The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.

Quick words with Ken Liu

ken liuAs my review would tell you, I was bowled over by Ken Liu’s debut novel, ‘The Grace of Kings’. After tying up Book 2 (which, he assures me, is full of ‘cool stuff’), Ken was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing, what he thinks of diversity in SFF and fantasy in general.

1) A clichéd question first! How did you fall in love with fantasy?

Ha, my answer might be a little different from many other American readers and writers.

I first fell in love with the wuxia fantasies of Jin Yong. I love the way he reworks history and adds what we think of as “modern” elements (intricate technology, interest-group politics, patriotism) into historical settings. As well, he uses fantastic touches like impossible superpowers, legendary creatures, and arcane knowledge to literalize what otherwise might only be metaphors.

The influence of Jin Yong can be felt and seen in The Grace of Kings as well as many other fantasy stories I’ve written.

2) Was the diversity of Dara (which I celebrated in the review) a conscious decision, or was it just something that came about naturally?

Both. I love celebrating the fact that we live in a diverse world. I think it’s natural to write fiction that makes everyone feel included.

At the same time, since one of the goals of The Grace of Kings was to change the way Western readers view “Chinese-ness” in fantasy, it was important to me to make the cast diverse to prevent the reader from falling into the trap of thinking “Oh, these are all Chinese people.”

3) I’ve often assumed that my favourite characters from fantasy books, when not described otherwise, looked like me, ie, non-Western and dark-skinned, and been surprised and a little disconcerted when fan art depictions turned out to be overwhelmingly white. Has this ‘whitewashing’ of fantasy ever bothered you?

One of the ways in which a visual medium like film differs from a written medium like fiction is how constrained the audience is in terms of imagining the characters. Because a work of fiction can’t slam you in the face with the physical features of the character on every page, fan art can be very revelatory of the larger cultural patterns we inhabit. If a character is known for being beautiful or handsome, how are they portrayed in fan art? If a character is known for being brutal or ugly, how are they portrayed in fan art?

I ask myself these questions often and try to catch myself from falling into the traps of the Western gaze.

4) As a Hugo award winner yourself, what’s your take on the controversy that raged this year?

I don’t have a single take. The controversy involves many conversations between many people, and not all of them agree on the premises upon which they argue, the interpretations of events, or even the meanings of words. Indeed, there may not be a single controversy, but many overlapping controversies with very different issues at stake that need to be parsed separately.

As a writer, my interest is primarily in writing works I like and connecting with readers who enjoy my work; as a reader, my interest is primarily in discovering works that delight and astound me. In neither role are the awards terribly important, though they are a great honor, of course.

5) In your bio, you’ve noted that you and your wife came up with the universe of ‘A Grace of Kings’ together. How much of her is in the final product?

Lisa suggested the idea of re-imagining the Chu-Han Contention as an epic fantasy to me, grace of kingsand we worked together in coming up with some of the background for Dara. She’s a busy artist with her own career, however, and we decided early on that the book would basically be my project.

6) Did you have any favourite characters in your own book?

I like Luan Zya, the scholar-engineer, the most. The ideal of retiring at the height of your success is important to Chinese culture, and I’ve always aspired to that.

7) Given the increased calls for diversity in SFF, have you ever seen yourself as consciously representing a minority in the fantasy canon? Has such identification—by yourself or others—troubled you?

I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a “minority” in my work. I’m interested in telling stories that are meaningful to me and in challenging narratives that I dislike, but I don’t write with the idea that I’m there to “represent” anyone.

It’s possible—no, probable—that such identification has been imposed on me by others. I don’t have much control over that.

8) How does your day-job as a programmer influence your writing?

I work as a litigation consultant, so my day job involves a combination of law and software programming. I don’t know if writing for machines has particularly influenced my fiction much other than the fact that I enjoy writing about technology and tech culture. I suppose if one were to squint a bit, it’s possible to also say that programmers learn a love of elegance which can be very helpful in fiction writing.

9) In ‘Paper Menagerie’, the short story (which can be read here) you explore the theme of straddling two worlds, and how adherence to one often leads to the obliteration of the other. Does fantasy, in some ways, allow for an escape or a renegotiation of this seemingly impassable divide?

