Thursday, 22 August 2019

Forgotten Classic Review: The Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E Feist

When most people talk about Feist, they talk about Magician. A BBC survey had it as one of people's 100 favourite books a few years back. People are still picking it up and trying it nearly forty years later because of its reputation. A lot of people bounce off its old fashioned approach - it's not in close third or first, it's got an idealistic tone, it's slow to get to the action. It also has a few first time author flaws to it too. But for those who don't get put off by those things, Magician is a monumentally epic and ambitious story with a heart the size of the Pacific. No wonder people still love it.

After Magician, a lot of the talk is about how Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon lacked the same oomph. I like both books a lot but I totally understand why people say it. Magician is a mad as hell gonzo trip that was virtually unique at its time and even now. The other two could be any fantasy book.

And I think that's why people don't really talk about the Serpentwar Saga, when maybe its the best thing Feist did.

Shadow of a Dark Queen, the first book in the saga, starts in familiar enough fashion. There's two young boys from humble beginnings in a tiny town. From there, things take a left turn and instead of a quest, or adventures with the elves, Erik and Roo find themselves in the army, training for a probably suicidal mission to infiltrate the horde of said dark queen. I don't want to give away too many spoilers so I shall speak in generalities here; the Serpentwar Saga does have it's share of big showy magic, but most of its about war, politics, trade and being human. It takes this series a bit closer to Parker and Kay than it does to Brooks and Eddings; it's almost like a less extreme Wheel of Time in places.

A big part of what makes it for me is the relationship and differences between Erik and Roo. Best friends and fellows in not belonging, their lives take radically different approaches after their enlistment. Erik finds a place he belongs and a feeling of responsibility, and climbs the military's ranks. Roo by contrast sticks with his dream of getting rich and leaves to become a merchant. And while Erik's genial company to read about a war with, Roo is a gem. A self-aggrandising, unscrupulous, greedy and short of empathy gem. Seeing his cunning is fun - and Rise of a Merchant Prince is one of the very few fantasy books I've seen to concentrate on a merchant - but watching him try to make sense of his life, trying to find a sense of belonging and very slowly growing up while blunder into life's traps? Golden. And he's just vulnerable and moral enough for it to work. There's so few characters like Roo, and twinning his narrative with that of the super solid, ever conscientious Erik gives it the right light needed.

As for the rest of it? It has a fun supporting cast. My particular applause goes to Duke James, the closest thing to Vetinari outside of Discworld, and his grandsons James and Dashell, who sort of mirror the Erik-Roo contrast. It's rammed full of memorable scenes, particularly of the "ordinary person in the presence of superhuman prowess" and "moment of personal triumph/tragedy". They're not the absolute best I've ever read, but they more than satisfy. It casts a decent light on some of the forgotten in fantasy, its victims and everyday inhabitants; Helen Jacoby and Kitty are my favourite minor characters of that kind.

It is better written than the Riftwar too, and delves deeper into the characters' frustrations and hopes. I don't think this series is less idealistic than its predecessor, but it does admit that sometimes the idealists aren't and can't be where they need to be in terms of power. The nobles of the Riftwar Saga are, by and large, decent and reliable eggs. The nobles of the Serpentwar Saga aren't bad people, by and large, but they can't be trusted to put aside their egos and do what's needed. And the theme of responsibility vs ego is a fairly big one in here; it not only helps keep the disparate threads together, it adds a pleasing sense of tension and realism to the largely human concern based plot. And that's true of no one more than Roo.

After The Serpentwar Saga, Feist never really returned to this sort of story, going back to adventure plots, a focus on magicians other politics, and hugely gonzo world-hopping adventures. There's some good books there, but nothing I'd ever really recommend to somebody else. 

It's a shame. This and the Empire trilogy (which deserves a review of its own) showed that Feist could really pull off this sort of Epic Fantasy - probably better than he did quest fantasy. He doesn't stand at the absolute pinnacle of this art form, with Jordan and Martin and Kay, but he stands close. I feel like there's probably people out there who have a soft spot for this sort of fantasy but who haven't heard of the Serpentwar Sage. Hopefully this corrects that and brings a few of those people some extra pleasure.

Monday, 19 August 2019

King of Assassins by RJ Barker

I'd been meaning to do this review for a while and had mentally drafted it, but when I found out that RJ Barker was so drained and in need of reviews that he'd lost full use of his words, I decided to push it up the schedule - anything to avoid updating my CV!

Also, I'm trying out a new review format in the hope of teaching myself some structure...

King of Assassins huh? You'd think wearing a crown would be a drawback in the secret murder game. What's the premise here?

