The Ghost Bride

There is a girl. She is beautiful and smart, though she doesn’t know about the former and has never had occasion to really test the latter. She is quiet and minds her own business, though she has a ‘powerful curiosity’ about the world, and has ‘always’ wanted to explore. She lives with her father, a rich man whose fortunes have gone to seed, and her once lavish home is haunted by the absence of her beautiful mother, whom she herself can barely remember.

There is a man. Wait, there are actually three men, one of whom is not, strictly speaking, a man at all. These men are all interested in the girl, for varying reasons. One of them is a handsome, hardworking heir to an immense fortune, and marriage to him will resolve the girl’s family’s debts. The second is a mysterious, sardonic ‘minor government official’, who intends to use the girl as a pawn in some dangerous investigation he is conducting. The third is a not-so-handsome, spoilt, one-time heir to an immense fortune, who wants to marry the girl as well. The problem is, this last man is dead.

ghostbridefinalrevYangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride has all the elements of what has increasingly become a mainstream genre: the paranormal romance. Only, it’s set in colonial Malacca, Malaya in the 1800s, and the heroine, Li Lan, wants nothing to do with her paranormal suitor, the ghost of rich boy, Lim Tian Ching, the scion of the rich Lim family. The Lim family wants Li Lan to marry their deceased son for reasons that are, at first, unknown, and while she shudders at the idea of tying herself to a dead man who haunts her dreams, she is much less unwilling to anchor herself to his handsome cousin, Lim Tian Bai, a handsome Hong-Kong-returned doctor, who now oversees the business empire that would have been Tian Ching’s, had he not died under mysterious circumstances.

But when Tian Ching’s attentions make sleep near impossible, and Li Lan’s life gets clouded over with exhaustion and misery, and the heavy knowledge of her father’s debts to the Lim family, she seeks the help of a medium. One thing leads to another and she finds herself trapped in the hazy world of the Chinese afterlife, unable to rejoin her body thanks to the demonic guards Tian Ching has posted about her house. The only ‘man’ who can help her seems to be Er Lang, a mysterious figure who wears a large bamboo hat, unwilling to show his face, but more than willing to lead Li Lan on a dangerous quest that throws up answers to questions she didn’t even know she had.

The Ghost Bride is a lovely book, taking its readers (like me) who know nothing of Chinese mythology and legends into a world that is breathtaking in its detail and realization. The story is engaging, if not revolutionary, and the characters well etched, if a tad stereotypical. For instance, Li Lan, the heroine, falls into that trap that so many YA women find themselves in: she is beautiful, but doesn’t know it. She is smart, but we never really see why even though it’s hammered into us time and again by the author’s description. She reminded me a great deal of Maya from Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen, both being motherless, ‘bookish’ in ways that their fellow upper class girls are not, and touched by a vague breath of scandal. Like Maya, Li Lan finds herself on the wrong side of death, seeking to right a wrong she didn’t intend to make. Unlike Maya, however, she has an ally in the figure of Er Lang, who conveniently appears to rescue her when the stakes are high.

The problem with so much YA is that it is so formulaic. There is nothing utterly new about this book, apart from the setting and the care with which it is detailed. The world of the Chinese afterlife is quite wonderfully evoked, and readers can see the ghostly lights trawling the streets of Malacca, the ox headed demons who police the resident spirits, feel the terror of those who cling to this semblance of life rather than go on to the courts and be judged before passing through to reincarnation. Choo’s strength lies in her worldbuilding, and it was chiefly this that kept me hooked. I wanted to know more about the Malacca she had built, both the world of the living, and that of the dead. Her characters are types rather than something original, and the placement of the tiles that constitute the plot rather laboured and formulaic, if not, at times, overly long drawn out, but journeying into the world itself—that’s worth the journey.

The Star Touched Queen

One of the hardest things about writing epic fantasy is knowing when to stop.

Stop with the worldbuilding. Stop with the background plotting and the side quests. Stop adding new characters and giving them fascinating powers or stories that derail from the ‘main’ quest, and end up padding your book till its the size of a respectable brick and can, conceivably, be used for the same purposes—if you don’t mind your house getting a little soggy during the rain.

