Tag Archives: Abercrombie

Good v Evil

To prepare for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention, Damien Walter recently penned an article on modern Fantasy in which he noted that the genre has changed since Tolkien was writing (nearly 60 years ago).

While exploring this utterly unremarkable idea Walter managed to make a few comments which  momentarily swept across the plains of social media, being widely condemned. I suspect some of that criticism was born of a defensive reflex ingrained into sci-fi/fantasy readers since high school and reinforced by those who continue to dismiss or demean genre fiction.  In other cases the criticism seemed to me to be a genuine misreading, or misunderstanding, of Walter’s point. I suspect he sees his article as being a largely sympathetic treatment of Fantasy and its audience. This is not how it was received, I think for two reasons.

1. The changing nature of the battle(s) between good and evil.

Walter says “It would be very easy to assume those books are just generic copies of The Lord of the Rings, cashing in on the apparently endless thirst for Tolkienesque fantasy…” and though he goes on to suggest that there is more to the genre now than such an assumption would allow, the damage is done.
Why is that the ‘easy’ assumption to make?
Do we assume of any other genre that it is merely reproducing the works of a seminal author half-a-century after that author’s success?
Do we assume modern Sci-Fi is just repeated re-workings of Asimov? That modern crime is merely derivative copies of Agatha Christie?

For Walter to make that assumption so easily, or even to acknowledge that others will, reinforces the negative perception of Fantasy that so many modern Fantasy writers have worked so hard to change. This attitude recurs in the following paragraph, where in celebrating Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and Gemmell, Walter says that their “remarkable novels… belie their origins in pulp fiction.” Here then is that condescending arrogance that ruffles the feathers of so many readers who are sick of being told that their preferred reading is somehow lesser, that Fantasy is (ironically) ‘unremarkable’.

Referring then to the successful authors of modern Fantasy (Abercrombie, Lawrence, Brent Weeks) he uses that lazy and ill-defined pejorative Grimdark. I have discussed the term before, as have others more qualified to comment than myself.

Walter claims that “while it claims greater moral complexity, grimdark fantasy frequently offers a disappointingly one-dimensional portrayal of the battle between good and evil, where evil usually wins because it is the only game in town.”
Nonsense.

What Walter fails to recognise is that the characters and worlds of Abercrombie and Lawrence (I haven’t read Weeks, yet) are far from mono-dimensional. Even to make that suggestion calls into doubt his knowledge of the authors he has named.
He then goes on to misdiagnose how the treatment of concepts of good and evil has changed.

Tolkien had a simple view of good and evil. A good race, or rather an alliance of good (white) races…

 have to defend their homes from an encroaching menace: the evil (dark) races.

By this world-view the enemy is utterly defeated when the leader is defeated. The battle between good and evil is fought between an army of each, with battle lines drawn, to the death. This is perhaps a view to be expected from a man who had experienced trench warfare; who had returned from the hell of chemical weapons to the bucolic surrounds of English pastoralism; who had seen all the power of industry turned to the destructive effort of war, and thus rejected industry as being itself destructive.

How could we, the modern readers, share this view? We are now more than a decade into the War on Terror. We have witnessed the fall of Sadaam, the killing of Bin Laden, Gaddafi murdered in a ditch by revolutionaries. We have seen Egypt fall and rise and fall again. Seen tyrants overthrown and replaced by corruption or chaos, have seen the empires of democracy spying on their own citizens. I cannot see a world in which good gathers its (white) people to its cause to defeat the encroaching evil (black) people. But that doesn’t mean that good and evil no longer battle.

Modern Fantasy does not show a world where evil is the ‘only game in town’. It shows a world in which the battle between good and evil takes place not between people, but within. Each character has good and evil within them, and each must allow that battle to be fought. In some evil wins, but not in all. Interestingly, the protagonists are seen by others as evil, perhaps even acknowledge that evil in themselves, but wish they could be better. The characters we hope to see succeed, Logan, Glokta, Shy, and yes even Jorg and Monza, (and why not throw Jaime Lannister in for good measure?) believe themselves to bad, but hope that they can be better. (For Jorg that hope comes late, and slow, and even as it comes he resists it – because he’s not one to be pushed – but it is there).