King of Assassins is the third and final book of the Wounded Kingdoms trilogy. We've seen its protagonist Girton go from optimistic young secret murderer to angry slightly-less young secret murderer, all in RJ Barker's creepy kingdom of gloom and secrets and tainted sorcery; now there's a bit of a bigger time hop and we get the very tired, somewhat old no longer that secret murderer. That's the problem with being a book protagonist, everyone hears about you.

(From here on there'll be some spoilers - I'm assuming anyone reading a review of the third book in a trilogy either has read the other books, or is okay with a few spoilers. I mean, you know that Girton survived the first two books for one thing already)

This time, Girton's mission revolves around getting his once and still kinda-bestie Rufra to the newly vacant High King's throne (no, Girton had nothing to do with that). But making a High King isn't as easy as a Kind Hearts and Coronets-esque spree, oh no. It involves finding a way through the political swamp, uncovering the secrets of a Gormenghast-esque castle, and untangling the messes caused by Rufra's previous wars to become king (and Girton's part in them). In short, King of Assassins is a glorious tangled bundle of intrigue, drama and action, featuring the wise and emotionally scarred in their one last "pays for all" adventure in a fantasy world tinged by nightmare and decay. With the odd secret murder.

So that's the cool stuff - how does it read?

The majority of the book is set in Girton's first person past narration. First Person is a difficult one as the voice can get tiring, particularly with a narrator so basically over it as Girton, but I could have read it all day. There's a wry self-deprecating note that keeps it from getting too much and provides a more-ish sense of humour. The variety of tasks set before Girton also keeps things moving swiftly.

There's also a few chapters detailing the background of Merela, Girton's mentor and foster-mother. This made me so happy because if I'm ever reborn into a fantasy world where I'm destined to be trained as an assassin from birth, Merela is the secret-murder-mother I want.

Okay, be honest now. At what point did you think "I'm not sure I'm up for this, let's just flip to the back and see just how many pages it is"?

I did flip to the back at some point but that was only because I just really, really wanted to know how it ended and didn't mind spoilering myself. If it ever felt like a chore, that I can't recall.

Favourite thing?

Aydor the Place Bear!

Which is a double answer because I cheat. Aydor's metamorphosis from first book villain to some wonderful heroic combination of home truths, one liners and smackdowns is just fucking delightful. If I ever do a list of my favourite characters in fantasy for sheer entertainment value, he's a strong contender to make it.

But the how of that transformation is key to the book's themes (as I see them at least). Aydor's become comfortable in his skin. He's found his place in life, he's found the sort of friendship that lets him stand tall. He's found *healing*. And gradually, as you watch Aydor have the time of his life while Rufra and Girton stress and snap at each other, the centrality of healing and escaping the cycles of harm becomes more and more apparent. He's the contrast that brings it out. And he's the rock that helps bring the moments of emotional clarity that lie behind this book's pathos. And he's the shining example that for all the focus on decay and mistakes, that redemption lies there for us all. I loved that the Wounded Kingdoms walked in darkness before finding some light.

That's why I love Aydor - and this trilogy, and this book.

Cheating indeed. Okay, what sucked.


Liar. Come on, something could have been better. Or more to your taste. Or-

Look, there's always something, but it makes no sense to sweat the small stuff. Particularly when it'll rarely be the same small stuff as everyone else. I guess there's one minor character who I wish had more of an arc of their own - they felt a bit of a plot vehicle, in retrospect. But that's nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. I'd rather talk more about how great this book was to be honest.

Well get on with it then. This is your review. You don't have to listen to us you know...

Ultimately every book's value lies in the eye of the beholder. A reviewer can try to convey a book's type, and how good it is of that type, but they can never convey the value.

My type - well, one of my particular favourite types - is the stories that can flit seamlessly from shenanigans and action to heavy real talk. Sitcoms like Scrubs and Brooklyn 99; Pratchett; Gemmell at his best; Jim Butcher's Changes. Stuff like that. I suspect that might be RJ Barker's type too, or at least it's what he writes. There's an uncanny versatility in how he shifts gears. And as such, this is a book I feel like I could recommend to just about everyone, as there's something for everyone. I can get people not loving it, but pretty much everyone's going to like it, as evidenced by it only having 8 sub 3 star ratings on GR and Amazon UK combined (about 1% of respondents). I know people only tend to rate series endings if they like the author, but that still feels pretty bloody high.

In any case, I feel like I've made my point. This is the sort of Epic Fantasy that covers all the bases, and covers them with style and cohesion. It makes you go Ooh. It makes you go Aah. It makes you point out that you can't actually be experiencing emotions because you're a robot. It has tension, catharsis, fistpumping moments, tons of mystery, and highly memorable characters. And the overall effect is, well, great. Amazing.

Read it. Read it now.