One of the ways to avoid that is to take the seemingly less ambitious ‘narrated fairytale’ route. You still have the magic, the mystery and the life altering quest, but if the setting is less clearly realized, its politics and history not so defined, it is alright. What you focus on, in this case, seems to be the voice of the person doing the telling, with all that entails: emotion, beauty, and more often than not, a greater attention to the how of the telling, than the what.

REVISED-Star-touched-Queen-coverIt’s for this reason that I would place Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen in the realm of the fairytale, a cosmic romance narrated by the clever, wilful Mayavati (or ‘Maya’, as she’s more commonly known). ‘Partnered with Death’, Maya has always been shunned when not outright bullied by her half sisters and the ladies of the king of Bharata’s harem. Her only friend is her little sister, Gauri, to whom she tells nightly tales of her own spinning. Maya has a talent for riddles and for listening in on the courtly happenings, but she doesn’t have what the harem ladies prize: great beauty, a respected mother, or a good horoscope.

But things seem to turn around when, during a particularly action-packed swayamvara, Maya is taken away to the magical land of Akaran by her new husband, the mysterious Amar. In her new palace, Maya meets Gupta, Amar’s extremely meticulous assistant, and wanders in myriad rooms, each of which seems to have a unique treasure hiding behind its door. There is a courtyard which houses a glass garden, a room whose floor is the ocean, and perhaps most mysteriously, a tree whose fruits are candles, which enclose within them shards of someone’s memory. Most importantly, in Amar and his new queen’s throne room resides a humongous tapestry, each of whose threads represents one life, and it is the task of the rulers of Akaran to tend it and thereby maintain the balance of the worlds.

Of course, every mysterious palace has its troubled prince, and every troubled prince has a hidden story, whose telling, or lack thereof, causes complications. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that though Amar promises his ‘jaani’ that he will tell all when the moon turns, she loses patience and, enamoured by the words of a mysterious woman in a mirror, takes matters into her own hands, with tragic results.

But just as a fairytale can’t exist without someone going off the path and courting trouble, they can’t come to an end without the protagonist overcoming his or her problems, at least to some extent. Maya really comes into her own in the second half of the book, when she has to cross worlds and face down enemies mythical and human in her quest to win back the love and memory of Amar, the Dharma Raja.

The strength of The Star Touched Queen is its writing. Each sentence is soaked in metaphor, offering surprising images that tie together disparate elements, and yet somehow managing to paint to a picture in the reader’s mind. Whether she’s describing the marigold-garlanded halls of Bharata’s palace, or the ice-sharp flowers of the Akaran glass garden, the scent of thunder wreathed around a mystical elephant’s tusks or the bloodlust of a demonic horse, Chokshi’s pen dances through words and worlds, drawing a reader gasping after it. I can forgive elements that seemed strange, unexplained (such as Maya’s shadow, which sometimes goes missing, or the rather jumbled politics of Bharata and its neighbours) simply because of the beauty of her prose. It’s evident that this story and Maya’s voice comes from someone who has dedicated love and effort to crafting every sentence that speaks of it, and Chokshi has the talent to do this mythical, mystical world justice and more.

Finally, what does this novel mean to me, a reader from India, watching as many of the tales she grew up with took on life in a new form? I’ve long felt that one of the hardest things for an Indian writer seeking to write fantasy is obtaining distance from the mythological beings and elements that  we might desire to use in our own work. ‘Suspension of belief’, I called it here. Chokshi has solved that problem by, as I said, positioning her work not as an epic fantasy set in a world that is completely her own, but retreating to the hazy realm that exists between fairy tale and myth, where certain things can be left unexplained, such as the structure of the kingdom, the geography—what prevails is the magic and the character’s adventure through it all. Maya is part of something cosmic and huge, which is greater than the nittygritty of any one kingdom. Her story, and Amar’s, occupies the space of myth, larger than the relatively much more human concerns of an epic fantasy. In her mistake lies the potential for imbalance between the worlds, and the death of Death itself. I’d say that’s a bigger deal than who gets to sit the Iron Throne.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely. It’s beautifully written, and the story is compelling. Maya is a lovely narrator, and her tale the stuff grand love stories are made of. Not to forget, Gupta is a pretty entertaining character. I’d love to read his treatises on the discourses of molluscs some day.

