fantasy

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

Learning to Love Romance: Crafting a Romance Anthology for Everyone

Robot Love

Here at Classically Educated, we enjoy discussing nearly all aspects of cultural life, but attentive readers will have noticed that we have a particular soft spot for literature.  For that reason, we are delighted to present today’s guest post, Written by  Elizabeth Hirst.  Elizabeth is a writer, editor and 3D animator from Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of ’06, and a student of life.

The latest book she has published, Love, Time, Space, Magic, can be found here (print book) and here (ebook).  We hope you enjoy Elizabeth’s insight into the creation of the book as much as we did.

It was probably around May or June of last year when I first started tossing around the idea of doing an anthology with love as the central theme. My company, Pop Seagull Publishing, does a lot of conventions, street fairs and other community events, and a large share of our sales comes from hand selling and building relationships in the community. So, when my regulars tell me something that they want, I listen. And what I had been hearing, largely from my younger and middle-aged female customers was: “Do you have any Romance?” Clearly, a large portion of my target market was looking for love stories with sci-fi and fantasy elements.

It’s no surprise that my readers would be primed for these kinds of stories, considering the success of Twilight and other paranormal romance heavy-hitters in recent years. However, Pop Seagull, while being a company devoted to its readers, is still my company, and to be honest I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. My longer work is mostly action and adventure, and I grew up with movies like Indiana Jones, Mulan, and Star Wars as my favourites. I’m much more interested in a trip through ghoul infested woods with only a shotgun, a dog, and an unreliable reporter than I am in the mushy stuff, most of the time.

Another potential roadblock on the way to Romance success is my other key demographic: young men in technology fields. The company has seen a lot of sales and support from these guys, who tend to love action, and sci fi, and humor. There’s a lot of overlap interest-wise between my male and female customers, especially when it comes to strong female characters and emphasis on strong character development and relationships. However, when I was envisioning a traditional Romance title, complete with buff naked people cuddling on the cover and formulaic plots featuring soft-core sex scenes, I just didn’t really see my typical male customers getting on board. Also, to be honest, I just didn’t think that releasing that kind of title accurately reflected me, or my mission for Pop Seagull.

Still, based on the amount of demand I was hearing from readers, if I wanted to take Pop Seagull to the next level with a really great anthology, I knew Romance might be the way to go. But, if I wanted a book to appeal to our reader base, it couldn’t be a typical Romance book. After some thought, I decided to open up the idea of romance a bit. I asked for stories based on the theme of love, with no prescription for the ending (it didn’t have to be happy) or the type of romance (it didn’t have to be consummated, or at least not ‘on screen’). As befits our company philosophy, the characters could also be of any sexual orientation. With these guidelines solidified, I stepped out on a limb, and opened up submissions.

Dragon Lover

With all of my anthologies thus far, I have left some wiggle room in the secondary themes and general feel of the work, to leave space for the ideas coming in. As I read through the first round of submissions and picked out those that I enjoyed, I noticed that many of them were high-emotion pieces where love was a powerful force involved in shaping the characters’ lives. Often, in the stories I chose, love ended up pitting itself against other titanic forces. Once I had assembled the first three or four stories, I had a secondary theme, and a title: Love, Time, Space, Magic.

More submissions poured in, and despite my initial reservations about Romance, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the volume, quality and variety of the work sent to me. So many of the stories brought a tear to my eye. So many more impressed me by being truly romantic and sentimental while still upholding other themes in a very small amount of space. In the end, after having reservations about the quantity and quality of work I would attract, I found that I was forced to turn away work I would otherwise have bought, because we had reached the end of our budget and space. We closed three months early, and I began the most time-consuming phase of production: layout and design.

Most editors do not do their own book design, but I, like many Canadians of my generation, have far too many degrees and far too few places to use them. And so, as I entered production, I found myself grappling with the question of how to make the cover and interior design signal ‘Romance’ without telling male readers that the book was not meant for them. For better or for worse, men in our culture have been socialized to feel that if they see a Romance cover, the book will only appeal to women and dwell on themes that often don’t interest men as much. Since I’d taken great pains to buy stories that anyone can enjoy, with plenty of action, science, alternate history and great world building, it would have been a terrible waste to design a cover that warded half of my customers away right off the bat. I thought about ways to blend the heralds of romance stories with the scientific, the historical and the strange.

My first inspiration came from my day job. I work for a medical non-profit, and often see pictures of cells, anatomical drawings and other such work. I think that these images contain great beauty, and seeing them led me to the idea of using an anatomically correct heart on the cover as a way of conveying both beauty and the complication of traditional romance tropes. I also love the use of flowing script and old manuscripts, and thought that using the texture of an old parchment manuscript would also convey the fantasy and historical elements of the stories I’d chosen. Naturally, when I put these two trains of thought together, I was led to Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. In my font, image, and texture choices, I tried to get as close to a Da Vinci manuscript as possible, while still keeping a modern flair.

The result was this:

Love, Time, Space, Magic Cover

I don’t think anyone would call this cover un-romantic, but there are still no airbrushed cuddling models or Fabio-esque guys with hair flowing in the wind. It appeals to both the emotional and the historical/scientific in its influences, and just generally catches the eye.

I first started on this anthology looking to better serve my core customer base, but through the challenges that ensued, and the wonderful work that I found to publish, I ended up with something that I really enjoyed working on. I think that Love, Time, Space, Magic is truly a Romance anthology for any gender, and diverse sexual orientations, and that makes it a thing of beauty. Through working on this book, I feel that I, and the contributing authors, have shown that Romance doesn’t have to fit a narrow conception of the genre, or a gendered concept of love, and I couldn’t be prouder to bring that message to the world.