And I can't wait for Bone Ships.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Meeting of Minds: Five Examples of Cultures Meeting That Would Make Great Fantasy Inspirations

I seem to be unable to do anything other than write blog posts at the moment, so I might as well make hay while the sun shines. This one was inspired by a stray Twitter interaction on the subject of the objection to PoC in fantasies "because people didn't travel that much back then".

Frankly, I think the tendency to look back to history all the time as the guide on how to do Fantasy is not particularly good for the genre in the first place. The clue on how close to reality we have to be in this genre is in the name and while a grounding in reality is often vital, it doesn't have to be found in hard historical accuracy. Many of fantasy's most beloved cultures have cheerfully thrown such a thing to the wind.

But still, it seems that it does matter these days. Which is why I found myself musing about the many cool little bits of history I've seen that show that the argument really doesn't have to be the case in anyone's book. 

1) The Roman Embassy to China - The distance that the Roman Empire covered, and the amount of geographical dislocation it caused, would make good fuel for any number of stories, but for an embassy to get all the way to China must have been an astonishing feat. Yet it happened in 166 AD, going from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean (evidence of a Roman presence is not uncommon in Indian sea ports) and up to South China. Since Fantasy loves a travelogue, that seems as good a one as any.

It mightn't have been the first presence of Romans that far east. There's a somewhat dubious theory that some of the Roman soldiers took prisoner at Carrhae eventually ended up fighting for the Huns against the Chinese somewhere in modern day Xianjiang, and settling there. I don't know whether it's true but that would be one hell of a saga - and hell, how much of Fantasy is based on "Weellll maaaaybe" history anyway?

2) Vikings in America - From little known to well known; the voyage of Leif Erikson has always attracted attention. I can't think of many fantasy adaptions but I always loved the little shout out it got in American Gods. And the most recent evidence suggests that the Scandinavian presence in Newfoundland went on a lot longer than previously thought too.

3) Early Medieval Southern Italy and Sicily - If the first two are about small populations, brief meetings and incredible journeys, then the tale of Southern Italy is one of prolonged inter-cultural exchange that reached its peak in the late 1000s when Byzantines, Arabs, and Norman mercenaries all fought for control over the boot and its native population (who ended up with very little say in the matter). Honestly, I feel a little like I'm sharing a precious secret given how little this era's history is used, but it deserves to be known. Its an incredible story that has left its mark on the world in a number of small ways (such as the word admiral). And the architectural heritage it has left is stunning.

4) Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca - The story of the Malian Empire is little known. Hell, I barely know more than's on Wikipedia. But I do know that its 10th Mansa, Musa the 1st, made the journey through Egypt to Mecca and he took so much gold with him that he ended up crashing the economy everywhere he went. And there's just so many ways you could make a story out of a great king who appears from a foreign land with a massive entourage, handing out so much gold it ceases to have meaning. 

5) The 18th century population of Africans in London - If it wasn't for a local library display, I'd have probably never known that by 1750 about 1 to 3% of London's population was made up of people of African heritage. Many were sailors, some were servants in great houses, a few such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano achieved a certain level of social standing and celebrity.

So there we go. A little dip into the wide range of cross-cultural communities and incredible journeys that formed part of the pre-modern age (with nought said of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, the missionaries to the Mongolians, the Phoenician traders in Britain, the Celtic settlement of Iceland etc.etc.).

Part of me suspects this article might be wasted words as anyone who wants to go that route in their Fantasy already will and those who don't, won't, but there we go. Maybe someone will get inspiration; maybe someone will find a weird little nugget in history they didn't know about and get to spend the next thirty minutes uncovering it. 


I’ve never really done a full anthology review before and truth told, I’m feeling a little unsure how to do it. Mini-reviews of each story? A general overview? Something in between?

I suppose the best place to start is what Distaff is (even if there’s been plenty of words here on this blog about it). It’s all Sci-Fi, all written by female authors - and that’s about where the hard similarities finish. The majority of them have haunting, apocalyptic vibes, but some are sweet and humourous, like E.J. Tett’s Holo-Sweet and Kerry Buchanan’s Space Rocks. Some take place on a near future Earth, some in space, some on very different (or far future) planets - Jo Zebedee’s ambitious We Are The Shadows has two of those in a split time-line story. And while they all have a feminine slant, not all of them have female leads; a few are written entirely or mostly from the angle of men, like Susan Boulton’s Ab Initio and Shellie Horst’s My Little Mecha, where a technician has to deal with malfunctioning security and his family at the same time.

Incidentally that story made me miss my train stop.

It’s not even my favourite story in there. That honour belongs to The Ice Man by Rosie Oliver which would make a fantastic novel in its own right. Or series of novels. Maybe even a movie. I think my favourite thing about the Scandi Noir movement is the way they use the cold sparse landscapes and distances to frame people as individuals, loosely connected to the whole and each with their own major flaws. The Ice Man nailed that feeling. Nailed. It.