“The Paper Menagerie” can be read as an argument that the notion of “choosing” one world to the exclusion of others is destructive. Straddling multiple worlds and multiple identity categories is the default for most of the world’s population, and we need not escape to fantasy to embrace the fact that an individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity.

10) Finally, what’s next for Ken Liu the author? 

My first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is coming from Saga Press on November 30, 2015. I’m currently working on the sequel to The Grace of Kings, and I’m having a ton of fun with it. There are a couple more short fiction projects and translation projects that I’m excited about, and you can keep up with what’s happening with me on my web site (http://kenliu.name) and with my mailing list (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/).

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

Queen of Fire

queen of fireThere’s a lot of fantasy fiction out there. And a lot of it is good. But the more I’ve read of it, the harder it seems to find something genuinely original, where talent just leaps off the page and ensnares a reader, convincing him/her that this world that they’ve been granted a peek into is real, inhabited by men and women just like those we encounter every day. Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ trilogy falls into that rare category, of fantasy books where I’ve genuinely been thrilled to turn every page, yet dreaded the end because it brought with it one sad realisation: my visit to this world and its crazy denizens has come to an end.

I reviewed books 1 and 2 of this series earlier here, and talked about how it was a breath of fresh air. Ryan’s final novel in the trilogy, Queen of Fire, builds on the promise of the first two, delivering a richly realised world filled with wonderfully constructed characters, and taking us to parts of it that we have never seen before.

The invading Volarians have been turned back from the Unified Realm, but not before they have inflicted vast amounts of damage and taken scores of citizens as slaves. Queen Lyrna is determined to rescue those of her subjects who still languish in chains, and destroy the Volarians once and for all. To this end, she crosses the seas with her refurbished Army, seeking to end the reign of the murderess-empress known only to her subjects as ‘Elverah’, the Queen of Fire.

Meanwhile, Vaelin heads to the northern reaches, attempting to cross the frozen wastes and head into the Volarian Empire from there. Enroute, he picks up some unlikely allies northern reachesand learns more about the dark force (hey, it’s a fantasy novel, of course there’s a dark force!) they are fighting.

My old favourite, Reva, shows up again of course, and is a powerful POV character as ever. She’s part of Lyrna’s Army, but due to an Empress-brewed storm, ends up separated from her loyal Cumbraelin guard and cast into the fighting pits of Volar. Reva’s main struggle in this book is coming to terms with the ‘lie’ she has told her followers, of positioning herself as a prophet figure and then leading them, unintentionally of course, to their deaths. Reva has long been painted as an unwilling leader, one who has gained her position through the most unlikely route, and Ryan takes care to add nuances to her personal struggle in this book as well.

The fourth main ‘POV’ character, Frentis, by far had the most gripping narrative. Frentis’s struggle, from slave to leader of a slave rebellion, is given overtones of pathos and romance due to his love-hate relationship with the Empress herself, his onetime mistress and lover. It is her connection with Frentis, twisted and filled with anger though it is, that humanizes this villainess, and makes her a figure more akin to Robert Jordan’s Lanfear—deluded and power hungry but driven, ultimately, by the same emotions that drive her enemies—and less of a cardboard cutout than many fantasy villains tend to be. Frentis, and his unwilling insights into her, his ability to see past her madness and violence, makes this possible.

What I can finally say about Ryan is, he knows how to write a damn good fantasy series. He has war, he has religion, he has myth and the rise and fall of empires, a sense of history—all the things that go into the grand epic narrative. But best of all, he has compelling characters, and from the darkest villain to the most martial, stereotypical fantasy ‘hero’, they all shine. I loved the Raven’s Shadow trilogy, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

The Grace of Kings

Palpatine_TFUThe theme of the evil Empire is a tried and tested one in high fantasy. If you need a villain, and a powerful one, it’s easy to make him hateful and seem powerful by giving him an empire that’s badly governed or built on immoral foundations, such as slavery or the labour of ‘evil’ races like orcs and goblins. Our heroes, usually country boys or girls, have to destroy this empire from the ground up, and usually install a destined king in the old/corrupt ruler’s place. The story rarely follows what happens after this destined king is put in his place.