Drilling down to success: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

As a successful pop culture critic and writer, Charlie Jane Anders is a woman I am much in awe of. The co-founder and long-time editor of popular website io9 (the best place to find ‘geek’ news on the internet), Anders is no stranger to fiction writing either, publishing loads of short stories, and winning a Hugo for her novellete, Six Months, Three Days. The latter is being adapted for TV by NBC. She also organises ‘Writers with Drinks’, a monthly event where writers of different genres come together to read from their work, 

Last year, she released her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. She’s recently quit her post at io9 in order to focus on writing her second novel. Here, I speak to her about All the Birds, where she sees the genre of fantasy going, and balancing critical and creative writing.

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1) Cliched question first! How did you come up with the main storyline? Was it something you mulled over for a long time?

This was definitely something that took a LONG time to come together. I started out with the idea of “witch and mad scientist,” and it was super vague. I originally thought of it as just an excuse to smush together a bunch of genre tropes and play with lots and lots of story ideas from science fiction and fantasy, from Harry Potter to Star Trek. In the end, though, the book wound up not having a lot of commentary on tropes — instead I got obsessed with the relationship between the two main characters. I stopped thinking of “mad scientist” and “witch” as representatives of different genres, and started thinking of them more as different worldviews that it was interesting to juxtapose.

2) How much of the environmentalist streak in the book (that I personally loved) is a personal philosophy? Is Patricia and the witches’ fears of a teetering world something that you find yourself thinking about?

The environmentalism in the book came from a couple different things. First off, I feel really strongly that if you’re going to write about a near-future world, you have to deal with the effects of climate change and extinctions (or else come up with some explanation for how we solved them somehow.) Because ecological problems are in our future, pretty much for certain, according to scientists, and you can’t speculate about the future without taking them into account. And secondly, I started to think of the “mad scientist and witch” storyline as being about technology and nature — and thinking about the environment seemed to be one good way of talking about the impact of technology on nature, and the ways that the two things go together. But I was also super, super careful to keep it ambiguous as to whether we actually were teetering on the edge of some kind of apocalypse. Various people in the book believe this to be true, but there are also people think we’re just going through a rough adjustment, and we’ll come out the other end. The fears of some kind of apocalypse had to feel plausible enough to drive people to take some extreme action, but I don’t think you ever know for sure how bad things will get, or how quickly, in real life. So it didn’t feel realistic for us to know for sure if the environment (or civilization) was actually going to collapse.

3) The narrative of the book grows up quite dramatically, from the 6-year-old Patricia’s perspective to the 20-somethings who finally exit its pages. How hard was it to put yourself in those differing mindsets? Was it something you had to work on a lot?

I love writing about kids, and I love writing about adults. The hard part was probably making these characters feel like the same people at different ages. I felt like it was really important to show them growing up and still dealing with the same questions they struggled with as kids. But it was a really ambitious thing to take on, and it meant really getting to know these characters, so I could build in lots of little things that made them feel like they were still the same people, without being super blatant or anything. It was super tricky, and took a TON of concentration in rewrites.

4) Patricia gets called down a lot for “Aggrandizement.” Was this a sort of inside joke on the “hero complex” that so many fantasy heroes (and not a few fantasy fans) have, and its lack of relevance in the “real world”? What was the thought behind it?

I hadn’t thought about the idea that the “Aggrandizement” taboo was a rebuke to the “Chosen One” motif in fantasy, but that actually makes a lot of sense! In fact, though, I was thinking more in terms of basic worldbuilding — like, whenever you have a group of magicians who have incredible powers, I always wonder why they don’t take over the world. Or at least wield major power. So when I was trying to come up with a magical world that made sense, and had some real weight and history to it, I needed to come up with something that keeps these magicians from just crushing everyone. So the prohibition on Aggrandizement was a good way to put some checks and balances into place. Plus, it kind of plays into Patricia’s whole thematic and character arc in a lot of different ways.

GeekLove5) What were some of the books that influenced you?

There were so many — lately, I’ve been talking a lot about Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which was a strange, beautiful, unnerving book that redefined my sense of what is possible in books. So I was incredibly upset to find out that Dunn just died, and we never got to see her next novel. Just for that one book, she will always be one of my writing heroes.

6) I really liked Theodolphus Rose! Any chance we’ll be seeing more of him and his School any time soon?

