I had a meeting the other day about work website content. We were joking that everyone in the (three person) meeting except for the actual web content coordinator had a blog. The other lady turned to me and asked, “What’s your blog about?”
Step one of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I said, “Oh, fantasy fiction, the stuff I read.” Because I don’t like to engage with complete strangers (effectively) about writing because it inevitably leads to questions about my creative work in progress (which is not ready to be shared by dint of being, y’know, in progress, especially with someone whose genuine interest in the details of the genre I have no idea about).
She perked up, and said, “Oh, like Game of Thrones? You’ve read those?”
Step two of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I stick to generic comments. Yes, I’ve read them. I find the television show a more refined and finessed version of the story. Did she enjoy the show?
It was at this point that I started analysing my own behaviour, and saw how I was consciously not engaging fully with the topic (i.e. to the extent that I would with another fantasy nerd) until she provided further indication that she was, in fact, another fantasy nerd, and not just someone who enjoys Game of Thrones on TV.
Let me be clear: it’s not that I didn’t consider her a Real Fan. It’s not that I doubted her ability to hold an interesting conversation on the themes and events and characters of George Martin’s work. It’s that I really, truly, desperately didn’t want to have that moment where I jumped in with both feet talking intricately about fantasy fiction tropes and details and my pet peeves, and see her eyes glaze over with the transparent desire that she’d never brought this up. I’ve had that moment before. I’ve felt like I’ve messed up. Like I’m being mentally catalogued as an overenthusiastic nerd who’s not very interesting to talk with – which is probably only the truth, but it still stings to be dismissed.
And I wondered how much of this is mixed up in the Real Fan business. (There’s also a lot of really poisonous crap mixed up in the Real Fan business. A lot of elitism and selfishness. I have no time for that side of things.) To what extent are real-fan challenges bound up in petulance that this was my space for safe conversations, for knowing I can be enthusiastic, for not worrying about being dismissed, but you have come in and I am uneasy about whether you will dismiss me, so I’m lashing out first.
There’s never any excuse for lashing out. There’s never a reason to be nasty and unpleasant. But having watched myself dancing around my passion for fear of being judged for it, I can sympathise a little with the relief of having a safe space to be enthusiastic.
There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.
There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.
1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.
English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)
But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.
That’s what language means.
2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.
A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.
That’s what language means.
And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.
(The fact that I can reasonably make this post at all is 100% down to GoodReads. Just saying.) From what I read in 2013 – some of which may have been published earlier! I am slow and behind! – some highly-recommended favourites in no particular order:
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. One of these days I’ll stop raving about this series, but today is not that day. Three Parts Dead is full of fantasy delights (necromantic rituals, gargoyles, hive-minded security forces, legalistic duels of power and will) delivered with modern savvy and urban panache. It is vivid and different, and intelligent while still being delightful and delighted. It’s the sort of canny fun I wish there was more of.
White Cat by Holly Black. In a world where magic is performed by touch and everyone wears gloves, our narrator’s struggling with his family history of con-artistry, crime lords and violence. Yeah, sure, it’s YA urban fantasy, but it is every inch serrated razorblades and knotted twists and I loved it to vicious black-hearted bits.
Shadow in Summer & A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham. It’s sort of cheating to have two books in here, but I read them back to back in an omnibus printing, so they’re quite melded in my mind. Betrayal was absolutely magnificent, just an ineluctable emotional wrench of a novel, a fantastic feat of character conflict and self-sabotage, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the power without the amazing worldbuilding triumph of Shadow. And it’s a world I find myself thinking about again and again, constantly turning over the amazing poetry-driven magic system (such a meditation upon the term “capture”) and the fantastic Cold-War-detente analogy it drives.
Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky. The most amazing world-fantasy-noir feat I’ve ever encountered, with a sympathetic but believably hard narrator getting dragged snarling through his past (including a truly magnificent fantasy analogy for the First World War). The regret was delicious, and the conclusions unsettling and splendid.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I avoided this for a long time because my “meh” list includes teenage fantasy and dragons, but I’m so glad I finally gave it a try (and persevered past the prologue) because it was a really good book, with a worthy heroine and some great ruminations on entrenched prejudice. And genuinely interesting talking dragons. There. I said it.
@cupiscent been meaning to ask: is there a reason you've been reading YA fantasy if it's not really your thing?
— Elizabeth Morgan (@SaysElizabeth) December 20, 2013
Elizabeth asks the best questions.
I managed a twitter response, though sometimes I feel so constrained by the 140 character limit that I can practically feel the “I will burst free!” song and dance number welling up in my throat. But honestly, this deserves more verbiage and certainly more thought.
The longer answer is more along the lines of: when I say “YA is not my thing” I’m sort of being lazy. What I really mean to encapsulate with that pithy dismissal is: there are many things that I regularly see cropping up in books that are identified as YA that dissatisfy me as storytelling habits or mechanisms. Because I do keep seeing them over and over, in books that are often lauded as excellent examples of the genre, I tend to assume that they are “the way it’s done” for YA. But there are YA-identified books that I love! (More on this later.) So clearly, those things that often dissatisfy me aren’t compulsory. (Possibly, one of the reasons I’m reading quite a bit of YA at the moment is to build up my sample size and help me whittle down the specifics of the things that dissatisfy me, so I can more accurately identify and avoid them.)