But while I may have a favourite, there are no bad stories here. A lot of anthologies have me fast-forwarding at times - not here. Not once. If I had to look for a criticism, I’d say that a few stories didn’t quite stick their landings and give me the resolution I desired. None of those endings marred my enjoyment however as each story had already won me over.

Ultimately, where Distaff wins me over is that each story has its own individual feeling yet all of them felt like they belonged together. I have no rational explanation for that; just that there was a seamless fit that made reading the anthology very enjoyable. And I expect that I will dip in and out of this collection again over the years and test how that holds up.

Okay, couldn’t do this without individual story reviews:

The Broken Man by Jane O’Reilly - One of the slower and bleaker pieces in the anthology, it centres on post-apocalyptic scavenger Kiko and the risks she takes when she finds a man who’s fallen from the paradise above and builds to a deliciously dramatic and hopeful climax with its themes of Have and Have-Not.

Space Rocks by Kerry Buchanan - By turns tense and comedic, it plays off the horror trope of a space ship crew that realises it has an unwelcome passenger, and does a lot with those crew dynamics in a small space. I can easily imagine this as the start of something bigger.

The Ice Man by Rosie Oliver - Cool in just about every possible way, this neo-noir tracks a Swedish detective Soldis as she deals with a murder involving old friends, a secretive genius millionaire and the frailties of humanity. I must reiterate my demands that this be made into a movie.

A Cold Night in H3-II by Juliana Spink-Mills - I literally just got the pun there and feel stupid as, well, hell as a result. ANYWAY. This is the story of Meryn, one of the survivors on a failing colony. It has a horror-comedy vibe and while this is one of the stories where the ending didn’t quite get me, the creepiness and humour both really got me.

The Colour of Silence by Damaris Browne - There’s a lot happening here in this story about a devastating virus and how people cope with stress; the care with which we see the process of emotions that makes the latter makes the story feel slow, the scale and timeline on which we see the form makes it feel quick. A very neat piece of storytelling with a powerful end.

Holo-Sweet by E.J. Tett - Silver was a ship’s janitor, until she and the ship fell in love and she got promoted to ship-whisperer - but there’s complications. Holo-Sweet deals with those complications, and uses a light touch and jokes to deal with what’s quite a weighty topic. A lot of fun to read.

My Little Mecha by Shellie Horst - Stories that are full of mystery and family interactions hit my sweet spot; My Little Mecha is full of both and executes them both pretty spot on as technician Jared tries to make sense of malfunctioning security on Orbital Two. I was still somewhat confused by a few things by the end, but that just means Shellie Horst should write a follow-up story to it.

Ab Initio by Susan Boulton - A near future post-apocalyptic tale in which a survivor named Trent struggles to cope with the expectations of those around him. My favourite part of this story was how evocative it was; I felt like I could see all of it. That and the ending with its hint of redemption.

The Shadows Are Us And They Are The Shadows by Jo Zebedee - I don’t know if this was deliberately placed at the back because it has the strongest themes of renewal, but if it was, I thoroughly approve. It’s another of the slower, bleaker pieces with a powerful emotional ending full of hope, all about an attempt to survive a dying earth, and Jo pulls off the sense of panic one would feel facing the end.  

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Five Quick Thoughts

1) So the rest of the fantasy world is at WorldCon and for some stupid reason I'm not. Yay my life decisions! So while they all have fun, I'm here thinking my thoughts about this and that. And one of those thoughts is that I've started watching The Boys. I'm not sure how much I like it and whether I'll stick with it (although my wife likes it which means I probably do).

Now, there's a lot of things to like about it. But I think there's some flaws, one of them being I don't like any of the characters enough to tolerate them being giant douchecanoes. A more integral flaw maybe though is that it's whole premise - that making a person a superhero is a good way to make them a super-pillock - is a pretty common one now. What does The Boys say that hasn't been said before? What's its fresh angle? Just dialling the nastiness up a few notches doesn't work for me.

2) Speaking of TV, some of the The Wheel of Time's casting choices have been announced to a certain degree of controversy. Now I've no particular interest in addressing that - unless people have a burning desire to hear my opinion - but I did slope around my usual haunts to see what people said after reading it. And found pretty much nothing.

And that might be a far bigger issue than any amount of casting.

Wheel of Time's going to be an extraordinarily difficult story to adapt. It's gigantic, it sprawls, and it's full of little quirks that maybe don't make it the mass market friendly thing either. And it's going to be expensive too. And worse of all, there's not really any ingrained "Gotcha!" moment early on. It's so slow compared to some of today's stories. All of it points to a project that's probably going to need a fair bit of fan hype to get it off the ground. And there could be huge amounts - Wheel of Time has one hell of a fanbase after all. But I'm not seeing it happening.

