The Shape of Water

You know that feeling when you’ve been submerged in another world for two hours, and when you surface, everything seems less appealing, more mundane?

I’d assume that most people who read books, or watch movies, or undergo other intensive, immersive experiences offered by art are fairly familiar with it. I’d also assume that, given how much practice we’ve had in dealing with it, we’d be better at the surfacing by now. That the rush up for air is less a headlong, pressure-induced splurge than a measured, calm rise air and the ‘real world’. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still fairly horrible at handling it, yet another way in which I disappoint myself as a human being.

My latest immersive experience (all the puns intended) was with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve been waiting to see this movie for months; it seemed totally up my alley, based on promos. Happy to report that unlike with some other movie experiences this year (sigh, Spiderman Homecoming) my excitement was not misplaced.

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The Shape of Water is a gorgeous fairytale, and I use that term with all the literary weight it carries. At its heart, it is just that—the story of a princess ‘without a voice’ who finds her prince, and must overcome hurdles, some institutional, some personal. The means she uses range from the strangely mundane (towels) to beautifully fantastical (no spoilers). She receives help from her misfit friends, and faces danger from the powers that be. She is very much the hero of our story, the damsel and the saviour both.

Both del Toro and numerous reviewers have been going on about how revolutionary Shape is, the biggest reason being the fact that instead of the conventional, handsome prince, it’s the monster, an ‘amphibian man’, who gets the girl. In an interview, del Toro speaks about how watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon inspired him, how one brief shot of the heroine swimming in the water, the monster lurking beneath, made him hope that they would ‘end up together’. Shape is his fulfillment of that wish, and it’s a beautiful fulfillment yes, but I’m not sure the ‘monster gets the girl’ trope is all that revolutionary by now. Vampire and werewolf love stories have been dominating the big and small screens for years, some darker and less sparkly than others. The moment they decided to make Dracula sexy instead of horrifying, the monsters won.

the shape of water

What I found most ‘revolutionary’ about the movie wasn’t the monster, but the princess herself. It’s a cliche now to say that fairy tales are not exactly the best places to see a woman use her agency. Many princesses are confined to towers, to sleep away centuries, or pay the price for the errors of others. When they do make decisions, it tends to go very badly, and resulted in entire kingdoms being swallowed by thorns, or having to marry warty, demanding frogs. There’s little they do besides look beautiful (without any effort, because no woman in a fairytale has ever had to wax or get her upper lip and eyebrows done) and wait for reward in the form of a handsome prince. Sometimes that prince is a corpse-kissing wanderer in the woods, and at others he’s a book-loving softie hiding behind a fierce facade. Whatever the case, he’s the hero, despite the women being, ostensibly, the centre of the story.

How does Shape rewrite this? Not only is our princess Eliza (Sally Hawkins) riddled with might be seen as ‘defects’ in a traditional fairytale (she is a mute cleaning lady), but those very limitations are what give her power. Her relative invisibility (as the ‘help’, and a not especially glamorous woman) allow her to slip, unnoticed, into places she might not otherwise be allowed to enter; her ‘difference’ is what foregrounds her desire to befriend and rescue the stranger (Doug Jones, encased but not unexpressive in a rubber suit) trapped in a tank. ‘He sees me,’ she signs to her neighbour, seeking to explain his importance to her. The ‘monster’ does not see her flaws; he accepts her entirely for who she is, and having been alone all her life, Eliza feels nothing but compassion, fascination, and eventually, love for this being who has no peer that she can see, or imagine.

To watch Shape is to drown, for what might be a disappointingly short time, in a world that’s markedly similar to ours. There are evil security officials (a great and convincingly horrible Michael Shannon), warmhearted, caring friends (Octavia Spencer, playing to type), Cold War politics all drenched in del Toro’s fantastical colours. There is homage to the sweeping Hollywood epics of the past—both the historical fare that plays in the largely-abandoned theatre below Eliza’s apartment, and the black and white musicals that fuel her romantic daydreams. It’s worth pointing out how art—in this case, music and movies—is what really connects the monster and the maiden, and puts them on the path to communication. Del Toro’s movie is both an homage to that art, as well as a seductive object itself. It reels you in, and submerges you, and when you emerge, the world above seems a little colder, a little less magical, than the depths you’ve left behind.