Oh yay, thanks! I don’t have any plans to revisit Theodolphus. I did post some “deleted scenes” featuring him on my Tumblr, which give a little bit more context to his troubled career as a school guidance counselor. I am working on one short story that ties in with this novel, but Theodolphus isn’t in it, unfortunately.

 7) Is there any particular kind of fantasy/world that you want to see more of in the mainstream?

I have been saying for years that portal fantasies (like Narnia) are due for a comeback. And I’ve definitely seen some cool examples of the portal fantasy come out in book form lately. I just feel like there’s so much goodness to be gotten from the story of someone from NarniaWardrobe“our” world who journeys to a fantasy world and gets swept up in the strangeness and glamor of it all. I love that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and the meeting of cultures, etc. etc.

8) You’ve written short stories, novellas, and now a novel—plus your work will soon be a TV series. Has it been hard to shift between different forms?

I really love switching back and forth between short fiction and novels. I think you actually get a lot of benefit from doing both, because it keeps you in good shape. It’s like doing different sorts of exercise. Short fiction gives you a lot more practice writing beginnings and endings, and also making a logical world full of believable people in a hurry. But then novels involve writing a whole lot more middle, and force you to develop your world a lot more. I love doing both. I am terrified of actually writing for television though, because then I would have to discover just how ridiculous my dialogue is when spoken by actors.

9) How much do you think about other media while writing? For instance, did you ever consciously structure your work, keeping in mind TV episode formats?

I don’t really think about how anybody might try to adapt my work for the screen — that would just drive me nuts. What I do think about, though, is some other random television/movie stuff. Like sometimes when I am working on a story, I try to think about what “sets” I need to build, and which three or four sets most of the action is going to take place in. And then I obsess about what makes those three or four locations memorable and buffyinteresting — like how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they have the high school library, the Bronze, and a couple other locations where a lot of the action takes place. Thinking about it this way helps me keep from just creating a ton of bland locations, because in fiction there are no budgetary constraints on how many “sets” you can build. Also, I’ve watched TV in the past and thought about the way that a lot of TV episodes structure their scenes, and how they pack a lot of drama and information into a few minutes. That’s interesting to pay attention to.

10) And finally, a question that has a lot of relevance to me—was it difficult to shift from being a critic/editor of books to writing one yourself? Do you ever find the two roles influencing each other?

I was doing a lot of criticism and entertainment writing even before I started working at io9, but definitely the io9 gig made me worry that I was going to be so stuck in the mode of snarking about other people’s creations, I wouldn’t be able to turn that off when it came to creating my own stuff. But in fact, I found that working on io9 just gave me so much more excitement for writing and creating — maybe because getting to geek out about what worked and what didn’t work in other stories made me have to think about storytelling in a new way, and that really had a huge impact on my creative process. I ended up feeling like I got paid to go to grad school and learn about science fiction. I still love to drill down into stories and figure out how they succeed and fail, and I think that’s a super useful exercise for writers to engage in.

Thank you, Charlie Jane, and I look forward to your next book! Everyone else, do pick up All the Birds in the Sky. I promise you it’s more than worth it. 

Uprooted

red forestThe words ‘once upon a time’ have always held a note of unparalleled promise for me. Call it the product of colonial baggage, of new-age Disney imperialism, or what you will, but there is no beginning for a story that sounds as portentous, as magical, as downright compelling as those four words. I’ve even let my fondness for them carry me through five seasons of ABC’s less than stellar show of the same name, though you could dismiss that as the result of said Disney imperialist baggage instead of any sense of fairy tale fidelity.

From this rather rambling paragraph, one might surmise that I love the phrase, and the fairy tales it usually prefaces. I also love fairy tale reworkings, my favourite collection being Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. This sort of stuff is hot right now, as Frozen, Tangled and other such female-power centric tales would testify, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted falls into its adultified (therefore, slightly more true-to-‘original’) genre.

A book built using elements of Polish folklore and fairytales, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a seemingly simple village girl, and her drive to protect her friend, Kasia. The vally in which Agnieszka’s village is situated also harbours the corrupt and dangerous Wood, a place where, like the classic forest in many fairytales, something sinister resides, from whence issue monsters and nightmares. Those who venture into the Wood, or are taken into it, seldom return, and when they do, they are changed horrifically by some malignant power deep in its heart.