Sometimes these characters don’t achieve ‘goodness’; sometimes they are trapped by circumstance or history or any number of other forces, just as some good characters are corrupted, unable to maintain their goodness in the face of circumstance.
I want Glokta to succeed because I want for him the same thing he wants for himself, it’s just that he has given up on achieving it, while I hold hope. I want Logen to find peace because I want to believe that men can redeem themselves of past misdeeds, especially when those misdeeds weren’t entirely voluntary. I want Jorg to be a better person, because he’s not a very good person.
This isn’t to say that the battle between good and evil doesn’t take place. Many such battles are taking place, fought by independent splinter cells and sleeper agents, the battle-lines ill-defined and constantly shifting.

Which brings us to…

2. Fantasy is not just for boys.

It’s frustrating that this even needs to be said, but for Walter the success of evil he believes defines Modern Fantasy “says more about the psyche of the young male readers and writers who dominate grimdark fantasy than anything else.”

This is just so wrong-headed that I can’t even bring myself to invest much energy in the debate.
On Goodreads, the 5 star reviews for ‘The Blade Itself‘ include reviews from Maria, Kat, Inara, Annie, Faye, Sara and many other female readers. Likewise for ‘Prince of Thorns‘ we find Amanda, Rose, Natalie, Georgia, in the top dozen or so.
I could go on, but really – why bother.
As to only young men writing Modern Fantasy…
Ursula LeGuin, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Marion Ziommer Bradley, Janny Wurts, Anne McCaffery… of course JK Rowling. These authors aren’t mentioned as Grimdark, but I wonder if that’s because of how subjectively applied is the label. I do know that from my own experience in Australia I have met many talented women writing Fantasy and Spec-Fic. I struggle to believe that they are the exception.

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Craft v Platform

There is a tension in some, it would appear, between two apparently opposing forces: the practice of one’s craft, and the building of one’s platform.

I’ve discussed this before, but really, I have never thought of this – what I’m doing here – as ‘platform’. The concept that blogging, maintaining a site, setting up a page, being active on twitter, attending cons… that all of that could be merely some effort to ensnare potential readers, that always struck me as slightly nefarious. Dishonest at worst, a mistake of priorities at best.

I always figured on doing all those things because I like doing them. I like here tapping away and throwing my words out into the churning void of bandwidth and opinion that is the internet. I liked going to Genrecon and meeting a community of people who shared my passions, or gave me new insights into passions related but different, or even new insights into my own. I like interacting with people on Twitter, on Facebook, wherever else it might be. So I hadn’t really felt the tension between these things and the craft of writing, other than the obvious mismanagement of time that could occur.

But Jane Friedman’s post on Writer Unboxed got me thinking about this tension anew last month, and as a result I went away from the website here, I left neglected my Facebook Page, I went away from Twitter… ok. That last one’s not true. Twitter is a difficult thing to shake. I did though take a more passive role on twitter, allowing those I follow to guide me to links and such, but not tweeting (much).

What then has been gained from this month of social media ‘sabbatical’? What gained from a month devoted to craft rather than the building of ‘profile’?

  • I finished writing my draft of Old Man Madigan. It comes in at 10,000 words and I’m wondering now whether I submit it to a market which may be prepared to serialise it, or whether I go in hard with the editing shears and cut.
  • I started expanding some ideas for other short stories, tentatively entitled: Pareidolia, Watchers, Melange. They run a gamut of weird urban/psychological, scif-fi futurism, alt world Fantasy.
  • I wrote a draft of ‘The Witch Way’, a Fantasy short story  at 5,000 words and in need of an edit.
  • I completed a draft of ‘Leaving the Farm’ which had been kicking around in my head and on my computer for years, never really having much structure or purpose. It’s 2150 words and not really genre fiction at all to be honest, straight up Lit Fic with a rural bent.
  • I did a heck of a lot of reading: Chuck Wendig’s Bad Blood, Shotgun Gravy, Bait Dog, Blackbirds, and Mockingbird; Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country; Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (and currently reading King). Reviews to come.
  • And I sent out a query email for Exile, in the hope that an agent may be interested.

An agent was, and requested chapters, and so I’ve sent them now. I’m cautious and nervous and excited and apprehensive and uncertain and hopeful and worried and blasé… all at once or vacillating between the states. In one sense it’s not a step I haven’t reached (and stumbled upon) before, but I feel it’s progress. The last time an agent requested chapters it was on the basis of a face-to-face meeting, not so in this case. The agent currently considering my submission asked to see more based solely on the few paragraphs into which I distilled my novel. So that’s a good thing, to know that the query email worked, to know that I can pique the interest.