In his fantasy saga, The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu does precisely that. And what’s more, he does it in one sitting, using just the one book to tell a long, sprawling tale of a shattering empire, the heroes who ‘rescue’ it and the political games that come thereafter.

grace of kings

The Big Island of Dara is home to many races of people, their disparate lands (with distinct histories and cultures) only recently yoked together by the Empire of Xana, ruled by the ageing Mapidere. Rebellion simmers beneath the surface though, most notably in Cocru, one of the most martial of the islands and home to Mata Zyndu, descendent of a long line of marshals who fought for the king of Cocru and most recently resisted the campaigns of the Xana aggressors. So when Mapidere dies, it’s Mata Zyndu and his unlikely friend, the gangster and hustler Kuni Garu, who emerge as leaders of the revolt and the bid to destroy the Empire.

The Islands of Dara Map

The Islands of Dara Map

The politics of the various kingdoms are complicated by supernatural factors: the gods take sides in the conflict, choosing their own champions. They are restricted in their intereference, unable to take a very active role or directly harm/aid their chosen ones, but that just makes them all the more desperate to make sure the factions they favour come out on top.

What Liu does with this book is play with some of the old fantasy conventions: the upstart hero, the scheming Imperial servants, the beautiful, doomed princess and the cross-dressing female soldier who bests all her male opponents. But he sets it in a world so incredibly diverse that readers are sure to fall in love with it. I won’t lie—one of the many reasons I loved this book was because, unlike in many Western fantasy sagas, a character was, by not, by default, assumed to be white or of Caucasian heritage. Instead, the peoples of a Dara are a huge blend: olive-skinned, pale skinned, dark skinned, ‘ebony’ skinned…and they mingle and mix as part of one land.

Kuni is an immensely likeable character, the typical rogue with a heart of gold, scheming and beloved of his people, a pro at public relations in the manner that many upstart ‘common’ heroes tend to become. His wife, Jia, is a Lady Macbeth-like figure, pushing her husband along the path to ‘greatness’, and making the many sacrifices that are expected of her (and him) on the climb. Mata Zyndu is the typical martial hero, tall, imposing, the kind of man who births legends and who is heralded by prophecy. He comes closest to a fantasy stereotype, but what Liu does with him turns convention on its head.

My favourite characters remain Luan Zya, a tormented genius, and Rasina, an enchantress who works and shapes smoke, and can peer into the hearts of those around her. Liu creates brilliant characters who stick on in the imagination, no mean feat considering his book is quite an epic and hosts a huge number of them. Yet he endows each with character enough that they linger on, long after they’ve played their parts (some of them shorter than others).

Liu’s book is an interrogation of politics, ideals and the people who sport them, who live and die for abstract causes like freedom and a ‘better world’. In that way, it is a lot like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, but instead of the seven tomes Martin’s series is expected to take, Liu wraps up his world in one. His style is light, comic rather than weighted, but the statements he makes are no less profound for that. Whole years pass in the course of his narrative, and characters evolve in ways you might never expect. It’s obvious that he is a writer for whom his craft is very important, and he has not been overwhelmed by his world enough to stretch it out and hammer it unnaturally thin in an effort to spend more time in telling its story than he has to.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to more from Liu soon.

When arcs come crashing down

sansaWhen a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my theonfavourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

sansa two

But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

sansa and petyrBut the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Meant to Be

destinyProphecy is a dicey thing. On the one hand, it shapes a narrative, though not always in a way you might expect. It gives a clear end-game to a hero (telling him to defeat a certain someone, like in Harry Potter), it tells people that important councils are happening and they should get to them (Lord of the Rings) or it lays out a bunch of tasks that someone has to accomplish in order to prove themselves worthy of a title/alert the rest of the world to the fact that the mother of all wars is coming (Wheel of Time). The strange thing about it is, even though heroes often really want to know what’s in store for them, if only to figure out how to beat it, once they’ve heard they don’t really know whether it was a good idea to ask for it in the first place.