3) Onto books! I've been trying to see what the fuss is about some of the big name YA authors recently and when it comes to Cassandra Clare, I found a lot of reason to make a fuss and a revelation of sorts into why YA commands such a big adult audience. Clare's big gift as an author is the ability to capture what makes inter-personal relationships special and convey them to her audience. I'm not saying she's bad at anything else (although I did hate the ending of Lord of Shadows with surprising passion) but that's her big gift. And because she's concentrating mainly on people - young changing people - and not trying to reinvent the wheel, there's no clutter in the way. Which is, on reflection, a big strength of YA - and the Epic Fantasies I read as a kid that might well be classified as YA today. And why I still find those books stack up so well against so much of what we see today. 

4) Speaking of stuff that sticks, I'm currently doing a re-read of Order of the Stick. It's probably one of the best fantasy comics out there, printed or web; it may just be one of the best fantasy stories out there period. Apart from being laugh out funny and hugely epic, it's one of the subtler and stronger examinations of the nature of good and evil, and the unthinking tribalisms baked fairly deep into fantasy, out there. Whether it's watching a goblin cleric argue with a paladin, or adventurers trying to come to terms with brushes with divine, or even just a bloodthirsty monster slowly learning a sense of empathy - Order of the Stick pushes hard on every story loving button I have. 

5) Last but not least - MD Presley has one of the more unique giveaways I've seen in the SFFosphere going in with his Fantasy Jewelry Giveaway. It's a pretty cool idea given that his first book is called The Woven Ring, and a very good way of drawing attention to the fact that said book (which has been reviewed on the blog) is at a very cheap price all through August. So click and enter.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Futures Women Spin: Interviews with the Distaff authors part 2

Round 2 of the Distaff Interviews. The book launches tomorrow so this is your last chance to pre-order it at a cheaper price - but for now, come meet some more of the authors.

First up, Kerry Buchanan, a short story author who "has occasionally been lucky enough to win prizes – and the competitions weren’t even fixed".

1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

Jo Zebedee brought me to the community. She took me under her wing several years ago and whispered in my ear that any right-minded SFF writer needed to join Chrons. She was quite correct. My life became complete once I joined that merry band of humans, cats, spiders, and occasional aliens.

In Chrons I discovered a community of people as crazy as me (some even crazier), as well as a source of sensible critique and a sounding board for the good and bad things that happen in life. Other members are always ready with sympathy for each rejection and to celebrate the acceptances with me.

I've made some life-long friends through www.sffchronicles. For anyone interested in any aspect of the genre, whether reading, writing, watching or playing I can't recommend the forum highly enough.

I don't visit as often these days as I'd like to, because my caring responsibilities are eating into my time more and more as my Dad grows older and more sick, but I know that Chrons is still there, waiting for me, and that when I do get time to dip in I'll always find a warm welcome.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?
KB: Women in SFF. I guess I think of all the talented female writers out there who feel as if they're imposters as they try to write SciFi, which can be a man's world. I think of the ones who adopt a fictional male/unisex name, or use just their initials to avoid being identified as female by publishers and readers, such as R B Kelly, Jo Zebedee, Julian May and James Tiptree Jr.

But then I think of the great female SFF writers, such as Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K Le Guin, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tanith Lee, Pat Cadigan and Jan Siegal. They paved the way for us, and whenever I think of them, I give myself a mental kick, because if they can do it, some of them when female writers of anything weren't much respected, then I certainly can! The only thing that separates them from me is skill/talent 
*snort*. Skill, I can work on; talent is in the eye of the reader….
Women have been SF fans for as long as there's been SF. I was as hooked on the original Star Trek series as any boy of my acquaintance, although they seemed to be somewhat confused by my interest. I totally embraced Star Wars, read SFF from Wyndham, through Tolkien to McCaffrey and beyond and listened to Hitchhiker's Guide on the radio. Admittedly I was in the minority among my friends at our all-female school but I was already a pariah from the first day, when I turned up with horse hair all over my lovely new uniform and horse excrement stuck to the soles of my shiny new school shoes. Nothing I did after that could surprise the genteel young ladies who were forced to share a classroom with me.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?
KB: I love putting a twist in my stories, so that's always going to be a given, but I usually start out with either an idea for a character (in this case, Stephanie, the Scientific Officer) and/or an event. I'd been thinking about long-term space missions and how relieved the crew would be to see the familiar blue ball of Earth floating in their viewers. Then I thought: "How would it be if, just when they thought they were home and dry, something went wrong?" The rest of the story grew from that.