All in all a productive month, especially as I look back on it now. So what’s in store for this month? I hope to edit those two stories that are complete drafts, and to send them out. I have a list of markets to which I can submit (thanks Peter M Ball and  Alan Baxter) and I intend to put that list to use… and of course to check my emails obsessively, in the hope of good news.


Grimdark

So I’ve basically played the role of a vaguely interested observer in all this, but something Joe Abercrombie tweeted today – a piece by Daniel Abraham in Clarkesworld – has finally motivated to reach into my proverbial pockets and draw out two-cents, which I now humbly submit to the debate.

As Abraham notes the moniker “Grimdark”  is taken from Warhammer 40,000 (affectionately known as 40k). I played the game as a young fella. I had my armies (Eldar predominantly, but I did put a bit of an Orc Horde together and was compiling some Imperial Guard when I gave it all away. The miniatures  including some incredibly carefully and poorly painted Banshees and Scorpions, were sadly lost in a house-fire) and would spend long afternoons plotting the fractional movements required for victory or poring over a codex seeking some tactical advantage. I didn’t get too much into the surrounding mythology of the 40k universe, but it grew exponentially whilst I played and subsequently. I am aware now that entire novel series are devoted to the expanded universe, in much the same way you’ll find with Star Wars and Dragonlance and such.

I am familiar with the line from which “Grimdark” apparently comes: In the grim darkness of the future there is only war.

Two of my favourite modern Fantasy authors (Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan) have been labelled as writing Grimdark, as well as Mark Lawrence,  an author highly recommended to me and near the top of my to-read list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to have embraced it with his twitter handle), but more on that latter.

Mark Lawrence’s response basically summed up my own, but seeing as we’ve made it this far, let’s unpack it a bit.

Genre is a fraught concept. At its best it’s a useful framework for understanding tropes and narrative archetypes, at its worst it’s a cage, a ghetto, a straight-jacket. Mieville’s reference to Tolkein as the “Big Oedipal Daddy” of Fantasy is perhaps a starting point in identifying how the Fantasy genre came to be seen both from within, and from without. Fantasy was escapism for nerds. It was largely derivative to its progenitor (and “Author of the Century” no less) and it operated within variations of his British agrarian idyll being threatened by malevolent forces.

Arguably this continued until recently, arguably very recently, arguably it continues still. Many would point (as Abraham does) to Thomas Covenant, and fair enough. Others would point to George RR Martin, whose Game of Thrones was published in 1996 and featured many of the traits now assigned to Grimdark: the amorality, the incest, the rape (so much rape, so casually put to the page), the murders, the attempted (and successful) infanticides, regicide, ultimately (spoiler alert of sorts) the death of the apparent protagonist before the end of the first book.

But Grimdark seems a more modern label than either of these. Perhaps it is the HBO effect and GRRM’s ever-growing fanbase, but even that is older than Grimdark, being in place for two years at least. And so the finger is pointed at Abercrombie (whose First Law books were published in 06,07 and 08), Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire 2011, 2012…), and Richard K Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes 08, 10…).

Morgan is particularly interesting, because it’s his Fantasy books that see him labelled as Grimdark, but his previous series (published between 2002 and 2005 and focussed on Takeshi Kovacs) wears a label of sci-fi/noir. As Morgan himself points out it is the elements of Noir that he brings to Fantasy which are most likely what is used to label his work Grimdark. The Kovacs novels have been credited with reviving Cyberpunk (the genre spawned, or at least identified, by William Gibson‘s Neuromancer) by grafting “the Gibsonian subgenre” back onto pulp fiction, and I think particularly in this Noir Pulp. It’s a link Abraham makes as well in his Clarkesworld piece, though by Abraham’s distinction I personally see Kovacs as more Hard-boiled than Noir. Kovacs does make moral decisions that go against his self-interest, the difference perhaps is that Morgan makes his protagonist pay the cost of those decisions. Kovacs gets no free pass for having done, or having tried to do, the “right thing”.

Likewise with Abercrombie’s flawed “heroes”.  Logen Ninefingers has a past he wants to escape, but can’t. In much the same way as Morgan’s protagonist Ringil Eskiath (who shares a name with a Tolkeinian sword), Ninefingers isn’t given the freedom to just put aside the consequences of his past acts. He wants to be a better person, but it’s not going to be easy to change, and will be harder still to convince others of the change. Shivers suffers even more-so. The change in the Northman is pronounced, from when we first meet him during the final stages of the First Law, through his Styrian experience and his final, decisive, blow in The Heroes. It is not a change for the better. And yet it is a change we, as readers, can understand, perhaps even sympathise with. Is it enough to mean well, even if your actions bring ill consequences? Can we redeem our wrongs by good acts? Would I not too struggle to maintain the finer parts of myself if I had suffered as he suffered? I think these are essential questions for readers of this sub-genre, whatever we decide it should be called. I think these are essential questions for readers of all literature. Especially that last one.