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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.

Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

Aragorn_in_Forest

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

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There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

The Paper Menagerie

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I loved Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I found it a highly enjoyable read, by turns comic, sweeping, epic, tragic, but always with that element of wonder that makes fantasy the incredible genre that it is, taking you outside reality but also giving you a new, sometimes literally more magical vantage point from which to view the world and your place within it. I greatly admired Liu’s light, deft way with words, that spun this complex, engaging world into existence, and am looking forward to coming back to Dara and its denizens, later this year.

Paper-Menagerie-his-rezWith his new book, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu shows that he is capable of vast range. Sure, in some of the stories you see the comic master who orchestrated coups and wondrous escapes in Dara, in others you see a thoughtful, poignant writer, who asks tough questions and leaves you with no certain answers. Many of these stories, such the one that gives the collection its title, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, have been published, read and loved before, and this book brings them together, to give it what Liu calls ‘the flavour of a retrospective’, a brief look at his career as a short story writer. Indeed, the idea of memory, and memory as a source of conflict and confluence in communication, seems a running theme in many of these narratives, most powerfully in the last story of the collection, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’.

Though many stories are indeed stitched around the common theme of memory, recording, and how we retell stories, what I can say about Liu’s work is this: it is remarkably wide ranging. From the space-opera-like ‘The Waves’ to  ‘All the Flavors’, the magical-realist novella set in early twentieth century Idaho, Liu presents a vast range of readerly experiences. The stories slip between science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, Liu confesses at the start that he doesn’t ‘pay much attention’ to the distinction between the two genres. He builds worlds that contain elements of both: for instance, in ‘Good Hunting’ (a story that reminded me inexplicably of Gaiman’s work) a young demon hunter meets a hulijing, a spirit who tests his ideas of good and bad. As the world changes around them, he adapts to it with the help of science, learning new principles of engineering and physics, while others, most notably his father, struggle to find a new place in this world without mystery, seemingly without magic. What results is a beautiful blend of the best elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction, the author moving us seamlessly between all three.

What I really like about Liu’s work is the seeming effortlessness of his writing, of being able to introduce a whole new section of readers to worlds and mythologies that have remained ‘outside’ the Western canon for a long time. ‘I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a minority in my work,’ Liu told me in an interview, and that filters through. Rather than explaining painstakingly any references to a non-Western/non-white culture, or consciously building himself up to a ‘representative’ of anything, Liu works these elements into his stories and allows readers to either learn more about them from the context, or look them up online in they’re really interested. For me personally, this is an extremely welcome and emulation-worthy style. Coming from a culture (or cultures, I should say) that is not as well-known to readers of epic fantasy as say, medieval England, it’s sometimes hard to know when to draw the line between fantasising and exoticising. Liu never makes that mistake. When he narrates martial exploits of soldiers from the many now-Chinese kingdoms, or even talks of the encounters between East and West, whether in the gold-springs of the Midwest or the paddy fields of US-held Taiwan, Liu never seems to consciously present one side as more or less ‘real’ or ‘normal’ than the other. ‘…the individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he had said in the same interview, and he bears that out in his writing. His characters, whether they hail to pasts far distant, or futures beyond our imagining, are all composites of multiple cultures, influences, tastes.

The stories in this volume moved me, none more so than the last, ‘The Man Who Ended History’. I feel it is an especially important story for the time we live in, the sort of conflicts over ‘ownership’, nation and culture that rage around us. Again, perhaps because of where I come from, where these questions have gained even more immediacy, I felt drawn to this story more than any other in his collection. Liu uses the structure of a transcribed documentary to tell the story of a man who, with the help of his physicist wife, builds a time machine, that takes people back to the past, literally, and allows them to observe it for themselves. The period he selects is a controversial, horrifying one in Manchu, China during the Second World War. The conflicts the testimonials give rise to, and the old wounds they dredge up, bring the two countries, China and Japan, and belatedly the US, to the brink of another battle, and I can honestly say that the story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the past, who it can be said to belong to, if anyone at all.