Writers talk a lot about architects and gardeners AKA plotters and pantsers; I'm the latter in both cases. As soon as I plot, I lose the notion to finish the story and it ends up gathering cobwebs on a hard drive somewhere. So Space Rocks just wrote itself, really. I didn't know what the twist was going to be until the first rock rumbled across the metal floor of the hold, and even then, I hadn't made up my mind.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

KB: Ooh, fun!
If I were to BE a female character, it might be Kristin from Anne McCaffrey's Catteni series, because who wouldn't like to teach Zainal about coffee? Or maybe Menolly, female harper and friend of fire lizards from the Pern books, by the same author. She sacrificed so much to follow her heart and I'd love to have her musical talent. Or Susan Sto Helit from the Discworld series. Imagine being able to ride Binky between worlds and quell bogeymen with a stern look!
Sadly, there are far too many female SFF characters I'd love to be. *Sigh*
A female character to befriend. Hmm. Katniss Everdeen would be a useful sort of friend, if I could get past her prickliness, and imagine the excitement. You'd never know what was going to happen next! I think she'd be hard to get close to, but worth the effort. If I'd been a young adult myself when I read the books instead of a mother of three teenagers, I think I'd have been a little bit in love with Katniss.
Righteous retribution? Just hold on while I roll up my sleeves. Okay, for starters, Bella Swan. She really needs a good slap. I really dislike any character, male or female, who plays two lovers off against each other. I can't stand love triangles. Solution? Write her death in chapter 1, ripped to shreds in a grand battle between werewolves and vampires.
Another one would be Jean Grey from the X-Men, for many of the same reasons. She has so many men on the go, from Scott through to Professor Xavier, not to mention Logan and Warren. Maybe I'm just jealous of her flaming hair, her phoenix traits, her mind skills, her figure… *rambles off into grumpy silence*

I'm noticing a strong Anne McCaffrey theme to the answers so far. To find out more about Kerry's writing, click here for her website.

And now for Damaris Browne, former solicitor who now writes about "SF alien judges and fantasy characters in historical settings"

1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?​

DB: In 2008, full of the confidence of the blissfully ignorant I sent off my incredible bright new wonderful SF novel to agents, and – naturally – got an immediate crop of rejections. But John Jarrold mentioned Chrons, so I looked it up. I’d never even heard of forums at that point and when I visited, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I came back a few times, though, just lurking and reading odd threads, then took my courage in both hands and joined. Three days later I made my first post, about editing, and a few days after that gave my first tentative critique, and that was that.

As for what it means, to me it’s a haven where people understand the importance of reading and the use of words, where I’ve made friends, where I’ve learned things about both writing and life, and, I hope, helped others learn, and where there’s usually something interesting, witty or wise to read. Also, since I’m a mod, it means bashing spammers and wielding a very sharp virtual sword against would-be trolls, which is always satisfying.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?​

DB: Hmmm. I’m not sure whether to answer this with (a) what I think about how women are depicted in SFF, (b) my thoughts on the position of women SFF authors in general, or (c) a list of women SFF authors I admire. So I’ll do a little of all three!

As to (a), before now I’ve ranted about the – perhaps unconscious – sexism in older SF, such as the Early Asimov collection of short stories reprinted in 1972 with commentary from Asimov himself. There are no women in 10 of the 12 stories, yet in his comments there’s nary a word about this omission – evidently even then he couldn’t recognise his failure to envisage a future world where women could thrive in non-traditional roles. Women are plentiful in more modern works, but we find rape glossed over, authors unapologetically flaunting misogynistic characters and societies, and a pervasive view that male-dominated interests and activities are more important than those of women and therefore more deserving of space in a novel.

On (b), well, we think this is one of the first SF collections of new short stories all by women, but I’m willing to bet there are many SF anthologies where every author is male. Fewer women writing SF? Fewer women invited to write? Fewer women pushing themselves? Fewer opportunities generally? I don’t know. It seems to me there are more female names appearing in lists and prizes, so perhaps Women in SFF is exactly the same as Women in Anything Else in Society. Better than it was, not as good as it could be.

As to (c) my own SF favourites are Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, both of whom straddle the SF/F line, and in fantasy I’m a fan of Carol Berg.

Sorry this is such a long answer – did you know lawyers used to get paid by the word?! (editors note - I was hoping for a long answer). Anyhow, overall: Women in SFF? We buy it, we read it, we write it, we watch it, we draw it, we appear in it. We’re here and we’re not going away.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?​

DB: Some time ago I stumbled across an American competition for SF short stories which provided the title, or perhaps the theme, “The Color of Silence”. It intrigued me, but as usual, inspiration was lacking – if I’ve got a muse, she’s permanently on holiday and never answers her phone. I was walking with my partner down Lymington High Street moaning that I’d got no ideas (this is a common occurrence; the moaning, that is, not walking through Lymington) and he suggested it could be the name of a ship. So a ship she became, and it was clear that both colour and silence had to be repeat motifs in the story. In my SF WiPs I’d concocted a backstory of eco-terrorism which had resulted in millions of deaths, and it was a short hop from that to a deliberately engineered virus which killed children, and the ship became their last, best – only – hope. The story ended up gathering virtual dust on my laptop, but when we started discussing the anthology I pulled it out – the muse was vacationing yet again, and traversing Lymington High Street seemed too much effort – gave it a good going-over with a metaphorical duster and can of Pledge, and sent it on its way.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?​