Is it not this question that we ask ourself as Casablanca ends? Would I send the woman I love away, on a plane with another man? Would I risk something of myself for others, even if there was little hope of personal gain and a genuine risk of personal suffering?
When Harry Lime, atop the ferris-wheel in The Third Man, asks how much money it would be worth for one of those specks to simply stop moving, are we not being asked how much we value human life, being challenged to explain that value, or at least to respond in some way to a character who values it little at all?

Certainly in gritty stories, in amoral characters – or just overly pragmatic ones – we are challenged. I enjoy as a reader that I am. I enjoy as a writer exploring those questions and developing ways in which I can use characters to provide different perspectives on these questions and others like them.

The problem then with Grimdark is that it is used so often pejoratively, and often by those who are seeking to define what they dislike about a certain type of story. Abraham sub-titles his piece “Literatures of Despair” – a phrase he explains, but which I don’t accept. Morgan’s response dialogue is telling. The complaints (of the straw man) become ones of taste and of subjectivity. Some blood, but not too much. Some danger posed to the protagonist, but don’t kill him. Some hint of the enemy being evil, but no rapes or torture. A little military-based murder is ok, but no gore please.

I think allowing anyone – even a readership – to define a genre in such a way, to set up boundaries and borders in which writers should (or must operate), is a stultifying influence. Even more so if those arbitrary borders are then policed by self-appointed guardians, wielding indignation and harking back to a supposed Glorious Age.

If Grimdark is Noir come to the Fantasy worlds then it is no new thing. Indeed it’s taken a generation or two to move from the mainstream into Fantasy. In 1991 Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars:  Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture. The cinema-going audience were ready for a story in which the secondary character, an advisor to the FBI (and thus in some way on the side of the ‘good guys’ even if reluctantly) was a cannibal serial-killer. Lector’s escape was celebrated, anticipated not as a defeat of the ‘good’ but as a victory for a character with whom the audience had become fascinated.

On television we watch Dexter, the serial-killer with a ‘Dark Passenger’ and a mission, and hope he doesn’t get caught. We admire Omar Little, a man we have witnessed murder and steal. We hope that Walter White can keep cooking and distributing crystal-meth, because doing so doesn’t make him a bad guy… not exactly… kind of… I don’t know. And that’s the point. These characters are fascinating and exciting and wonderful precisely because I can’t answer that question.

Is it any wonder the audience of modern Fantasy is ready for similar characters? Is it not a good thing that I started questioning why I should still be barracking for Monza to get her revenge, that I should question whether the world wouldn’t be better off if the ‘bad guy’ had’ve just killed her off in chapter one? I want characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who do things I would never do, who suffer in ways I hope never to suffer. If it serves the story, put those guys through the wringer. Carve them up, piece-by-piece, and let’s examine what’s left at the core of them.

All of that’s fine. All of that means that I – now only two chapters into Red Country – honestly don’t know if I want Shy South to catch up to the bandits who took her brothers or not… and surely that uncertainty, that hesitancy, surely that’s a powerful narrative force.


Another milestone

Well, thanks to all of you who have visited my site I have just pushed past the 2,500 views (in the 11 months or so since I started the venture). That’s averaging over 200 views a month!

So to mark the occasion I give you some of the more unusual Google searches by which people have found their way to me:

The gayness of Joe Abercrombie, or his characters, seems to lead down my path. Several people used variants on this theme, including:
“joe abercrombie the heroes gay characters”, “joe abercrombie gay characters” and “joe abercrombie gay.”

Someone was evidently looking for the “gaiman mieville ghetto”. A scary sounding place indeed.

Someone was hoping for a “midichlorian triumph”

I’m not sure the person who typed in “pet monkey climbing nets” really got much help from my website. Likewise the person who wanted to know “how to summoning the jinni” was probably in the wrong part of the internet.

And then there’s the inexplicable:
“new vw commercial starts with children laughing then adults laughing then elderly laughing”
“short story the toyota with characters,setting,conflict,resolution and theme”
“how does empress wu zetian relate to the disempowerment of women”
“jar jar stretched tongue”

and… drum role please…

“mike tyson gender change”

How the hell did ‘Mike Tyson gender change’ get people to come here? I don’t know. If that was you please comment below. I can’t figure that one out, but they count to the 2,500 views. Hopefully the whole process is interesting enough to keep you cooming back and pushing me toward and beyond 5,000 in 2013.


On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby…

At last year’s Genrecon one of the undoubted highlights was a snark presentation of covers given by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Of course her particular focus was the Romance novels, an easy target perhaps for snarking, what with Fabio and man-titties (as opposed to man-boobs) and various other such tropes. It came to me though that Fantasy was as easily lampooned, the Hooded man, the enthroned King, the busty and poorly armoured warrior woman.

Covers are vitally important, despite the old adage that does not bear repeating. Perhaps in the ebook market this is less true, as opening a new ebook usually will take you to page one rather than to a cover, but with the flood of product a good cover is still an effective way to draw clicks to your Goodreads, or Amazon, or Kindle store presence.

I was surprised to hear from published authors how little control they had over the covers with which their novels appeared. I did here some anecdotes of cover artists communicating with the author, or perhaps even reading the book, but these were told as exceptions, remarkable precisely because they were not the rule. In some cases the author hated the cover which the publishers used.

Some years ago my sister recommended a book to me:

A-Game-Of-Thrones-George-RR-Martin-Book-Cover

This is (I think) the 1997 edition.

On the back cover, below the blurb, there’s an image of a white wolf running through the snow.

Here, I thought, is everything I hated about Fantasy.

The swordsman in black, the black warhorse, the snowy castle, the raven…

Could these images look more hackneyed and clichéd?

It looked terrible.

I read a chapter or so in case she asked me about it, then it was shelved.

Some years later I found this book in a book store:

AGoT_UK_Current

This is the 2003 edition under the Voyager imprint.

There’s a few extra endorsements, as over the intervening years and sequels Mr. Martin’s work had gathered a following and some rave reviews, but they’re mostly the same.

The blurb is much better on this than on the original, and I’m certain that that played a role in my selecting it too.

I bought it and began reading it without ever making the connection to the book my sister had given me.

It was only when I was several chapters into the book, and hooked, that I started to make connections with the earlier book I had shelved (or in fact, by that time, boxed-up and stored under the stairs).

For five years I had ignored a great Fantasy novel because of its cover.

Another example of a cover leading me to great fiction is Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

The-Heroes-HB2front

I had a voucher to a bookstore sent to me as a Christmas gift, and I went in to buy China Mieville’s collection of short stories “Looking for Jake”, but I had some money left over and no real plan so I browsed the shelves.

Abercrombie’s views on maps have been well explained, and he included none in his First Law trilogy (which also have great covers), but this cover (as with the covers for “Best Served Cold” and “Red Country”) manages to convey I think a very real sense of Abercrombie’s world and the style of Fantasy he writes.

I like them far more than the hyper-real close-ups of the US covers.)

I bought it, loved it, and went back through the First Law and “Best Served Cold” in a matter of weeks.

Here’s the jacket of Heroes in all its glory (click the image to enlarge):

The-Heroes-HB_jacket

Recently the author Mark Lawrence responded to some suggestions comparing his cover for King of Thorns to GRRM’s Game of Thrones (specifically the Sean Bean cover that was released to tie-in with the success of the television series)

2013-01-03-book-cover-twins

Lawrence’s response was to refer to similar covers back through the history of genre and still being released:

Conan_the_LiberatorPromise_of_Blood
His point of course is well made. The mere similarity of having your protagonist (if Ned is the protagonist) sitting a throne is as much a part of Fantasy as the heroine swooning in the strong arms of her hunk is a part of Romance.

It’s always tempting of course to judge these covers. Whether they are examples of the best the genre has to offer, or some of the worst covers in the history of literature, there’s no denying their effect. It was suggested that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey in breaking beyond the Erotic Fiction market and into the mainstream was (in part) because it didn’t look like a typical Erotica cover.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the covers do not always reflect or represent the novel in the way the author would wish though, so in the interest of dispelling that hoary old cliche and admitting that of course we all do judge books in this way I invite you in the comments to nominate others.

What covers have made you pick up a book you went on to love?

What covers have drawn you to a book that you hated?

What covers have chased you screaming away swearing never to inflict such rubbish upon yourself… at least until they repackage it?