The valley is watched over by a wizard only known to the villagers as ‘the Dragon’, a distant, forbidding figure who seldom intrudes into their lives, except at the time of the Choosing. Every ten years, the Dragon selects one girl around the age of 17, whom he takes into his tower for ten years. What he does with them, the villagers aren’t sure, but after they emerge, they never stay at home, moving out of the valley and into the wider world. Agnieszka dreads the ‘taking’, not because she thinks she will become the dragon’s new ‘girl’, but she fears sundering from her closest friend, Kasia, who is ‘special’ and therefore, expected to be taken into the mysterious tower. Her world is turned grimly upside down when instead of Kasia, she is chosen and taken to the Dragon’s tower. Agnieszka must put her time in the Dragon’s tower to use when later, Kasia is taken into the Wood, forcing her to venture under its eerie boughs.

uprooted-naomi-novik-book-review-ya-fantasyIn a book that spins the familiar tropes of Beauty and the Beast, placing them amid the grim darkness of a forest, Novik weaves a totally unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable tale. There are proud princes, kidnapped queens, unsettling foes, fantasy monsters and stuffy wizards galore. There are also plucky village girls and surprisingly softhearted abductors—for all his pretensions otherwise, that is exactly what the ‘Dragon’ is regarded as in the villages—and of course, at its heart, a story of friendship. Agnieszka’s motives in the book, at least at the start, are largely driven by concern for Kasia, and there seems to be little she won’t do in order to save her friend.

The language of the book is simple, compelling, so much like a fairytale in one of those large, gilded collections of The Brothers Grimm. Novik’s world is painted with large brushstrokes, but her words manage to evoke detailed pictures in the mind of the reader. She refuses to lose herself in the lacework and flowery descriptions that dog many other fantasy writers, sticking to the simple, steady voice of the narrator. Like Agniezska herself, the girl’s voice (which guides readers through the book) is forthright, blunt more often than not, making no pretence at something she is not. For instance, here, in a few simple sentences, Novik conjures up for us the sheer menace of the Wood:

But there was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here….something alive, and I was trapped in an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

For people who enjoy fairytales and the sense of wonder they evoke, like fantasy that rips apart expectation and convention, or just want a good story to while away the summer hours, Uprooted is the book for you. There’s something so refreshing about a book that doesn’t follow the epic hero quest formula, and instead, takes you back to the randomness of the fairy story, where literally anything can happen, where atmosphere means everything, and where the good old peasant girl gets turned into a princess in a tower, and instead of languishing for a prince, uses her guts and her guile to do what she thinks is right.

All the Birds in the Sky

The end of the world—such a cliched backdrop for a fantasy novel, wouldn’t you say? Most of them have world ending (or at least civilisation ending) stakes. And speculative fiction, Atwood style, uses the end of the world as a given; it’s what you do afterwards that counts, and forms the meat of the story.

all the birdsCharlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky is a blend of two things: on the one hand, it’s a fantasy, about growing up different, weathering the alienating world of high school and its mainstream cliches, and finding a place when you’re older, a place that happens to have magic and/or incredibly advanced science and, perhaps best of all, people who appreciate those things. On the other, it’s a love story set in a teetering world, like Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy, where ecological disasters are on the horizon, and no one can do anything to stop them. Except maybe they can. Except they really can’t. Except…well, we don’t know.

It’s not a surprise that the co founder and editor of io9, one of the leading SFF/geek culture sites on the internet, should spin out a novel that deftly blends genres, traditions and continually defies expectations. All the Birds follows two characters: Patricia and Laurence, a witch and a scientist respectively, from their days of stumbling around in childhood, through a beleaguered friendship in middle school, and then the tests and trials of adulthood, where they find themselves on opposing sides in a race to save humanity from its self-created destruction. The binaries in the novel seem fairly simple: the witches, Patricia’s people, are ‘for’ Nature, while the scientists are willing to wreck what’s left of it in order to privilege and thus save human civilization. The witches cannot stand idly by while human ego dooms all other living creatures, and thus begins a face-off between two sets of powerful cabals. Laurence and Patricia will find their feelings and friendship tested, in the grand tradition of many, many love stories.