But also, as I said in my twitter response, a big element of why I keep trying YA despite dissatisfaction is ideas. There seem to be a whole lot of outrageous, amazing, wild-eyed, fascinating ideas in YA novels, something that I feel is not quite so common in spec fic for growed-ups. I’m basing this on reflections on my browsing in stores – I pick up a book, I read the blurb, sometimes the first page or two, and either a lightbulb of interest goes off (ding! and it goes on the to-read list) or it goes back on the shelf. YA books get a lot of dings because there’s often a Big Idea in either character or setting that’s sitting right there in the blurb. Adult fantasy blurbs are often a bit of a same-old trudge. Here are two (often male) characters who will be set at odds. Here’s an old (male) warrior, struggling with Kids Today. Here’s a King, and here are his Troubles. Here’s a Thief. Here’s an Epic Fate and Forces of Darkness.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of fun with characters at odds in epic fates, and I love old warriors struggling with what the years have wrought. I enjoy the depths and complexities of the worlds – but to be honest, it can be tricky to tell from the blurb and the first few pages whether this is going to be a novel with Ideas, or just a same-old Tolkien-euro-clone with concepts lifted straight from Tough Guide to Fantasyland (not naming any names). Often the Ideas are buried beneath Life, and it can be rewarding to see them unearthed through the narrative. But y’know what? Sometimes it’s fun when the Ideas are life, and are the narrative. There’s a lot of excitement to “OH MY GOSH, CONCEPT!” and I’m having trouble thinking of an adult novel that made me do that – Three Parts Dead, of course, but others? Um. Hmm.
(I admit, I’m hoping to hear about some oh-my-gosh-concept reads…)
— Writers Victoria (@Writers_Vic) December 18, 2013
Unlike fantasy fiction, which is a fish.
If there’s one thing my writing group (“The Firm”) would tell you… well, actually, it would probably be that I have a terrible predilection for over-paragraphing and also for long, convoluted, phrase-ful sentences, much like this one, that cram in every idea I have and create a lot of confusion as to the precise point.
Another thing they’d tell you is that I really like world systems. Ruling arrangements and heirarchies are some of my favourites, of course, because of my political-fantasy inclinations. And titles; I love a good extrapolated and nested construction of titles. I’m particularly fond of non-standard-fantasy arrangements and titles. And religious titles are such a treasure trove of amazing options that I get genuinely disappointed every time someone’s just a “High Priest”. They couldn’t be an arch-something? And I admit, I’m the sort of person who finds “sword” boring when it could be sabre, longsword, khopesh, falchion, gladius, flamberge, rapier…
Much of this comes from a desire for the richness of detail that comes with specifity over generic. A rocking story is a rocking story, whatever it’s wearing, but I must admit I enjoy things so much more when the story-scenery is full of interesting things.
My above-all personal bugbear is naming systems. Nothing irritates me more than reading a fantasy where three characters supposedly from exactly the same cultural and socio-economic background are called K’lista, Enid and Dmitri. (Most often this manifests as a hero or heroine whose name shares no construction with anyone else of his/her country.) By all means, mix French and Japanese naming patterns, styles and sounds! Just have a reason for who gets what. (It doesn’t have to be explained. In fact, please don’t explain it. But when I go looking for it, it should be obvious that – e.g. – all girls below a certain class have French names. Bonus points if there are hints in the history/society of the world as to why this is the case.)
There are other, ostensibly “more important” systems in any speculative fiction, of course – the special physics of fantastical systems, for instance, or if you’re KJ Parker, economic forces. But I love seeing all the little details that make a human world be systematic. It thrills me to link them up into complex webs, whether reading or writing. (I know. I’m odd.)
I have a couple of unpopular fantasy-fiction-reading views.
1) I’m kind of over A Song of Ice and Fire. A Dance With Dragons has been sitting on my shelf – and on my to-read list – since September 2011. My husband’s read it. I haven’t. And every time I look at it I go, “…eh. But is anything actually going to get done?” (To be brutally honest, I’m sort of viewing the television series as the polished edit of his increasingly rambling first draft.)
2) I prefer single-volume fantasy. Related to the first point? Very probably. I might, I admit, be getting burned out on having to wait ages to find out what happens next, only to have to wait again. But also, my appreciation for a tight, concise, hard punch of a story is increasing all the time. (Also then I don’t have to worry about getting all the same bindings/sizes/covers to line up on my shelf…)
That said, here are three series I’m really intellectually invested in right now:
Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin
Next to read: The Tyrant’s Law (#3). World fantasy in the character-politics-heavy magic-chicanery-light mode of George Martin. After the strength-to-strength magnificent tapestry woven in the first two books, I have no hesitation putting this series top of my list. Those strengths? Genuinely intricate and wide-ranging politics, making banking and finance integral and fascinating, and amazing characters who are each and every one believable, developing and sympathetic. And then setting those characters at cross purposes.