DB: If it’s not too arrogant or Mary Sue-ish, if I could choose to be any woman character I’d pick my own female lead from my SFs, the Lady Verity, a Judge of Truth. I’ve given her a terrible childhood trauma for a backstory, some pretty unpleasant events in the present, and grief in her future, but she’s intelligent, brave, strong, complex, and can read people’s minds, so what’s not to like?! Failing that, in SF perhaps Asimov’s Dr Susan Calvin (he wrote at least one decent female eventually) or in fantasy, Savarien, the physician in Carol Berg’s Lighthouse duology, another formidable intellect who speaks her mind without fear or favour.

For a to-be-befriended character, in SF the only one I can think of is Balveda in Banks’s Consider Phlebas, who would be great in dangerous situations, but I’d prefer my fantasy choice of Clara Annalise Kelliam of Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. Her husband is executed, one son is sent into exile, another is claimed by the spider-cult so cannot be trusted, and the third is effectively required to disown her. She loses everything – home, wealth, family, status – and suffers greatly, but she stands firm and takes the initiative in the fight against tyranny. She’s also warm, wise, intelligent, caring, more than a little manipulative, and would make a marvellous friend.

I’m all for righteous retribution, but I can’t think of a woman character upon whom I’d need to visit it. Over the years there have been plenty I’ve wanted to slap, with a firm admonition to grow up and stop being so [REDACTED] stupid, particularly in fantasies, but their names escape me now, largely because if I have that reaction to a character I invariably get rid of the book pretty damn quick, and expunge it from mind and memory.
The redacted there is hers, not mine. I wouldn't dream of redacting Damaris' work; only admire her ability to forget annoying characters.

Also, I never thought I'd see Lymington feature as part of someone's influence for a story, even in the most passing of ways...

Thanks for reading. As I said, the anthology is out tomorrow, which means my full review of it should be out tomorrow or the day after as well - and after that, Part 3 of the Authors Interviews.

Friday, 9 August 2019

The Futures Women Spin: Interviews with the Distaff authors part 1

Over on SFFChronicles (my favourite SFF spot on the net), a crack team of talented writers have been preparing an all woman Sci Fi anthology: Distaff. It's a wonderful collection of stories, ranging from charming to bleak and thoughtful - often in the same story. It's out soon and more details can be found here.

 When it was suggested to me that I might like to interview one or two of them, I responded with "How about I send 2-4 questions to everyone?".

That's what ended up happening and here are some of the answers - first up Juliana Spink-Mills, author of the Blade Hunt trilogy:
1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

JSM: I found the Chrons when looking for fantasy book recommendations; eventually I wandered into the writer’s boards and just…never left! The Chrons taught me about critiquing, gave me my first beta readers, and introduced me to my online writing group. The forum and its members have provided a wealth of support and friendship, and helped me feel like I truly belong within the wider SF/F community.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?

JSM: There are so many talented and hardworking women in SFF. They’re writing books and comics; they’re making amazing artwork; they’re directing, producing and acting in movies and TV shows. They’re behind the scenes in publishing and entertainment, as well as at the forefront. They come from a rich history of authors and other creatives, and are as much a part of the rich tapestry of sci fi and fantasy as anyone else in those genres. The landscape of modern speculative fiction wouldn’t be the same without the women who work in this field, and I’m proud to call myself one of them.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?

JSM: A Cold Night in H3-11 was originally going to be a sweet little ‘first contact’ sort of story set in a space colony. Then the snowstorm showed up, and the title emerged, and the whole thing sort of spiraled from there and went down a much darker path than I’d originally planned… Oops?

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

1. I rather like being myself, but if I could be anyone for a day, I think I’d like to be Blue Sargent from Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series. (In other words, I just want to ride around in an orange 1973 Camaro and look for magical dead Welsh kings in the rolling Virginia countryside…)
2. I’d love to be friends with cryptozoologist Verity Price from Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid novels; she’d make sure life was NEVER boring. I mean, cryptids! And Covenant knights! Also, ballroom dancing.3. This last one stumped me. Mainly because the characters I like who need retribution tend to have it served generously by themselves or by others. So I think instead I’ll put in a protest on behalf of all those mothers who were killed off in the name of Tragic Backstory… (And yes, I'm aware that I’ve done that in some of my work and fully accept the blame!)