In ‘real life’, the idea of ‘meant to be’ and ‘destiny’ has a similar double edged appeal. On the one hand, I loath the idea of my life being planned out and written for me by some all-knowing, omnipotent entity. I don’t like the notion of not being able to change things as I see fit, of being condemned, perhaps, to a life that I don’t really like, a job I have no Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334interest in pursuing, simply because something else has decided upon it. On the other, when I think about all the tiny little chances and decisions that led me to a certain place, or person, I realise how easily those meetings and encounters might not have happened. And since that idea is a little terrifying, I like to console myself with the literary palliative: it had to happen, because it was just meant to be.

In the Wheel of Time books, Jordan goes into the ‘ifs’ of a person’s life, creating a device that shows a viewer all the possible decisions he/she might take, and the ramifications of those on the rest of his/her life. It’s a little too much information for anyone to retain, so when characters leave its embrace, they do so with only a ‘vague’ impression. They know enough to recognise warning signs when they see them, to reroute from ‘very bad’ decisions when they come across them, even if they’re not precisely sure why they do it. This is a pretty ingenious way of dealing with the ‘meant to be’/fate conundrum: you know what’s coming enough to guard against it (and some things, he makes it clear, are inevitable), but you can also change things with your decisions, to a certain extent.

satanTo get into the idea of Fate and Destiny and all that is to open up a huge can of worms and delve into the realms of philosophy, stretching back to the very beginnings of human thought. Thankfully for you and me, I’m not an expert on the debates surrounding free will and predestination (although I do remember the basics, courtesy of doing a paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost a few years ago), so I won’t be rehashing them here. Sufficeth to say that in some ways, believing in destiny is terrifying. In others, when you come across the good things and realize how easily you might not have, it’s very, very comforting.

‘Blood Song’ and ‘Tower Lord’

Twitter gives me many things. It lets me engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t, fantasy fans from across the world; it gives me a peek into the daily life and thoughts of famous authors and actors and my other celebrity fascinations; and best of all, it connected me to Fantasy Book Critic, a really great site for any fantasy fan who wants recommendations and reviews of the latest books to hit the shelves.

blood songOne of the series that their reviews pointed me towards was Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow books. The first two have been released—Blood Song and Tower Lord—and the third is poised to come out soon. I admit it took me a while to get hooked onto the first, but once I passed a certain threshold, or once Ryan hit his stride as a world builder and storyteller (which takes about three-four chapters) it’s impossible to put the book down.

The Raven’s Shadow books are set in the Unified Realm, a land that vaguely resembles (you guessed it) medieval England in terms of its social and technological set up. Funnily enough, anthropologically speaking, it seems to mirror Olde Englande as well. The four fiefs that make up the Realm, long at war with one another and now yoked together by a conquering king, Janus, could find similarities with the various parts of Britain—notably Wales finding its mirror in Cumbrael, the southernmost fief. Rather than history, it’s a common faith that unites these fiefs, the Faith. The Faith is split into six Orders, scholars, healers, missionaries, soldiers, and so on. Our main character, Vaelin al Sorna, is a student of the Sixth—the military Order—when we meet him.

tower lord

The book follows Vaelin’s journey through training by the Sixth Order, from his arrival at the Order house to the conclusion of his doomed campaign against the neighbouring Alpiran Empire. Vaelin, as might be guessed, is no ordinary boy. Not only is he the only son of the Battle Lord, King Janus’s military commander, but he also holds and works a power of his own, the blood song.

I don’t want to jump into summarizing the second book, because well, it’s not fun to spoil tower-lord-coverthings for you. Suffice to say, it’s a great follow up, with plenty of action that capitalizes on Ryan’s quite obviously amazing world building skills.

I read both these books in a near haze of astonishment. It was just so thrilling to find a new series to sink into, where the writer has obviously thought his story and his world through and is trying to put a new spin on an old plotline, where one brooding, martially-gifted hero saves the world. I really liked Vaelin, who was both Aragorn-like (brooding, distant, weighted by his past and his power), but also refreshingly young at times, like in his interactions with his Order brothers, or his fumbling feelings for Sherin, a healer from the medical Fifth Order.