I’ll admit, it took me a while to really get ‘into’ the book. This is because Anders’s writing in the early chapters seems more redolent of a children’s book than a sweeping SFF saga—but this is a deliberate effect. Like the Potter books, Anders sought to make her narrative tone ‘grow’ with her characters, with the result that the first few chapters use simple language, and sentences are almost painfully blunt in terms of descriptive effect. The first Potter book followed an 11 year old; the first chapter of All the Birds follows a six year old—you can imagine the tonal difference between the two. But don’t let that seeming ‘immaturity’ throw you off, or let you assume that this is a book for ‘kids’. It proves, after a point, that it is very definitely not for younger readers.

My favourite part of the book was the closest it has to a ‘villain’—Theodolphus Rose. A trained assassin from a ‘Nameless’ school, the bits about him were almost Snicket-like, absurd and comic and in that wonderful territory between children’s and adult fiction. I felt like it was here, talking about his exercises, his strange messages from fellow ‘assassins’ that Anders really let herself have fun, and it shows. Honestly, I wish there had been more about him, or more writing that showed this hilarious side. Anders has a talent for it, and I hope she harnesses it more often.

Should you read it? Yes, because it’s just so refreshingly different, and yet familiar. Like I said, it uses some of the typical tropes of speculative fiction, and fantasy, but blends them in a manner I haven’t seen much of before. It is quite beautiful in parts, and also addresses the very millennial angst of growing up believing yourself to be special, and not having anything to do with that belief later in life. In fact, people are constantly pulling Patricia down as a matter of duty, telling her that ‘Aggrandizement,’ the idea that she is personally responsible for saving anyone, let alone the world, is a dangerous one, and can only lead to terrible things. This seems to be a theme in what I call ‘secret world fantasy’, like The Magicians, the problems that come with balancing the ‘real world’ and its adult mundanity with beliefs in ‘specialness’ or ‘Chosenness’ that are inherent to fantasy. Anders doesn’t dwell on it exhaustively the way Grossman does, but deftly pulls it like a running stitch through her embroidery of her characters, and leaves you thinking about it all the same.

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It’s not easy to be me.

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Everyone knows about the Arabian Nights, right? Those stories spun by a captive Princess, who postponed death by entertaining her sociopathic husband with tales of genies and rogues, magic and pioneering sailors? They’re right up there among the literary treasures of the world, and plenty of people have plundered them and created compelling entertainment. My favourite example is Disney’s Aladdin, which offered a highly sanitised version of the original, and while indulging in (now) problematic exoticisation of the ‘East’,  brought about many people’s sexual awakening.

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Given the status of these stories, and the ‘mystical’ flavour of the Middle East in general, it is a little odd that not much fantasy set in this realm has made it into the mainstream. Sure, there’s been plenty of movies that exploit these settings, but full-length fantasy novels (in English and published by American/British houses)? Not so much.

throneSaladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon rights that. Set in Dhamsawaat, the capital of the Caliphate of Abassen (one of the three Crescent Moon kingdoms), the book follows the struggle of Adoulla Makhslood, ageing ghul-hunter, and his friends to (you guessed it) save the world from doom and destruction at the hands of a bloodthirsty, power hungry megalomaniac. This is complicated by the fact that none of those in power believe him, and in fact, seem to do everything they can to hinder the team’s efforts.

The appeal of the book, for me, lay chiefly in the portrayal of Dhamsawaat. Ahmed captures both the complexity of a large city—its varying cultures, the worlds within worlds, the sheer diversity of people and classes that make it up—as well as the differing relationships people have to it. This is where most of the action takes place, and each of the characters in Adoulla’s group has a specific view of the city. For Zamia, the Badawi tribeswoman from the desert, it is an unknown land, a site of strange smells and peoples. For Raseed bas Raseed, Dervish and holy warrior, it is a site of temptation from his chosen path. And importantly, for Adoulla, it is home: a place at once loved and detested, filled with people he has dedicated his life to protecting, often receiving little to no recognition for his sacrifices. But as Adoulla keeps reminding himself ‘He who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life,’ and that has not happened to him quite yet.

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I don’t recall reading a fantasy book—a high fantasy book, I should specifiy—that placed the city front and centre in quite the way that Ahmed’s does. Not all the characters are ‘natives’ of this place: in fact, only Adoulla can claim to have grown up in Dhamsawaat. Circumstances have brought the others here, and though they may not relate to the place in the same manner that the ghul hunter does, not see it as ‘home’ (with all the layers of meaning and emotion that word evokes), they feel some form of obligation, if not connection, to its winding streets and put-upon residents. Indeed, one of the main conflicts that Litaz, an alkhemist from the Soo Republic (one of the other Crescent Moon kingdoms) seems to face is when to leave the ‘damned city’, and go home. Being a woman with her heart and priorities in the right place, she chooses to postpone it till the saving-the-world has been attended to.