It is true that giving birth to a Chosen One is about as dangerous as playing chicken on a motorway while wearing an invisibility cloak! To find out more about Juliana's books, visit her website here 

Next up is Susan Boulton, author of Oracle and Hand of Glory

1)This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

SB: Goodness, a hard question. I was at the time looking for another forum with a writing/critique section, as the old Tor critique site had gone fee paying. This was years ago. As to what is means, well, I have always enjoyed reading the various threads on the different forums, and it is a way to keep in touch with gene fandom. I still do.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?

SB: The lack of exposure for so many women, (a lot talented than I am) and the way their stories have been overlooked on so many levels. Thankfully this is started to change in the last couple of years.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?

SB: A number of years ago I suffered from a life threatening illness, which left me with a damaged lymph system. At the time I knew nothing about the, “lymph system”, how it worked, etc. When I did, it sparked an idea (ok, I went damn, that’s a cool idea for an end of the world plague lol) And it grew from that.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

SB: Lady Mara of the Acoma, (main character in Servant of the Empire Series by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.) befriends Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and take on the Borg Queen! Mara of course takes over the Borg collective, and makes it part of the Tsurani Empire, and Buffy gets plenty of slaying practice.

Good to know I'm not the only person who thinks Mara of the Acoma is totally awesome. To find out more about Susan Boulton's writing, just click here.

Last but never least - Shellie Horst, author of Virtually Everything and workshop runner 

1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

SH: I can’t remember what I was looking up when I landed on the Chrons homepage, it was an age ago! SFFChronicles is like your party’s guide in your D&D quest or RPG; “Hi, What do ya wanna do now?”  Doesn’t matter what you turned up to do, you’ll be there for hours. There’s a range of members, each with a love for some part of the massive and eclectic thing that is Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Gaming, Books, Movies and the speculation around your favourite TV Show. The forums and thread conversations allow you to find common ground. I’ve grown and developed with it and the people I’ve met there. Through its forums I’ve discovered books and shows that I didn’t know existed (and wouldn’t have known about otherwise). I’ve formed friendships that wouldn’t have happened without Chrons.

I’m not one of the most active members, but if I feel I have something to contribute that hasn’t already been said or that will benefit someone I’ll chip in.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, it's about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?

What? Who? Which? When? A different perspective, fresh voices, new ideas, challenging concepts. The Kate Elliotts, Anne Charnocks, Nisi Shawls, Anna Smith Sparks, Nnedi Okorafors and Danie Wares of this world. All the authors in Distaff… and I haven’t scratched the surface of women in SFF. A good place to start would be listening to the Breaking the Glass Slipper Podcast:
Though there’s an ongoing conversation about female voices and representation in SFF I’m fortunate to know more of what’s out there because of the reviewing I do with SFFWorld. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they are being ignored.
A lot of the female authors within the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres aren’t afraid to experiment with tropes and personal bias. All of them refuse to be defined by the past. They persist.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?

SH: Minecraft. Skyrim. Scratch, Show My Homework, Sumdog, Warcraft, Hegarty Maths...
My Little Mecha was a selfish project, I didn’t plan on sharing it for anyone other than my daughters. My youngest especially wanted a story with a girl piloting giant robot. So it started as a bit of fun that blossomed from Minecraft clubs we do together. I have issues with the whole “girls toys are for girls” way of thinking, it’s a core element of My Little Mecha. On the other hand, grown-ups are too busy adulting to care about what’s important to a child.  We adults with our wisdom of dangers presume younger generations are in a safe, protected environment. We’re reliant on code foundations and AI. In truth, very few authority figures (from parents and carers to policymakers) are aware of what is discussed and what they can achieve in their own coded worlds. The ambitions of teenagers will always find a workaround to the “can’ters” and the “don’t belongers” life likes to throw at you.

So. There’s nothing dangerous about playing with toy ponies, is there?

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

SH: Oh dear. ‘You asked that who would you be?’ question.

Melaine Rawn’s Sunrunner Princess Sioned? Flawed by anger. Pern’s gold Dragon, Ramoth? Yep. (You did say female character… not human.) Ramoth’s time travelling abilities would be helpful. Now friends. Sansa Stark who plays the long game? She has little time for friends and doesn’t trust any claiming to be one. Tchaikovsky's Honey and Bees would make for an interesting conversation. Retribution of the most righteous kind? Rin in R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War doesn’t waste any time setting records right. But Trouble Dog, from Gareth Powell’s Embers of War possesses frightening wrath, and I’d want her on my side.

I don’t know that I want to be any of these characters knowing the trials they have to survive and the trauma they're put through. I’ve lived their lives as I read their stories. I’d rather be the lead of my own personal journey. It’s much safer!

If in doubt, be a time travelling dragon; words to live by. Visit Shellie's website here to find out more about her writing and workshops

Stay tuned for more interviews over the next few days and my review of the anthology itself.