Max Gladstone‘s Craft Sequence
Next to read: Two Serpents Rise (#2). World fantasy of highly developed societal systems; urban fantasy of the most wild kind. It’s been over a month since I read the first of these (Three Parts Dead) but I’m still utterly giddy about it, assisted by the buzz around Two Serpents, and the amazing draft cover for the next book, Full Fathom Five. There’s so much enjoyable, intellectual, inclusive and innovative about these books that I just genuinely can’t stop raving about them. (Of course, putting this on the list might be considered cheating, as the books seem to be more stand-alone novels in a shared world. But GIDDY. ABOUT. IT. So there.)
Daniel Polansky‘s Low Town series
Next to read: She Who Waits (#3). Holy grimy fantasy noir, Batman. Part of what has me so excited for the third book of this series is that, for me, there was such an improvement in book 2 (Tomorrow the Killing) over book 1 (Straight Razor Cure, where I come from). Don’t get me wrong, Cure was zippy and rich and full of grit, but Killing was magnificent, layered and complex and just oozing the regret that gets you nowhere. So I’m eager as anything to see what the third book – tantalisingly named after the world’s oft-referenced goddess of death – brings to play.
My workspace seemed particularly indicative of current trends tonight, so I thought I’d preserve it for posterity.
A: Scrivener. Actual writing project thing! With words!
B: The Google Doc and accompanying chat window of my writing circle. We have been instituting a virtual writing circle (to go with our monthly workshopping meetings) whereby we show up at an agreed time twice a week, register what we hope to get done, and then sit in together in cyberspace and do it. The benefits of this are manifold, and I will expound upon them another time.
C: Zizou. “Helping”.
D: Zizou controlling device, for when she’s not even pretending to “help”.
(Yes, actually, the screen on this thing is enormous.)
When we had watched precisely one episode of the American remake of House of Cards, I was already somewhat frowny over various deviations from the UK original, especially in the area of Mrs U. This prompted me to have a serious think about what it is that makes me love her so much in her original form.
Mrs Urquhart – our scheming protagonist’s better half – gets very little on-screen time in the original House of Cards. Then again, the original miniseries is only four hours long, so there’s very little time to play with. She puts a stamp on the whole shape of things much bigger than her physical presence within it, however, that makes her a vitally important character (and even more so in the sequels).
The story itself is about Francis Urquhart, and his descent into darkness to receive “justice” for what should have been his at the outset of the story. It’s a tale of scheming and compulsion and violence and adultery. Mrs Urquhart is not involved; she steps aside, she goes to the country, she smiles and pats Francis on the cheek and goes upstairs. But heavy in all his actions is her imprimatur upon this path. She approves. And that permits him. (Even the adultery. Especially the adultery. It is a strong if subtle implication that Elizabeth nudges him to “making sure” of his new media pet. And in the second series, she explicitly sets him up with a new toy. I contrasted this starkly with Mrs Underwood, in the US version, taking Frank’s arm possessively. Elizabeth would never. She might raise an amused and fond eyebrow, and that would be all the discussion necessary. Her leash on Francis is indestructible and invisible, and her confidence is bombproof.)
There are strong and conscious shades of Lady Macbeth to her, and that’s a character I’ve always liked a great deal, a woman whose steel and firm grip surpasses the man through whom she has to work. That man is pushed to greater (if more terrible) things than he might have ever achieved alone. And he knows it. That’s part of the leash; Francis wouldn’t dream of losing Elizabeth, because she makes him everything that is worthy of her. If he doesn’t have her, he is a lesser man.
This becomes even more obvious in the sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut), as Francis starts to crumble and Elizabeth gets more screentime, every moment displaying the steel skeleton of this immaculate British flower. She changes international policy with an artless womanly aside. She plans without flinching.
And she loves Francis. Perhaps that’s my favourite part of her. This perfect woman loves an imperfect man, and she loves him wholly, ruthlessly and without it being a weakness.
Nothing puts the writing game in perspective like reading the GoodReads progress updates for a book I love. A book I think is plotted with ruthless, ineluctable pacing (“Gee, this is slow and boring”) or a book I think is instantly arresting and seats you immediately in the world (“I have no idea what is happening”) or a book I think has a magnificent cast of fantastically enthralling characters (“I don’t like anyone in this book and I don’t care”).
No matter what you do, someone’s always going to dislike it. However universal your tropes, they’re not going to work for someone. However much you sweat over the phrasing of a sentence, it’s going to confuse someone. And whatever you call your character, someone’s going to think it’s stupid, or it reminds them of an ex they hate.
Vladimir Nabokov said: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”
All you can really do is write the most amazing book for you, and hope that there are enough other people out there who like the things you do to make it worthwhile. Because if you try to write something that will appeal to “everyone”, you’re going to fail anyway.
I like to remind myself of that when my fits of self-indulgent delight tip over into, “Oh god, no one else is ever going to like this.”
Maybe they will.