To sum up, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a brilliant read. Savour it, sink into Liu’s words, and allow yourself to be carried away by a master storyteller. He is definitely one of my favourite fantasy authors working today, and inspires me as few others do.

The Potter Christmas

Hogwarts_Christmas_tour_2013

Merry Christmas, world! Today, I thought I’d take a tour through the Potter Christmases, and focus on my favourite one. Thanks to the school-year structure of the books, Rowling as ample time to explore the various wizarding holiday traditions, and Christmas often receives special treatment in her books. It forms a kind of turning point, functioning as a halfway-mark for the adventures of Harry and company. You’ll notice that no matter how crazy the rest of the world, or their own lives, Christmas provides at least a few moments of calm and reflection for our favourite wizards, and Rowling often uses it to underscore the series’ themes of family, love and dealing with loss.

I love her Christmas chapters, some more than others. For instance, Order of the Phoenix’s is, in my opinion, undeniably the happiest, with Harry seated amongst the loving Weasley family, Hermione, Ron and Sirius at his side. It seems to be,really, the series’ peak moment, a bittersweet one, in retrospect, that shows us what could have been Harry’s life, had the school year not ended the way it did.

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But my favourite Potter Christmas by far is Harry’s first one in Hogwarts, when he sees his parents for the first time.

When Harry wakes on Christmas morning, he is surprised by the pile of presents at the foot of his bed. The Dursleys, after all, had never made his Christmases particularly wonderful. Not only do all his new friends give him gifts, but he also receives a key plot device that makes his adventuring a little bit easier: the Invisibility Cloak. Being a good little hero, Harry puts it into service right away, and lands up in front of the Mirror of Erised, where he sees his family waving back at him.

This moment is exceptionally beautiful, delivered as it is in Rowling’s trademark simple prose.

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The Potters smiles and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

Rowling ties back to this first Christmas in the seventh, and final ‘canon’ Christmas, when Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows. Apart from actually seeing the home he inhabited so briefly with his parents, Harry’s connection to Voldemort enables him to relive his final evening in the cottage, watching as his father plays with him, and his mother scoops him up to carry him to bed. Again, the parallels between Voldemort and Harry are underlined by this full circling: where Harry stands before the mirror, aching to join his parents but unable to, Voldemort too stands outside, watching as the family carries on with their everyday lives, so close to destruction, and yet so far from him, experiencing things he will never himself understand.

Similarly, Rowling closes the circle begun in Philosopher’s Stone by having Harry’s parents appear before him and speak to him, no longer just images waving from a mirror. Lily’s words to him, ‘We never left,’ are a beautiful allusion to the distance that Harry felt, in Book 1, and how that distance never really existed at all. It’s evident that, at the close, Harry has realized the truth of Sirius’s words to him in Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘The ones we love never truly leave us.’

Harry’s first wizarding Christmas is, I would argue, the most pivotal one in the series. Not only is his traipse through the castle his first solo adventure (it’s the first time he ventures out without Ron at his side), but the Mirror also provides his first real test. Harry has a choice, as Dumbledore reminds him. He can spend days before the Mirror, wasting away, or he can take the glimpse of his parents it has offered him, and use it as an anchor in the testing times to come. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,’ Dumbledore tells him. The eleven-year-old Harry takes this to heart, I assume, because the next time he stands before the Mirror, it isn’t impossible dreams that haunt him, but a single-minded desire to do the right thing, a trait that he carries forward hereon out.

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Crafting a World: Interview with Anthony Ryan

I’ve raved about it often enough that readers would know how much I enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ series. The trilogy is focused on the fate of the Unified Realm, a land where the ‘Faith’, a religious order, works in close tandem with the ruling family to maintain order and unity in the kingdom. When the lead character, Vaelin, finds out that the Faith may not be all that he’s been taught it was, things go spectacularly awry.

It’s a wonderful series, and brilliantly written, and a must read for fantasy fans everywhere. I was thrilled when Ryan agreed to answer some of my more technical questions, and give readers a peek into what went into the crafting of his very detailed, absorbing world.