Despite their overwhelmingly martial nature (there’s a lot of fighting, and I mean a lot), the Raven’s Shadow books are not without their share of romance, intrigue and moral dilemma. The female characters, in particular, are amazing. I LOVED Princess Lyrna, second in line to the throne, daughter of King Janus, and a mastermind. Lyrna spoke to me not only because she loved books and had a formidable memory, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use it, to charm her admirers while at the same time holding them at bloodsong-main-map-detailedbay with her inimitable wit and power. Almost in direct opposition to her gifts, but no less wonderful, was Reva from Tower Lord, a conflicted, devout warrior who has been raised to complete just one mission. As might be expected, fulfillment of that mission is not everything she dreamt it would be, leading her character along a path few would imagine. And you know what’s best about her? Ryan writes her as lesbian, and injects her with very real, very ‘real world’, self doubt and fear about the same. But it’s never presented as the be-all and end-all of her character arc, something that might very easily have happened in a less capable writer’s hands.

I cannot recommend this series enough. Ryan’s world is richly realized, his characters very well drawn. Now and then he falters in my Okay test (he uses the word ‘rogered’!), but I think I can forgive him, given how much I enjoyed his books and how I’m looking forward to the next. Queen of Fire, you can’t come soon enough!

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale

Cinderella-disney-princess-11558572-400-300Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night wherecindy she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

cindy bubble

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.

Choosing sides: Cho Chang and the dilemma of friendship

parks-and-rec-bachelorette-square-w352Powerful female friendship is something that, increasingly, TV shows are getting the hang of depicting. Bonds between female characters are increasingly becoming the focus of various series, most notably in Girls, Parks and Recreation and even Orphan Black. Even the very testosterone-laden Mad Men has its share of female friendships, like the one that’s grown between Peggy and Joan.

Fantasy, though, seems to be lagging behind in this field. Perhaps its the overwhelmingly ‘male’ nature of the genre, where female character led books are outnumbered drastically by their male counterparts. Even Harry Potter, which has a good number of strong female characters, stumbles when it comes to depicting friendship between them. This may of course be due to the fact that the narrative usually follows herm and ginHarry’s view, and he’s hardly the most observant narrator. But Rowling does throw in a few tidbits about conversation between, say, Hermione and Ginny, or Molly and Tonks, to indicate the ‘girls’ do talk, but when they do, it seems to be mostly about men.

Here’s an example. When Harry breaks up with her, Ginny says that Hermione had told her to date other people earlier, to loosen up around Harry. So the one reported conversation we have between the two (apart from vague allusions to Ginny telling Hermione about how she would break into the boys’ broom cupboard at home) is about a boy. Tonks comes over to the Weasleys’, for ‘tea and sympathy’ about Remus. Romilda Vane asks Ginny about the rumoured tattoo on Harry’s chest. And Mrs. Weasley, Hermione and Ginny sit around giggling over a love potion in the dining room of the Leaky Cauldron in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Given all this, I somehow doubt the books would pass the famous Bechdel test.

But my point here is not to dissect the gender dynamics of the Potterverse. Or rather, it is, but I want to focus on the presentation of one character in this regard: Cho Chang.

cho wandCho is, funnily enough, the one character who really sticks up for a female friend over a boyfriend. When Marietta Edgecombe gets hauled up as the snitch, the one who ratted on Dumbledore’s Army, and Harry confronts Cho, Cho springs to her friend’s defence. She tries to explain what drove her friend’s actions, mentioning the fact that her mother works in the Ministry and that she was under pressure to protect her family, but Harry is unsympathetic. In fact, later he fumes that Cho should have had better sense than to be friends with the girl in the first place, and is incensed that she would even try to stick up for her.

And after that, things sort of unravel for the two of them.

cho and harry

I suppose you could put this outburst down to the fact that Harry is, at the end of it all, a fifteen year old boy, and not a very sensitive one at that. But given that loyalty and sticking by his friends is such an intrinsic trait for him, it’s surprising that he doesn’t appreciate it in Cho. But I guess that’s because, to his mind and that of most of his supporters, Cho’s friend has done an unforgivable thing, and she is compounding her own guilt by continuing to associate with her. From Harry’s point of view, Cho might be endorsing Marietta’s extremely problematic actions.

