Monday, November 30, 2015

Dissatisfaction with the History of Fantasy

I've perused several histories of the fantasy genre recently, and I find myself dissatisfied. I can't quite put my finger on the cause yet, other than overwhelming vagueness and considerable hand waving leaves my academic heart wanting. Isn't there anything harder-core out there?

For myself, I can identify a number of movements within fantasy history. (I can't call them eras because nobody dominated most eras. I call them movements because multiple movements existed in parallel.)

The Tolkienesque movement began with Tolkien and continued forward. He espoused a full world with its own history. Yes, this world was supposed to precede ours, but you forgot about that pretty quickly.

Beginning with An Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice ignited the modern vampire movement. This area got red hot in the 90's, leading to the urban fantasy of today.

The D&D movement began with kids playing D&D, and TSR publishing novels in the D&D milieu. Wizards of the Coast has slowed down in recent years, only issuing 4-6 novels per year, but in their heydey, they were a publishing powerhouse. I suppose that all gaming fantasy follows from this. (In my quick research on this, one of the best resources on WotC/TSR is the research I did back in the mid-200's. Go figure! And my work had been ripped off at least once. Yeah, baby!)

I don't know how to trace back urban fantasy. By the time of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movement was fully formed. That movement continues to this day with a fierce following.

Then there's the punk. Cyberpunk held supreme in the late 80's to early 90's. Steampunk traces it roots back to the 70's, but as a movement, didn't really get going until the 2000's. Other punks exist as well.

Female-oriented fantasies have exploded big-time in the indie channels. These combine romance, erotica, and the fantastic. For example, a woman meets a werewolf and joins a werewolf pack, along with all the interpersonal drama that comes with it.

Tie-in fiction got real big in the 80s. For example, we only need to look to the vast number of Star Wars novels out there.

I don't think that horror is fantasy, but some folks do. That means that you can't make a history of fantasy without Steven King. He's too big to skip. Likewise, JK Rowling rocked the fantasy world with Harry Potter. I think that you could write an entire book just on trends in young adult fantasy.

Then there's video and how that drives the genres, and the genre drives video. Most recently, we have the rise of the superhero film. In previous years, we had Conan the Barbarian, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy, and the great Lord of the Rings revival.

What was hot in what year, and what wasn't? How long were these movements hot before they faded? I wish that I had sales numbers.

I don't know when the fantasy industry imploded or collapsed, rewriting its rules. When were the major commercial crisis? What big hits shifted strategy? What about the modern indie publishing movements? If you're going to give me some history, then give me some history. The documentation is out there, somebody just has to do the work. I don't feel competent enough to write the article myself, so I won't just yet.

A Crown of Silver Stars

I am proud to announce A Crown of Silver Stars. This is the third book of the Wind and Wave series. I feel proud of the work that I produced.

Targa thought herself forever blessed with exile, but when her sainted mother summons her back home, she dare not disobey. Mother has ambitions to rule Astrea itself, with Targa as her puppet on the throne. If they succeed, she will be damned to a lifetime of rulership subservience. Targa’s only hope resides in the goodwill of her greatest enemy.

 Early next year will be The Phoenix and the Swan, wrapping up the series.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Last Enchantment (1979)

The Last Enchantment (1979), by Mary Stewart, wraps up the Merlin trilogy. (It doesn't really, because she wrote more books, but I'll violently throw any temptation to read them out of my own head.) This book covers the foundation of Arthur's kingdom and his early reign in much the same way that a history teacher covers an era that he doesn't like but feels obligated to survey in detail.

If you've liked Mary Stewart so far, well congratulations, you're getting more of what you like. If you don't like Mary Stewart, you're either a masochist or an idiot. I'm both. However, I do admit that I cheated and skimmed most of the work. Even so, I found it overly long and dull.

If found that this book presented the least compelling story so far. To me, it seemed more like a survey of several important movements of Arthur's reign with no coherent through line to turn it into a coherent narrative. Stuff happens. It happens here. It happens there. It just happens, then characters talk about it a whole lot.

I can and will say just how pleased I am to be done this wordy behemoth. Good riddance. I hope to give the book away.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hollow Hills (1973)

In The Hollow Hills (1973), Mary Stewart continues her feast of too many words. In this book, we have a novella length story padded out to gothic proportions. Merlin takes charge of the newly born Arthur and shepherds him towards adulthood.

When it comes to book, I'm the type to read every word. Not so with this book. Having learned my lesson from The Crystal Cave, I chose to skim, skipping paragraphs, pages, and even entire unnecessary chapters, finishing the book with far less pain and suffering than the first one. This is a book almost entirely of fluff, like a marshmallow put into a microwave until it's the size of a plate, and about as filling.