1)A fairly traditional question first! Who were your biggest fantasy mentors, growing up?
eddingsFantasy really began for me with The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. In time I graduated to Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings. Later in life I discovered Robin Hobb, George RR Martin and David Gemmell, all of whom have been a big influence on my work.

2) How did the idea of the Raven’s Shadow series come about?

I don’t recall a single point of origin for the story, but I do remember it coming together in a nascent form sometime in the early 2000s. I’d conceived an early version of Vaelin as a character and had a vague idea about the course of his life and the world he lived in, but it didn’t start to gel until I realized he was part of a militant religious order. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory and notions of religious conflict were also at the forefront of my mind, which probably had an influence on shaping the story. However, the biggest influence came from my reading of history.

3) You moved from self publishing to the more traditional route—how was the change for you?

It was a big decision to make. Blood Song was selling very well as a self-published book at the time and there was no guarantee that it would see the same level of success if I took a traditional deal. However, after weighing up the pros and cons I decided the series would only reach the widest possible audience if it had a major publisher behind it. Luckily, the series as a whole has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies in the US and UK, so I’ve yet to have any regrets.

4) The action of your series takes place in a well connected yet incredibly diverse world. Some of the empires you described—the Far West, for example, or the Unified Realm—seem to have echoes of our ‘real world’. Was it a conscious decision to model them thus?

The great thing about fantasy is that you can borrow from the real world and you don’t have to be completely accurate in how you depict it. I’m quite happy to mix and match as the story requires. The Unified Realm shares many similarities with late-medieval / early
16_Great_Wall_China_153096805-1680x1050Renaissance Europe, but neither is it a carbon copy. Ancient China is an obvious inspiration for the Far West and pre-imperial Rome provided a lot of material for the Volarian Empire, but then so did Nazi Germany.

5) The Faith, and faith in general, is very important to the series. It is a much more recognizable pillar of your world than it is in fantasy series, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, though they too deal with the questions raised by belief in a higher power. Would you like to comment on this?

Religion, or some form of ritual observance, has always been part of human culture and a huge influence on the course of history. I took the view that, if this world was populated by humans, then religion would be a big deal there too. Dealing with notions of Faith, which is something everybody experiences differently, also provides great scope for drama and plot development. I wanted to explore Vaelin’s changing attitude to his faith as his tower lord
preconceptions are continually challenged by contradictory experience. However, I was keen to avoid any lazy allegories about faith versus secularism. I think to think such things are presented as being just as messy and unresolvable in my pretend world as they are in the real one.

6) Did you have a favourite character while writing the books?

It has to be Vaelin, he’s my first born after all and I’ve been with him the longest. I did develop a great fondness for the other principal characters as well, though.

7) Was there any one particular storyline that you found difficult to write, for whatever reason?

Lyrna’s journey was pretty difficult to get right, especially in the third book. She’s probably the least sympathetic of the main POV characters, but then she also has the toughest job and I put her through some terrible experiences. The biggest challenge came in capturing her vulnerability whilst also doing justice to what a formidable human being she can be.

8) You take some bold decisions in your books, and choose, often, not to follow certain conventions or pander to expectations. Was this also a conscious decision, at any level?

I just don’t want to be boring. If I’ve seen it before I try to avoid writing it and there’s a certain joy in confounding expectations. Formula is often comforting and, when done well, can be rewarding, but I’m always looking for the next surprise.

9) How did you go about building your amazingly detailed world?

I did some pre-writing before beginning Blood Song, but not a great deal. Because I’d been thinking about it for a long time, large parts of the world were already in my head waiting to come out. But I’d guess about two-thirds of the history and geography was invented during the course of writing.

10) And finally, what excites you about working in fantasy today?

I guess what excites me most in the fact that I get to make a living writing in a genre I love. I often wonder about writing a novel set in the real world and worry I’d find it too constraining. Fantasy offers complete freedom bound only by the author’s imagination. I’m also fortunate to be writing at a time when the genre is really taking off, thanks in no small part to the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series.

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.

Meant to Be


destiny_2012_by_saulone-d4xg42vProphecy 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 interest 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.

satan-and-the-stars-large
To 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.