I think Rowling presents a very interesting dilemma here. Is Marietta’s selling out of the group similar to the way in which Pettigrew sold out Harry’s parents? I think Harry might see it that way, which is a little unfair because the bond between Marietta and the rest of the group is not halfway near as strong as that between the Marauders. Second, would choHarry really have respected Cho if she had turned her back on her friend, instead of defending her? Right then, Harry sees it as a simple choice: Cho has to choose between him and her friend. By defending Marietta, Cho declares that her support lies with her, and she doesn’t care how Harry feels.

One of the key indications we have of Harry maturing is his forgiveness of Snape at the end of the series. In Half Blood Prince, when he finds out that it was Snape who told Voldemort of the Prophecy, he is extremely angry, both at the professor and Dumbledore for continuing to shield him. But at the close, he has forgiven and understood Snape’s actions enough to actually name a son after him, and confess that Snape was ‘probably the bravest man’ he ever knew.  He’s learned enough to place actions in perspective, and possibly to forgive people for doing things he himself wouldn’t. He is able to feel sympathy for Draco when he has a viewing of Voldemort using him to torture others; he can coach Ron into destroying a Horcrux very soon after his return, not letting any of his anger for his abandonment touch him; he even, we are led to believe, helps to commute the Malfoys’ sentence, and lets them get away with paying fines rather than serving time in Azkaban. Harry stops reacting in a knee-jerk manner, being less of a Sirius and growing into a Lily by the end of the series. And it’s because of things like the encounters with Cho that we can really see and appreciate this change.

Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.

That-Was-Bloody-Brilliant-Ronald-Weasley-Gif

Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.

Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

univ of glasgowThe University of Glasgow has announced an M.Litt in Fantasy this year, and being the pseudo academic non pseudo fantasy lover that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I wrote to the program director, Professor Robert Maslen and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions on the course, the process of designing it and the place of fantasy in academia today.

I definitely think all those interested in studying the genre in a university setting should consider the program. For more details, check out the website.

Also it totally helps that the place looks like Hogwarts.

Photo on 2015-03-17 at 11.18

Professor Robert Maslen

Here, we hand the floor over to Professor Maslen.

1) What drove you to create this programme?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, so the programme could be described as the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught an undergraduate course in fantasy since about 2006 (it’s called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’, and it recruits so well that we have to cap it every year). I also supervise undergraduate dissertations on fantasy, and in recent years the number of fantasy-themed dissertations has increased beyond all precedent. A good proportion of my doctoral students, too, have worked in the field. All these developments convinced me that a Masters in Fantasy would attract students. And when I did some research and found out that there is no other such course in the world (though I would be happy to be disabused of this notion – there’s plenty of room for more!), I knew the moment had come to set one up. I should add that I’m tremendously lucky to work at a university that supports the idea of teaching fantasy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I know from experience how rare it is to get the chance to work on fantasy in higher education, and it’s to the eternal credit of the University of Glasgow that they didn’t consider the award of a ‘Masters in Fantasy’ too embarrassing and dismiss it out of hand.

2) In the description of the programme offered on the University website, you say that the course is divided into two parts, with Part 1 focusing on fantasy literature from 1750 [1780 actually!] to 1950. What made you choose this time frame and not earlier texts like Beowulf and Morte d’Arthur?

Good question, and I’m not sure how good an answer I can give! There are two, in fact. One is simply that I wanted to focus closely on the fantasy texts I love, and that these have tended to be from the period covered by the course. Embracing a longer period would have meant sacrificing the sort of close scrutiny I thought these texts warranted and have too rarely received. The other answer is to do with the definition of fantasy. Among other things I’m a scholar of early modern literature, and I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the notion that fantasy existed in the sixteenth century or before. This is because I tend to define fantasy as the literature of the impossible. What makes a story fantastic is the fact that the reader knows full well that a certain element or elements in the narrative could le mortenever have happened, and our willingness to embrace impossibility as an integral part of the reading experience is what makes the genre unique. What’s deemed to be impossible changes, of course, between one century or decade and the next, and I’m not sure what they would have said was ‘impossible’ in the sixteenth century. So fantasy for me begins with the Enlightenment: the point at which certain thinkers decided that certain things were definitely possible and others not. We break the course in half at 1950 because the 50s are the decade of three hugely influential fantasy sequences: the Narnia chronicles, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and of course The Lord of the Rings. After that decade everything changed, and we’ll have our work cut out in the second semester to squeeze in everything people want to read between 1950 and the present.

3) Will students have the opportunity to explore other, diverse sources and their impact on modern fiction? Such as myths and sagas from Scandinavia, Japan and the Middle East?

The main thrust of the core course is towards an exploration of literature and the arts rather than myth and folklore; and its focus is on English language fantasy. The reason is simple: we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to address the full range of myth and fantasy from around the world in the short time available to us there would be no time to do justice to the focal texts, that is, the fantasies we want to study. There will be plenty of opportunity, though, to study fantasy traditions arising from other cultures. You could choose to do an option in Literature and Theology, for instance, which would let you explore the relationship between myth and fantasy under the guidance of experts in global culture. And of course you could do in-depth work on fantasy in relation to Japanese or Icelandic – or indeed Czech or Indian – culture in your dissertation.

4) As an academic, do you think fantasy runs a very real danger of becoming dangerously reductive in its presentation of different communities?

I think all fiction courts this danger, and that it’s the responsibility of creative writers to work against cultural reductiveness and of academics to point it out wherever it occurs. A certain element of reductivism is inescapable in a university programme like the Masters in Fantasy, in that it’s impossible to represent the full range of fantasy traditions in different global communities, or even in different communities within the English-speaking world, in just two semesters. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t encourage our students to explore fantasy produced by some of the many communities we have not been able to cover – either in options or the dissertation.

aiel

5) Where does the line lie between children’s literature (a lot of which can be considered fantasy) and the more adult books we classify as ‘fantasy’ in the publishing world? What about books that straddle both those genres—such as the Harry Potter series or ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

There isn’t a line, I think, except the one you choose to draw as a writer, publisher, reader, or academic. Many books written to be read by children have ended up as favourites with adults (the Harry Potter series is a good example). And a lot of older children’s literature is now mainly read by adults: how many children these days read The Water Babies or Peter and Wendy? One thing that fascinates me, though, is the number of major fantasy works for adults that have their roots in books for children – which is one of the things I harryunderstand by your term ‘straddling’. Two obvious examples are The Lord of the Rings, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, and T H White’s The Once and Future King, whose first section is a revised version of his children’s novel The Sword in the Stone. Unlike any non-fantasy fiction I can think of (again, I’m happy to be corrected!), these two books or book series are formally and stylistically designed to take account of the maturing of the child into the adult reader; and both of them help to explain why many fantasy readers are so profoundly un-snooty about the line you speak of. What these works say to us is: the line between childhood and adulthood is one we’ve all crossed, if we are adults, though few of us can say exactly when; and the process of making this transition can and should be traced in fiction’s form as well as its content. For me, the text that first successfully blurred the line between adult and children’s fantasy – I mean to the extent that one can completely forget it was initially marketed as a book for children – was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I remember reading this as a 9- or 10-year-old and being profoundly shocked by its refusal to entertain any of the literary conventions I was familiar with – such as adopting the viewpoint of the young protagonist, or treating him unequivocally as a ‘hero’. There was a coldness, a detachment from Ged’s predicaments that unnerved me as much as it fascinated me, and my attempts to grapple with this difference marked a major step on my road to becoming a mature reader.

6) What do you consider essential reading for anyone interested in this programme?

George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, John Crowley’s Little, Big, and anything that matters to you personally. Part of the pleasure of fantasy is that all our lists will be different. Read the fat books before you arrive and you’ll enjoy them a great deal more than if you rush through them after your arrival; they deserve to be mulled over in the long evenings.