Don't mistake me for calling Mary Stewart a bad writer. She's a very good and competent one, but for needing a editor with the blood lust of Genghis Khan, hacking down this novel to a far more readable length with great prejudice.

This book misses too much for me. Every character is lacking, especially our protagonist, Merlin. I dare say that none of the characters go through any meaningful human arc. Likewise, I think that none of the themes go through any meaningful arc. Even Arthur doesn't have a meaningful arc, other than he grows up offstage, and so his development is entirely removed from the readers eyes. Rather than any meaningful story, we wander through a faux plot, much like a haunted house ride on rails, where horrors seem to come at us, but the rails always swerve us away from the terror just in time, and we quickly learn that we were never in any danger to begin with. The ride is predestined, just as the book was.

I guess that we were supposed to see all the complex machinations that went on behind the scenes to keep Arthur safe, but those machinations prove unengaging. To be honest, I just don't see the motivation in him. His reason for doing this? A vision. Is it political belief? No, but a little bit. Is it family unity? A little, but not really. Is it religious belief? A little, but not enough to make a difference. No, Merlin's actions originate entirely outside him, in a vision, about something or another. There will be a King, and Arthur will be king, and the king he will be, and he'll be a great king. I suppose that the future of the country is at stake, but I really don't care.

Not caring is the big thing. How can we spend so many words and so much time with these characters, yet care so little by the end?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Crystal Cave (1970)

To paraphrase 2001: A Space Odyssey, "My God, it's full of words."

Mary Stewart's beginning of her Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave (1970), is most certainly full of words. The book follows the early life of Merlin, advisor to Arthur, while also chronicling Britain before Arthur, putting the world of Britain into its proper historical perspective.

It's this historical verisimilitude which plays havoc with Arthurian Legend. The original Arthurian tales were invented and remixed in the Middle Ages, invoking a legendary past with all the historical accuracy of Xena: Warrior Princess. The Arthurian legends were never supposed to be accurate stories. They were a story cycle as outlandish as Xena, filled with colorful characters and wicked warlords who needed to get taught a lesson.

This prequel of a book shares all the problems of the Star War prequels, telling us a story that doesn't matter with an end that doesn't really interest in us. Although this story gives us the world that Arthur was born into, it fails to give us the reason that Arthur needed to get born in the first place. Arthur and Camelot existed as a force of goodness and light against a world of selfishness and self-interest. Although we do see some selfishness and self-interest people, we are left with the impression that anyone strong enough can and will take the throne. What need to we have of Arthur?

Merlin himself comes off as something of a wet paper bag. He gets visions, but he really isn't a wizard at all. His legend comes from the superstition of others. He bounces from vision to vision, but really seems to have no opinion on these visions at all, and seems to vie for nothing. Rarely can we predict what this character will do, mostly because he doesn't do very much, and what he does do, prophesy, he doesn't control. He often comes across as far too pat.

As for Uther Pendragon, you'd think he'd be a major character, one who everyone agrees was a pretty terrific king, but instead, he's just this guy who can't keep it in his pants. Is he the last great king whose legacy means a united England? I don't think so.

So as you've rightly concluded, I think very little of this books. It's quite well written, but all those pretty words cover over the fact that its foundation are meagre. I am left pondering what the point of this story is.

The ancient storytellers had it right. The story begins with Uther's affair with Ygraine, then quickly moves to Arthur. The rest doesn't matter because it doesn't really add anything to the narrative arc.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Dispossessed (1975)

Ursula LeGuin released The Dispossessed:An Ambiguous Utopia in 1975 to acclaim, winning a Hugo, Nebula, Locust, and Jupiter award for best novel. One of the novels in her Hainish science fiction universe, the work examines both communism and capitalism, against a backdrop of humanity and all the ways that it naturally works. The result is that neither communism nor capitalism come out of the story smelling of roses.

The story structure is that of one man's life, Shivek, told from two different points in time, switching back and forth. The first part are all the years that Shivek lives on Arras (a communist society). Interleaved with this is the tale of Shivek on Urras (a capitalist society). As the tale moves back and forth, you are given insights into the characters.

This is not a light tale, fully immersing itself into literary style science fiction. Many will start, and many simply won't finish it. You must lend yourself to this story, and even reaching the end, the story may not have lent itself to you. It leaves you with as many questions and ambiguities, and nothing in the way of answers.

I cannot deny that the book is brilliantly written and executed, but I also cannot deny that the book often feels dull and dense, like too much to eat, all of it heavy. To read this novel is a choice, not an obligation. It should not go onto your must read list, but it should go onto your challenge list, and you should have a challenge list for exactly such books.

Completing the novel felt something of a relief, like opening the curtains, letting the world seem bright again.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

52 SFF Books Free

On 3 November 2015, 52 Science Fiction and Fantasy books that are first in series are all FREE! See here to check them out: