fantasy

When the Anthologist Gets it Wrong

Before Martin H. Greenburg died in 2011, Gardner Dozois had a tradition of dismissing his anthologies (usually filled with major genre writers) as “pleasant but minor”.  In general terms, I disagree with Mr. Dozois because I found Greenbergs antho’s to be both entertaining and solid.  Whenever I gought one, I knew that great writers were going to take me on a fun ride.

However, I’ve got to give the nod to Dozois if he happened to make any snide remarks about the book Olympus, edited by Greenberg and Bruce D. Arthurs.

Olympus - Martin H Greenberg and Bruce D Arthurs

This one is pleasant enough, and a reasonably entertaining read, too, but it truly is minor in the most Dozoisian use of the word, and it isn’t 100% the fault of the anthologists.  Greenberg and Arthurs got together a stronglineup of writers–Friesner, Watt-Evans, De Lint, Huff, Michelle West–and asked for tales based on Greek mythology.

The writers, I feel, fell on their faces.  Sitting here looking over the stories, I think what may have gone wrong is that the book was published in 1998, when the fantasy genre was in the midst of the urban-fantasy doldrums.  Stoies about Greek gods set in 1980s-style cities with late 90s morality are just unmemorable.  Comptently written by a raft of professional writers, but not very noteworthy.

The best, in my opinion was “To Hades and Back” by Karen Haber, mainly because it goes the full 80s rockstar route.

Anyway, there are better Greenberg anthos out there.  Perhaps finding one of those is the best bet.

 

About the blogger: Gustavo Bondoni, apart from reading everything he can get his hands on, is also a novelist.  His latest book, The Malakiad, is a hugely entertaining take on the Greek heroic era.  He doesn’t want to say it’s better than the book reviewed above, but…  Paperback here, Kindle edition here.

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The Other British Master

Looking back, I wish I’d combined this post with the one I recently wrote about Sir Terry Pratchett.  After all, Pratchett and the subject of today’s post, Niel Gaiman, were friends, collaborators and, by all accounts, shared a sense of humor.

Smoke and Mirrors - Niel Gaiman

More to the point, two of the books I read: Pratchett’s book of short stories and Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors are directly comparable.  Both collect lesser known work by two great writers and will be of more than passing interest to anyone who’s already familiar with their major achievements.

Now, I’m not a Gaiman fan in the traditional sense.  I haven’t read all that much of his work, other than Good Omens which I bought for the Pratchett content and enjoyed.  In light of this, starting with the less-acclaimed shorter work might not seem like the sensible thing to do.

That, of course, has never stopped us before, so why begin now?

So, from this book, I can confidently say that I like some of Gaiman’s writing.  Would I enjoy Sandman or American Gods?  From this sample, I really have no clue.  I always find graphic novels just a little thin and unfulfilling…  American Gods is certainly more promising.

And Smoke and Mirrors?  Definitely enjoyable, and the breadth of Gaiman’s interest in on display here.  Some stories are, naturally more memorable than others but all display Gaiman’s love for the slightly surreal and his sense that nothing is so serious that fun cannot be poked in its direction.  My kind of book.

It feels very similar to the Pratchett, somehow less solid than a novel-length work, but a very satisfying sprinkling.

Of the tales here, one of them sticks out as a nearly perfect example of… something.  I’m not sure what, exactly it is, but if you want to decide for yourself, it’s entitled “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories” (and you have to admire the kind of lunatic who would put “and Other Stories” in the title of his story, don’t you?).  It’s a strange and wistful and surreal story.  The ending wasn’t what I’d wanted it to be, but that might just have been the point.  I still think of it often.

Of course, if you’re reading Gaiman, that’s because you haven’t seen him on YouTube.  He is one of the most compelling public speakers I’ve ever seen.  If you can take a certain dose of Michael Chabon (did he create the Hipster persona or just perfect it?) without throwing your device out the window, I highly recommend this interview in which Niel Gaiman discusses his relationship with Terry Pratchett in detail.  It is mad and brilliant and still poignant and touching.

Anyway, this is a fun book, but I think the cool kids all started with Sandman, so that might be a good idea too…

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s is an Argentine writer whose latest novel, the Malakiad, is aimed squarely at those readers who miss Douglas Adams an Terry Pratchett and wish that there were more lunatics writing science fiction and fantasy.  It’s available in paperback and Kindle editions.

The Fantasy Series Elephant in the Room

Readers of this blog have probably read my recent posts on large fantasy series and enjoyed them but, at the same time, they’ve been asking themselves the question: “These are all very good series, but what about the big one?  Why are you avoiding tackling that one?”

Depending on who one talks to, there are only two possible definitions of “the big one” in this context.  The first group are what I call the genre traditionalists, and they’re talking about Papa Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, after all, was the series that started the modern popularity of doorstop fantasy books.

This first group will likely be satisfied by the fact that I’ve been commenting on the History of Middle Earth series, so that leaves the other big one.  The one on HBO that your friend who would never pick up a fantasy book for any reason keeps pestering you about.  The one that has become a central part of popular culture.

Yes, that one.

Cersei and jaime Lannister

What the rest of the world calls A Game of Thrones is known to long-time fantasy readers as A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’ve been reading it since long before the TV show started and you will not be surprised to learn that I have an opinion which, having recently finished reading A Dance with Dragons, I will foist upon you.

A little background first.  I started reading this series in the early 2000s because I had recently started reading both the Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and was enjoying both.  I knew that George R. R. Martin’s series was supposed to be the one that completed what was then the holy trinity (having read them all, my opinion is that The Sword of Truth, though certainly good, is a step beneath the other two).

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

So I read A Game of Thrones and was immediately hooked.  Here was a writer who created a brutal world in which the weak didn’t somehow overcome – the weak were prey to the strong, just like in real life.  And no character, no matter how beloved, was safe.  Martin wasn’t killing off token main characters for emotional effect–he was going through characters that were supposed to be critical at a spectacular rate.

I put down that first book in disbelief.  There were conventions in fantasy.  The assistant pig-herder was supposed to overcome incredible odds to become the king o the land.  In this series, though, Martin, had he written an assistant pig-herder, would have had the poor lad run into a large knight having a bad day, who would have eviscerated him and left him for the birds to peck on while still barely alive.  So much for that trope.  Had the pig herder been a young girl, he might have had the knight kill all her family and then sell her into slavery on the next boat, never to be heard from again.

That lack of sentimentality meant that you had to keep reading.  Though the author might not have feelings for his characters, the reader most definitely did.  We wanted to know whether the ones we like survive.  And in many cases, they didn’t.  Stronger characters did, even if they were less likable.

Another thing that makes this series attractive is that the author isn’t trying to be the morality police.  Whether you are a noble soul who wants the best for others or a despicable rapist who rules through terror makes no difference at all in your odds of survival.  In fact, the second character might live longer, as he is clearly a stronger man more suited to that particular jungle.  Again, just like in real life.

In hindsight a series that sets aside conventions about what can be written about and what can’t and who can and cannot die is a no-brainer.  People can use this to escape a culture that insists on punishing people according to its modern morality and see a realistic depiction of a medieval society.  Can you imagine a character in this one prissily saying: “please leave aside your toxic masculinity”?  The mountain would cleave him or her in two without even stopping to discuss it, and that is so refreshing, it’s hard to put into words.

Another advantage is that this can’t be imitated.  The whole point and differentiator of ASoIaF is that it defied conventions.  That’s what earned it the massive readership is enjoys.  Anyone coming after this will elicit shrugs and accusations of being derivative.

Also, there’s a second reason we only need one of these: while it’s fun to escape from the overly protective nature of today’s society for a while, too much realism can also be a downer.  Those conventions in fantasy exist for a reason: people like them and it’s fun and comfortable to know the rules and to read about how the good guys, in the end, will win the day and most of the beloved characters will be there to see it.

As for A Dance with Dragons, my feeling is that, over the last couple of books, I see Martin softening a bit.  He’s letting characters survive stuff that would have killed them in the earlier installments.  That may have been his plan from the outset, or he may be reacting to pressure from fans of the series… or, and one can hope, he’s planning some kind of massive bloodbath at the end.

Whatever the reason, I only have one favor to ask: can someone please feed that annoying dwarf to one of the dragons?  Thanks!

 

Gustavo Bondoni has recently been named a finalist in the Jim Baen Memorial Award, which has him truly excited.  He is also the author of Siege, a well-received space opera novel about human survival in extremis.

Reading Pratchett, Tinged with Sadness

I’m going to be honest.  If I was allowed to take the complete works of one humorist with me to a desert island, that writer would be P.G. Wodehouse.  For my money, he is the funniest author ever to grace the English language.  And I do mean grace: his sentences are a thing of beauty.  Without ever getting in his own way or using obtuse vocabulary, he managed to build perfect gems of writing… in almost every single sentence.  I can’t overstate the difficulty of managing that.  Sometimes you just want to write a sentence to get you from point A to pint B, but Wodehouse never allowed himself that.

If I had to keep ranking them, the second on my list would be Douglas Adams.  The perfect distillation of the English sense of humor.  Sadly, his oeuvre is too small to keep me entertained for an indeterminate period of time out in the south seas after a shipwreck but it is more intense.  He is more laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse is.

But though he doesn’t top my list on the pure humor and entertainment front, Terry Pratchett is by far the best novelist of my three favorite humorists.  He was the man who picked up the torch left by his predecessors and decided that he would not only write humor for humor’s sake, but he would break Wodehouse’s rule about writing a novel and make the books about something.  And they would be funny.

So, you get social conscience and human foibles and difficult topics with your humor.

I’ve read widely, and I’m here to tell you that only Pratchett has managed to handle that particular volatile mix without having it blow up in his face.

Most humorists fall into two camps: the ones that exploit the human condition for a few laughs and the ones who attempt to make us care.  The first group doesn’t really give a damn about humans as a group (or at least they aren’t there to make us think about humanity).  They just want their humor to be relatable enough so you’ll laugh at the right time.  The second group is usually preachy, holier-than-thou and so, sooooo concerned.  They are anything but funny.

Pratchett pulls it off.  You end up caring deeply about the issues in his book without ever having the sense that the writer is obsessed, and that the issues have taken over his work.  (actually, this happens to issue-driven books in any genre, not just humor.  When the agenda pushes the plot and characters aside, it’s a recipe for disaster).

So it’s with great sadness that I am reading the final few Pratchett books for the first time.  One can enjoy a book upon re-reading, but you never have the same sheer joy of discovery as you did the first time you encountered the words.  Since his death, a Pratchett book that I hadn’t read before became a priceless treasure.

Over the last year, I’ve consumed three of those treasures.

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

A Blink of the Screen is a rare treat.  It collects Pratchett short stories.  Some of them we’ve all read before, but many are early work published in tiny magazines or very local newspapers.  They show a master at work before he was a master, with flashes of the genius that made him world-famous, but without the skill at weaving it all together.  Still, there are some gems in here, and punchlines that will make you chortle.  I enjoyed it.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff made me even sadder.  It’s a Discworld novel.  If having any unread Pratchett book is a treasure, a Discworld book is like having the Crown Jewels and the Romanoff treasure all at once.  To make things even better, this is a Sam Vimes book.

A side note about Vimes.  While there are many amazing characters on the Discworld, Vimes became the most important of all after Pratchett discovered him halfway through the series.  He represents the everyman, but also the fatalist.  I have a friend who swears by the witches, but it’s Vimes who serves as the backdrop to Pratchett’s most mature work.  I like him even more than I like the Luggage and Death, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The only consolation I had when I finished this one was the knowledge that Raising Steam is still safely buried somewhere in my TBR pile.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

The last book of the three I had to hand was The Shepherd’s Crown. The Tiffany Aching books fall in the Young Adult category and are a lot less funny.  Pratchett’s sense of humor is still there in the background, but these aren’t meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, but a coming-of-age story for a young witch growing into her powers.  All of Pratchett’s humanity is on display in these, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone out for a laugh.  However, it is to Pratchett’s eternal credit that he manages to make a Young Adult story aimed at girls compelling to a not-particularly-young adult male who (as attested to by earlier entries) is more likely to pick up a spy thriller than a book about a teenage witch.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another writer quite like this one for a while.

 

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad coming out on March 22nd (it can be pre-ordered through this link).  If you enjoyed reading Pratchett, you will likely enjoy this one.  Also, the title comes from a very rude word in Greek, so there’s that.

Themed Anthos – A Good Foot in the Door

Today continues the set of two articles on my own writing experience that began on Wednesday. If people like these (and possibly even if they don’t, I’ll likely continue them in the future).

At the risk of seeming like a complete jerk (and yes, I’m aware that many of you feel that that ship sailed long ago) I will tell you a story about how I got started as a writer.

I sat down and wrote a story over a couple of days.  I fixed some typos and I sent it out on submission. I sent it out to three markets that rejected it.  The fourth bought it.  That story, entitled “Tenth Orbit” not only gave its title to my first collection, but has been reprinted in seven languages and still sells as a reprint now and then.  Also, the news sparked what was probably the ugliest celebration dance in history, but you really, really don’t want to know the details.

The point of this isn’t to make you hate me.  I’ve had the same amount of rejection and heartbreak as every other writer, but the fact that my road into print was comparatively easy meant that I never had to listen to that nagging voice in my mind that said “nothing you write will ever be good enough to sell.”

Nevertheless, I often get the feeling that nothing I write from now on will ever be as good as what came before, and that the prose I’ve produced over the past six months is simultaneously infantile, pompous, pretentious and shallow.  Being all four might seem impossible, but I often feel that way, especially when a dry spell comes along.

I’ve found that a good way to break through this is to go to your favorite marketplace report (I use The Grinder and Ralan for genre projects) and select a themed anthology looking for submissions – make sure you choose one with a deadline far enough off to give you a chance to write a story.

I’ve found this approach to have several benefits.  The first is that the guidelines and theme will tell you exactly what you need to write.  If you can’t follow instructions telling you to send over a 2500 word story about alcoholic koala bears in space, then, sadly, you’re never going to be a writer.  Reading comprehension is a good part of writing, after all.

The good part of the above is that for many projects you will only be competing against other stories written specifically for that antho.  While a place like Asimov’s might get thousands of subs in a month, an antho of this type might get only a few hundred.  Many of those will be by illiterates or people who don’t know what a koala bear actually is.  Yes, the odds are still long – that’s part of being a writer – but they are better than at other places.

The second benefit is that you probably don’t have an alcoholic koala story lying around, which means that you will have to stop and create something completely new, break out of a rut.  I’ve always found this to be a cool way to refresh the writing spirit.

A third benefit (assuming you write a good story and they buy it) is that at the end of it, apart from the money, you’ll have a shiny contributor’s copy filled with the work of a bunch of amazingly talented authors who love alcoholic koalas as much as you do.  It will feel amazing to be surrounded by these people, and you’ll also ask yourself what the editors were thinking when they bought yours as well…  but don’t worry, every author thinks that.

Strange Bedfellows Edited by Hayden Trenholm

This is often the best part.  I recently read a couple of anthos with my work in them, and I thought it would be fun to use them to exemplify the range of what’s possible here.  They’re both from 2014 (my TBR pile needs a new type of mathematics to describe it and it takes me a looong time to get to any book mired therein) and I place them here for your perusal.

The first is a pro-rate-paying antho (as defined by SFWA) entitled Strange Bedfellows, Edited by Hayden Trenholm. The guidelines for this one were pretty open: the story had to be about politics.

So I sent them a tale called “Gloop”, which, though not espousing any particular political leaning, clearly showed the effects of politics on the lives of the characters and their society.  The other stories were well-written, mostly left-leaning, but with a couple of more conservative stories to balance it out, and overtly political.  As one expects with this theme, philosophy and thought-out ideas (as well as a certain amount of pontification) were everywhere, but there was plenty of action and entertainment as well.

Undead and Unbound Cover

The second seems, at first glance, to be the polar opposite.  Undead and Unbound, edited by Brian M. Sammons and David Conyers, does exactly what it says on the tin.  Anything walking around after someone killed it was fair game.

Honesty compels me to admit that I was invited to this one, but it still made me sweat.  My problem was that I didn’t want to write a story that was just like everyone else’s.  I didn’t want to be a zombie in a sea of zombies, or just another vampire.

So I decided that a wight might do the trick, especially if that wight came alive during the Blitz and called it “Thunder in Old Kilpatrick”  To my relief, they accepted it…

The most interesting thing about this one, however, is that when I came to read it, it defied all my expectations about what an “undead” theme would include.  The writers went to great lengths to make their stories memorable, and the antho is extremely well written.  Definitely not just a piece of fluff for people with short attention spans.  So you can toss those prejudices out the window – your average call for zombie stories is going to require a lot of talent and imagination to get into.

And speaking of throwing out those prejudices, here’s another one that contains one of my stories.  I think you’ll agree that there’s an antho out there for everyone.  It’s just a question of finding the right call for submissions and writing the right story.

Sinisterotica Anthology Cover

 

Gustavo Bondoni was interviewed today by Jessica A. Scott.  His latest novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

Shared-World Anthologies – One Writer’s Experience

This week, I’ll be looking at the very different experiences I’ve had in publishing my short work.  Time permitting, I’ll do a post on Friday about a more typical antho (if not Firday, then next week for sure), but today, I’ll be discussing a pretty specific and unusual market type: the shared-world antho.

Like many readers, I was originally introduced to the concept of a shared world by the Thieves’ World anthos in the 1980s (they might have been created earlier, but I was reading in the 80s).   Memory is a bit fuzzy, but I was probably drawn to them because Robert Asprin‘s name was on the cover and I had just discovered his Myth books.

They were delightful books which I devoured (I was about twelve at the time and they were perfect).  Looking for more of the same, I came across the Heroes In Hell Series. And I saw something interesting:  many of the writers in both series were the same.  Strange.

Years later, I was invited by a friend to take part in a volume of the Sha’Daa series, edited by Michael H. Hanson  and Edward F. McKeon.  The basic premise is that, once every ten thousand years, the Sha’Daa – a demonic invasion of Earth – occurs.  And it’s due soon…  I was stunned and delighted, because I’d been watching from the sidelines as these books attained a bigger and bigger readership.  I didn’t take very long to give them a resounding “Yes”.

When I asked why he’d thought of me, my friend said the following: “I asked around and people like working with you because you deliver clean, quality prose on time.”  So yeah, I’m a hack, but it may be the nicest thing anyone has said of me as a writer.  Professionalism is something I value and, it appears, so do others.  It gave me my first Inkling of why so many writers were the same people across those eighties anthos: evidently, they played well with others, got things in on time and didn’t try to blow up the sandbox.

Next, of course, I had to produce a decent story.  Flop-sweat time! Not only did I have to produce a decent story on command, but it needed to fit.  Luckily, I had reviewed one of the first two books for SFReader so I knew what I was getting into.  I also read the other volume and took copious notes on what worked well and what had already been done.

Sha Daa Pawns Cover

Then I sat down to write my own tale for Sha’Daa Pawns.  I wanted to do something different that fit the dark spirit of this amazing series well.  I set my own tale, Blood Stone in an African diamond mine, a milieu which I’d never really seen explored in speculative form.

When they accepted my piece with some minimal edits, I was delighted.  When they showed me the cover I was stunned.  And then they invited me back for the next one: Facets… which made the whole process and insecurity start over.  They wanted this one to be in epistolary/documentary text form, a style I’d always shied away from but, for reasons having to do with the structure of the planned book, fit perfectly.

When someone says “epistolary” I immediately think two things: Dracula and Victorian era.  So I went in that direction style-wise (albeit I made the setting a bit more modern) and, to my surprise, the story came together really well.  I managed to tell the tale I wanted seamlessly without stretching the form past its breaking point (or at least past the point where the reader would break, which would have been worse).

Sha'daa Facets Cover

The entire experience was different from anything else I’ve ever done in publishing.  Sometimes a detail had to be changed to fit another story.  At other times, the editors would ask you to change a little thing here or there to avoid a demonic apocalypse (always a danger in this series).  I recommend it to everyone.  The dynamic will certainly help you grow.

Once the stories were published (a couple of years apart) and I received my copies, I realized that this series is going from strength to strength.  My thoughts on these volumes pretty much reinforced the initial impression of the one I’d reviewed back when I was an impartial observer: the author lineup is strong, the action is excellent and I feel honored to be among them – and each of them had to play nice with others to earn their place there.  Cool to see, and I can only imagine what the editors went through to create those.

So, for the writers who have asked me how to get into the shared-world antho business, that’s the answer: be easy to work with, deliver your edits on time, and word will get around.  Oh, and write the best stories you can, too.

If you happen to hear of one of these being formed, write an author or editor already on the team who’s worked with you before.  You never know what might result!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Incursion: Shock Marines, was released in September.  He recommends that you read it before something else comes out and he has to change this signature.  If that happens, you might miss it and you do not want that to happen (he says to trust him on this)!

What Happens When the Writer Dies?

A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete.  The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.

As a writer myself, I begged to differ.  Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series.  Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.

Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.

A quick note about The Wheel of Time.  Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones.  But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller.  Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).

But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?

It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make.  In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries.  The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).

Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up.  Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer.  It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t make it bad.

The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach.  They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels.  If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson  A memory of light Brandon Sanderson

To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.

This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors.  Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series.  Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series.  And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news).  In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.

All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes.  His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.

On the Importance of Choosing a Good Magic System

Last week we discussed a series of fantasy books that, despite having a pretty standard “new age and elves” style magic system, is still beautiful and memorable because of the way characters and prose wove together to make a completely different kind of magic.

But what if you are not a supreme prose stylist, but simply an excellent writer attempting to give the world a rollicking good yarn?  Unless you do something different, of course, your books are very unlikely to ever see the light of day, and sometimes, if they do, they won’t make a huge impression.

A good way to make sure you leave a mark is via the magic system.  Make the rules of the magic strange, different excessively arcane, and then figure out all the ramifications… and you’re likely to have a brilliant story waiting to get out.

runelords cover David farland

David Farland’s (real name, Dave Wolverton) The Runelords is probably the best example of  a hugely imaginative magic system with serious consequences for all involved that I’ve come across in a lifetime of reading big fantasy series.

In short (and attempting not to give spoilers), each Runelord (generally, albeit not always of noble birth) can take “endowments” of different characteristics from people willing to give them.  This makes them stronger in that particular characteristic.   The downside is that the person who donates the ability loses that quality.  So giving an endowment of brawn leaves you weak as a babe, one of sight blind as a bat, etc.

You can give the strangest things, and all are useful.  Grace, for example. Or – and this one has drastic consequences – metabolism.

A lot of the politics of the series revolve around how to accumulate endowments, and how to protect those who’ve given the endowments from being massacred by people who don’t particularly want their rivals to have that power.

It makes for a nicely convoluted political backdrop to a “journey of the hero” plot with some truly alien bad guys getting tossed in once the foundations are laid.

This isn’t necessarily my favorite fantasy doorstop series (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that one is probably The Wheel of Time endless descriptions of ladies’ blouses and all), but I wholeheartedly recommend this one not only to readers who are looking for some fantasy fun, but also to other writers.  It’s a masterful example of using your magic system to shape the life and politics of a secondary world.

And as the original 4 book series (which I’ve recently finished) advances, the consequences of the magic system grow ever deeper.

Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story Writer.  His latest novel is Incursion: Shock Marines.

The End of Deverry

Most of the huge, sprawling Heroic fantasy series I’ve read deal with a single set of characters and follow them through the conclusion of a single crisis (or perhaps more than one if the author made a lot of money and decided to keep writing).

That makes a lot of sense.  After all, it’s the formula that Papa Tolkien set out for everyone when he invented the sub-genre  (fortunately, I have not yet succumbed to writing one of these, or else I wouldn’t be that smug!).  Look at The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, or the Belgariad and Malloreon.  All of these now-classic series used the formula, and all of them have at least one title with the word “bestseller” in the blurb.

Terry Brooks took the idea one step further by simply having several different generations of his characters have essentially the same adventures over and over again (he does it really well, too.  I for one, can see what he’s doing and still buy his books).

Perhaps the only contemporary writer to vary the formula (albeit only slightly) and be a huge commercial success is George R. R. Martin, and I will be very interested in seeing how the newer generations of my writing peers respond to his lead.  I expect quite a bit of the sincerest form of flattery, to be honest.

But for a twist that really twists, I would recommend a dark horse that most people haven’t heard of.  Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, which I’ve recently, with my reading of The Silver Mage, completed.

The Silver Mage by Katharine Kerr Cover

A quick note on this.  Finishing the Deverry cycle, though rewarding, was like losing an old friend.  It ran from 1986 to 2009, and I joined the party in about 1991 or so.  Fifteen books later, I’m done.  A bittersweet moment.

But back to why it’s special.  Kerr does something that few other fantasists (I can’t think of another who has an epic series doing this) do: she uses the same characters over and over in different time frames, but they are reincarnated.  So things that happen to one guy might lead to terrible revenge or good karma for the same soul (but a different character) a thousand years later.  And since the timelines are all woven together, different time periods occur in different books, so you might have a chapter that takes place two hundred years before the one preceeding it.

The magic, of course, is in the fact that it all winds up making sense in the end.  As a writer, all I can do is tip my hat with respect and say “better her than me.”

Another thing that recommends this series is the writing style.  It’s a bit dreamy, a little literary and very feminine.  Fortunately, however, there is enough good, old-fashioned sword- and catapult- driven mayhem to keep genre fans happy. There are also dragons That is a good thing.  The balance of the two elements is well-managed and effective.

Perfect?  I suppose not.  Though I enjoyed these, they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The character set can feel a little new-agey (that cover above should be a dead giveaway…). There are, fortunately, no unicorns that I can recall, but the elves all live in the west and the magic system is more seventies crystals than magic swords.  I also had one good friend tell me they abandoned the series when one of the human characters became a dragon.  I didn’t love that twist, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, and I read on until the end.

NOTE: After I posed this, Katharine Kerr herself (wow!) clarified the origins of the magic system in the comments.  It’s much more complex and nuanced than I had originally assumed so I urge you to have a look in the comments for the real story.

Anyway, if you do pick it up, drop me a line.  In the meantime, consider this post my farewell to an old friend.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. 

Inspiring Disney Since 1946

beauty and the beast 1946 poster

If you’re anything at all like me, you will often find yourself watching a Disney film and shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer talent and creativity on display.  Where, you’ll ask yourself, do they get all these amazing ideas?

Part of it is the source material, of course.  By borrowing from humanity’s most beloved myths and legends, the company is assured a product that, for whatever reason, is a proven commodity that pushes the buttons of audiences, and often has been doing so for hundreds of years.

That’s incredibly smart, but it’s just a base on which they then unleash some of the most talented directors, artists and animators on the planet.  The results speak for themselves.  I still remember watching Aladdin (first Disney feature I saw in a cinema as a teenager after years of disdaining cartoons) and being completely blown away by it.

But at least in once case, I know where they got most of their ideas and aesthetic, and that one is Beauty and the Beast.  Simply stated, the 1991 Disney edition is a remake of Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête.

This is a huge relief to me because the excessive talent of the people working on modern films was driving me to drink, so it’s a bit of a relief to know it isn’t all down to their own creativity.  It’s nice to know that they are inspired by someone else every once in a while, and that they are humble enough not to mess with perfection… only to animate it!

There’s no need to summarize the plot of the 1946 film.  It’s the Beauty and the Beast after all, but it has to be acknowledged that what Cocteau pulled off in immediate post-war France was extremely impressive.  Dark, moody sets, an ever-present sense of utter magic and the feeling of being immersed in a fairy tale that looked just how a peasant in 1800 would have imagined it to look must not have been easy to achieve.

But most of all, it was interesting to see just how many of the elements were familiar to viewers of the 1991 animation.  The creative teapots, candelabra and other living elements were included, albeit not as characters in their own rights.  Despite being made nearly fifty years later, it is clear that the Disney film was more than just inspired by the earlier movie–they simply updated it.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

They also chose to leave the beast as he was–they are remarkably similar in concept, considering the huge leeway allowed by animation versus having to apply makeup to an actor using what was available in Europe in 1946.

It was an inspired decision–the old film is still the definitive B&B, so messing too much with the formula would have been unwise in the extreme, and thanks to that, the animated version is now a classic in its own right.

There have been other takes on this legend, both on stage and on screens big and small.  None have stood the test of time as well as these two (the awful TV series, especially), essentially because the most important elements–the visuals of the beast and his castle–are identical in every significant way.

And now, I’m even more impressed with the Mickey Mouse guys.  Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as difficult as knowing when to solve problems in the most creative way possible.  But for my money, I’ll still take Cocteau’s version.

Not much strangeness surrounding the production of this one, so we’ll drop in a racing driver piece (at Classically Educated, we enjoy auto racing, mainly because of its social unacceptability): it seems like one of the actresses, Mila Parély was married to multiple Le Mans entrant Taso Mathieson.  We approve.