Ahmed has built an engaging, multihued world, filled with characters who face down inner demons as threatening as the ones they meet in real life. The dialogue can, at times, become stilted and rather strangely Tolkien (excessive formality in fantasy will do that to you), but the narrative as a whole is fast paced and pelts the reader on from encounter to encounter, introducing characters with a sort of breathless energy and hurtling towards a bloodsoaked, sword and sorcery conclusion. This is the first of a trilogy according to the blurb, and Ahmed does leave tantalising openings for the next book. So come on down, stop on by, there are no carpets that fly, but step into the Dhamsawaati night.

Quick words with Ken Liu

As 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-FIRE-HI-RES-4There’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 alliesbloodsong map
and 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


The 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 emperorempire 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 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.

The Magician’s Land


Cover.TheMagiciansLandAll fantasy series come to an end. Cataclysmic, complicated or clownish, eventually the writer tires of playing with the world she’s created and decides to retire gracefully while the going’s still good. Or while the heroes are still young and relatively good looking. No one wants to spend time casting an 80-year old Harry Potter after all, even though audiences would probably still go to the Imax to watch that movie.

Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ trilogy came to end last year, but thanks to my habit of being chronically late to many parties, I just about watched it fold its covers and retire to a hallowed space on my shelf. It didn’t compel me as much as The Magician King did (oh Julia, you were just something else), but true to Grossman’s form, The Magician’s Land did leave me with a lot to think about, something I always appreciate in a fantasy book.

I’ve said it before, and I think I will continue to say it for years to come: Lev Grossman is a writer who can take the fantasy conventions you’ve taken for granted all your life and turn them upside down. Even in this book, which, in many ways, has the most staid premise of them all, he manages to surprise.

Quentin has been expelled from Fillory, the magical land he once ruled over with his magician friends. Unable, or unwilling, to sink back into the slough of despair that had ruled his return the last time (in The Magicians), Quentin sets himself a new project, and along the way, falls into a number of crazy adventures that unite him with friends old and new, as well as make him some unexpected enemies.

(It is hard to write a book review of a book in a series, I realize. You really can’t give much away at all.)

The Magician’s Land harps on many of the same themes that riddle Grossman’s previous books. What do you do when you have unlimited power and no villain to destroy? What use is idealism and nobility, all the things that the fantasy books teach you, in this ‘wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long’? How does all that reading and learning really help you handle this ‘heartless wasteland’?

I am, of course, looking at ‘magic’ as Grossman’s metaphor for higher education, or the sort of crazy idealism that many fantasy readers secretly harbour deep beneath their most cynical surfaces. Quentin, the fanboy, reflects on the lack of ‘obvious’ use/meaning of magic in a world devoid of monsters and dark lords and other obvious personifications of Evil:

‘What do you think magic is for?…I used to think about this a lot. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say “hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.”

‘But in real life that guys never turns up He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it out all by yourself….There’s no answers in the back of the book.’

Quentin is older, more sure of himself in this book, and the burden of being a lost lamb is taken up by a new entrant: Plum. A comfortingly Hermione-like character, Plum is the smart, driven girl who seems to be a fixed type in Grossman’s universe. She steps into the competent friend/caregiver/supporter role vacated by Alice, and disdained by the distant and rather inhuman Julia. The absolute lack of romantic affiliation between Quentin and her probably adds to her appeal, and also makes her the perfect Hermione foil to Quentin’s brooding and distant Harry.

The book provides a good close to a great trilogy, and definitely leaves you wanting more. Will Grossman indulge us with more Fillory books? Will he continue to follow the adventures of Quentin and his friends, or let them walk away into the horizon, triumphant for now? Probably the latter. There’s only so many times you can pose and answer the same questions, until the originality wears off. I wonder, though, how well this very cerebral series will translate when it goes onto TV screens. Not going to lie, I’m a little apprehensive about that.

But screw it, I’ll definitely watch the show anyway.