7) Given the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, do you think some of the traditional concepts of fantasy have changed, such as the clear cut definitions of good and evil that dominated earlier writers’ work? How do you think this will change perception of the genre?

Love me, love my evil.

Love me, love my evil.

Aren’t we rooting for Steerpike, in the Gormenghast books, even as we revile him? Where exactly does evil reside in Lud-in-the-Mist, or Little, Big, or even Phantastes? The big exception is The Lord of the Rings – along with the Narnia chronicles – which unequivocally pits good against evil in a battle to the death. One of the values of a programme like the Fantasy Masters is that it enables you to see how exceptional and surprising Tolkien and Lewis are in this emphasis, and how almost as soon as their impact began to be felt writers also began to problematize the good/evil dichotomy that was essential to their visions. This being said, I think A Game of Thrones, like all major recent phenomena in fantasy (I’m thinking of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy – if that’s fantasy – and the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), help to throw new light on the history of fantasy, altering our view of it, either subtly or radically, to the enrichment of the genre. Fans of The Game of Thrones may turn to the quasi-political fantasies of E. R. Eddison to find out where Martin sprang from; just as Potter fans helped restore to us the genius of Diana Wynne Jones, or Gaiman conjured out of the past Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his great inspirations. I love the fact that modern fantasy writers are so keen to proselytize about the authors they admire. All these writers are changing perceptions of the genre – have changed them, to the extent that it’s now respectable to have a Masters in Fantasy at a major British University, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime!

8) Do you think fantasy is not given its due weight in academic circles, still, or has the growth in audience (thanks to big budget films and runaway successes like Harry Potter) changed that?

It’s still not given its due weight. I have academic colleagues who will say to me that they never read fantasy: yet they teach the fantasies of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter on a regular basis. Their distaste for the genre is hardly surprising, given that the term ‘fantasy’ has always been used as an insult, a way of suggesting a childishly irresponsible tendency to turn away from the urgent danyproblems of ‘real life’ and seek comfort in dreams. At the same time, the big budget films and runaway successes show us how widely this tendency is shared among contemporary readers and viewers around the world, so it seems to me childishly irresponsible not to subject fantasy to the same level of intelligent scrutiny we apply to far less widespread cultural phenomena. People seem to feel the need for fantasy in the twenty-first century, which means we should feel the need to study it.

9) How do you think this course will benefit a long-time reader of fantasy?

Each time I write about a familiar text I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of why it made such an impact on me and its other readers. Each time I re-read a major fantasy novel to teach it afresh I discover something new and astonishing about it. Reading fantasy texts in the historical context of the genre’s development, discussing them in the light of the various theories that attempt to explain how the genre functions – these activities will radically change your views on fantasy, I guarantee it. You won’t read it in the same way again after taking this course. And in my experience, this means you will take more pleasure in it, not less: analysis enriches, it doesn’t diminish. The course will also introduce you to texts you don’t know, and that’s something to celebrate. The canon of fantasy hasn’t yet been fixed. What I prize won’t be the same as what you think important, and teachers and students in the programme will be constantly sharing ideas about the fiction, films, comics and computer games that matter to them. And each new fantasy text you discover will subtly change the map of the genre you’ve been drawing in your head. Surely that’s an adventure any long-term reader of fantasy couldn’t resist!

10) And finally—what’s your favourite fantasy book and what are you reading now?

My favourite fantasy book changes as often as my favourite food. When I was seven, The Hobbit was the most important. When I was thirteen it was The Lord of the Rings; at wizardtwenty I might have said The Book of the New Sun. But the works of Ursula Le Guin are probably the ones that have meant most to me, most consistently, across the years since I started reading. So I’ll pick the six-volume Earthsea sequence as if it were a single book, and say it’s my favourite.

I’ve been reading Patricia McKillip in recent weeks. I loved in particular The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Alphabet of Thorn. I’ve re-read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for a class and been blown away again by its complexity. And I’ve also just finished the third novel in James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, of which I’m a big admirer, and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these helped to confirm my view that we’re living in the most ambitious epoch of fantasy writing – both for adults and children – and that fantasy readers should be happy to be alive in the twenty-first century.