more towns under more clouds than Seattle saw in a year.

- Jay Lake and Shannon Page, "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story," Clarkesworld Magazine (Issue #31)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Middle Shelf Story: Kij Johnson's "Ponies"

The invitation card has a Western theme. Along its margins, cartoon girls in cowboy hats chase a herd of wild Ponies. The Ponies are no taller than the girls, bright as butterflies, fat, with short round-tipped unicorn horns and small fluffy wings. At the bottom of the card, newly caught Ponies mill about in a corral. The girls have lassoed a pink-and-white Pony. Its eyes and mouth are surprised round Os. There is an exclamation mark over its head.

The little girls are cutting off its horn with curved knives. Its wings are already removed, part of a pile beside the corral.
I have a theory that usually draws howls of protest when I voice it: No matter our age, profession, or position on the dubious strata of class, we will always face the same social dynamic we did in junior high.

You may start howling now.

Okay, okay, I know I'm overstating things. Virtually no one over the age of twenty-five will get his lunch money pilfered or face daily ridicule based on bad puns about his name. (Thank goodness. With a name like Loren Eaton, I faced more than my fair share of teasing.) The crassness of the early teen years bleeds away with time, but you know that beneath all the niceties and the thin veneer of respectability exists two groups -- the in-crowd and the outsiders, those who belong and those who want to. C.S. Lewis rather brilliantly discussed the phenomenon in his essay "The Inner Ring," and Kij Johnson does much the same with her piercing short story "Ponies."
Barbara says, "Do you know what you want to keep?"

Sunny’s tiny wings are a blur as she hops into the air, loops, and then hovers, legs curled under her. "Oh, being able to talk, absolutely! Flying is great, but talking is way better!" She drops to the grass. "I don’t know why any Pony would keep her horn! It’s not like it does anything!"
The way it works is simple. Girls have Ponies, real-life embodiments of the My Little Pony ideal, petite candy-colored unicorns who have tiny wings and can talk. Pretty amazing equine abilities -- and what a shame they don't get to keep them. See, at a certain age all Ponies go to a party where two of the three things that define them get cut away so that their owners can gain some social standing. The Ponies get to chose, and Barbara's Pony Sunny has already decided what she'll give up for the sake of the girl she loves. The very thought makes Barbara queasy, but she doesn't know the half of what it costs to blend in.
And then it’s time. TheOtherGirls and their silent Ponies collect in a ring around Barbara and Sunny. Barbara feels sick.

TopGirl says to Barbara, "What did she pick?"

Sunny looks scared but answers her directly. "I would rather talk than fly or stab things with my horn."

TopGirl says to Barbara, "That’s what Ponies always say."
Incidental detail. That's the stuff that moves a story from the "tell" to "show" category. Johnson excels at it. She instantly informs us as to the age of Barbara's peers by describing the "puffy letters" that spell out Sunny's name on the cutting-out-party invitation. She draws attention to the overcommitment of the social group to which Barbara aspires by describing how TheOtherGirls are "at school and cello lessons and ballet class and soccer practice and play group and the orthodontist's." Even that unique typography plays a role, moving every character except Barbara into archetype territory. There's SuckUpGirl, EveryoneLikesHerGirl, and (of course) TopGirl. This willingness to let the reader do his own emotional legwork proves particularly effective near the end. No spoilers, but you can guess from this simple little summary that things don't end well, right? Personally, the climax makes me feel physically sick every time I read it, and the final line fills me with impotent rage. Not at Johnson, for she's pulled off the best sort of literary magic trick, but at the whole imbecilic popularity game. Barbara will learn what the rest of us already know: Belonging isn't worth the price you have to pay.

You can read "Ponies" for free at Tor.com.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pearson on the Inspiration of History

Over at Tor.com, Mary Pearson (The Kiss of Deception) discusses how a childhood history report made its way into her latest novel. Excerpts:
It's been a long time since I did that report and I can't remember every detail about the Mayans, but I do remember one thing: my research couldn't tell me what happened to them. It was a mystery which delighted my ten year-old self. It seemed that they had simply vanished off the face of the earth. There were even delicious musings that the Mayans had been aliens, and beamed up to their mother ship because they were done with Earth. An advanced civilization, pfft. Gone. ...

It wouldn't be the first time such a mystery went unsolved. We are still discovering ancient civilizations that we had no clue about. Advanced, established civilizations. And so with that little nugget of mystery in mind, I embarked on creating the world of The Remnant Chronicles, a civilization that has sprung from the ashes of another—and a kingdom with only some vague, uninformed understanding of just what that civilization was.

Though my story does have ferns and vines reclaiming ancient ruins for the earth, much like the jungle hid many Mayan ruins, that's where similarities end. This bit of history is a springboard for the world I built and the people who inhabit it, but The Remnant Chronicles didn't come out of thin air. It has precedent as many fantasy settings do -- an author takes bits of a real world and real history and they make it their own.
Read the whole thing. Lots of authors use history as a springboard into imagined worlds, from George R.R. Martin's tapping of The War of the Roses to Jeff VanderMeer's sampling of the tasty bits from Byzantium. It's a tradition with a venerable history. But it's not the only way to reel in inspiration. Science, philosophy, economics, theology -- almost every discipline can serve as a hook upon which to hang you narrative hat. Literary author Larry Woiwode once wrote that memory is a magpie, always going after the shiniest things. He meant that as a caution to memoirists, but it can serve as inspiration for genre scribes. The world is full of bright things for you to write about; all you need to do is find them.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Kim Alaniz)