Archive for the 'Storytelling' Category

Darkness Falls Early: Reading the Winter Solstice

December 26th, 2011

Penman, Sharon Kay. (1995) When Christ and His Saints Slept.  Ballantine.

Darkness Falls Early: Reading in the Winter Solstice


At the end of the summer I read Lionheart (2011), the latest in Sharon Kay Penman’s series set in the era of Henry the II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their progenitors and their progeny.  It was so interesting I looked up the novels that came before, Devil’s Brood (2008), Time and Chance (2002) and now, the first one, When Christ and His Saints Slept (1995). It’s odd to read a series backwards, but that’s how it works these days, when an author’s earlier books take more effort to get hold of than we might like.

Lionheart follows the crowned Richard into the east on Crusade. Almost all the women who are part of the previous novels’ action are still alive.  Those who were born during the course of the series are now adults and often monarchs themselves. Devil’s Brood brilliantly describes the political and family causes prompting King Henry II’s sons and his Queen to rebellion, and his sons to further betray each other.  But, In my opinion, Time and Chance is the best written of the four.  That may be because Time and Chance covers what we already think we know about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, including the Thomas Becket affair, so the events and characters are familiar to both author and reader. But Penman’s Time and Chance is not the plays, Becket and Lion in Winter, or the subsequent films, the historicity of both more than questionable. In the course of researching these books Penman speaks on her website and in interviews of how much she learned is wrong about what we think we know about these characters whose names are familiar even these many hundreds of years later. One of the reasons we have misinformation is political. Then, as much as now, interested parties who could write, who were hostile to the Plantagenets, such as the French, used sexual slander and all the rest of the weapons in the political weapons arsenal to descredit their rivals and enemies.

It’s difficult, submerging oneself as a reader into When Christ And His Saints Slept, the earliest book in the series. It’s hard to know who is who, or even who is a fictional character. It turns out none of them are fictional, with the significant exception of a character who continues throughout the series, a series which at the time of this novel’s writing, the author didn’t know she was going to write. Another difficulty, which is in no way the author’s fault since these are the historically recorded movers and shakers of the events, is that so many of them share the same names, whether monarchs, royal bastards, high ecclesiatic officials, and are not always of different generations either. Then, Penman  made a compositional glitch by writing a prologue set some decades before the novel proper opens, then opening the first chapter in another decade with yet other people we not only don’t know, but whose relationships to those in the prologue we don’t know either.  These are the families and vassals who make the twenty years long civil war, the bloody conflict between Henry I’s nephew, Stephen, and the King’s legitimate daughter, Maud, the former Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and now Countess of Anjou.

However, that we don’t know much about these people, the times, or this 12th century English civil war, will be remedied by the time this novel is finished. Additionally it brilliantly sets up what will happen throughout the following volumes, though half of those volumes weren’t planned to be written when this one was (one more at least is in the process of being written). Once we’ve dug our way through this prologue and the next 40 pages or so, the reader is stabilized as to who the people are and where in geography and when in time they are. Unlike the unfortunates in the early pages who chose a berth on the White Ship, we’re sailing on smooth waters, treated to Christmas Courts, freezing rain, icy snow, fireplaces and wine, perfect Winter Solstice reading, as are the subsequent volumes.

It’s a superb story, filled with colorful, fascinating personalities who scheme against each other, love each other, hate each other, sometimes simultaneously. Henry II is born within the first pages of the novel. The war that is his parents’ marriage, his divided loyalty and love, twists this future king’s character, the damage of which will roll down the decades. We witness Eleanor and Henry’s meeting: like Johnny Cash and June Carter, they “fell into a burning ring of fire.”  There are the splendid early days of Henry II’s early friendship with Becket.  Yes, no matter how long ago certain things, like falling in love or in friendship, and the bitter pain of betrayal by lover or friend, are the same then as they are now.

Penman’s research is responsible and thorough. She’s got the tenacity to keep working on her narrative until these long ago, now obscure historical events and people are comprehensible to us in the 21st century. Penman is particularly good at portraying the strength and agency of all her female characters, of whatever station and condition, without making them behave like late 20th century, 21st century American women, or even think like them. They have different personalities and individual characters, whether of high rank or low. Starting with When Christ and Etc. each volume in this series presents the waste of women’s political talents denied by their gender. It becomes a theme winding its way through all the series.

In When Christ Etc. this theme is deep and broad: Henry I granted the throne of England to his daughter, Maud, formerly the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry I’s nephew, Stephen, steals the crown on the pretext that bloodshed would be inevitable if Maud’s crowned. Stephen invokes the period’s unquestioned belief in women’s incapacity to rule in their own right, which is founded upon both religion and, “No man will follow a woman to war.” But Stephen lacks the hardness of character necessary for a monarch to hold power year after year. Maud has a tribe of loyal, illegitimate brothers, for Henry I was profligate with his affections, siring many bastards, whom he married into wealthy, powerful families, tying these powerful vassals all the more tightly to his line. Thus it is is Stephen who made bloody civil war inevitable because he siezed Maud’s legitimately granted crown..

The irony contained in this theme is further deepened. Stephen, unable to quench the fires of rebellion in favor of Maud, resorts to his own wife to do it for him. He sends sweet, docile, loving Queen Matilda into the field to lead her own family and vassals, who seize the port of Dover for Stephen. Successful in no small part because of the devotion all ranks of Matilda’s men give her, the Queen continues to other political successes.

As for the series as a whole, a reader who is interested in literary and cultural medieval history of Europe can’t help recalling that Chrétien de Troyes was from France’s north, and he served at the court of Eleanor’s daughter in Aquitaine.  The tales of those extraordinary Plantegenets, Anjous and Aquitaines of the 12th century provided him no little inspiration, we must think, just as his Romances provided some inspiration, when coupled with the real life events of these people, for Penman.  And in the period when darkness falls so early, can there be better entertainment than a series of Romances, then or now?

*Best Served Cold* *2009). Orbit

September 10th, 2009

It seems that the first day of autumn rolled in this morning. Since summer didn’t show up until August it does seem too soon. But then, we are going to be on a real campus this weekend (Yale– how classic is that?), so that I feel invigorated by the sense of snap in the air today is appropriately seasonal. A sharp contrast with yesterday, which was pillowed in the humidity pushed up from the south by another tropical storm.

 Among yesterday’s many tasks, I had to return a book to the library, where I scored a winner — Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night on cd. Since finishing Donaghue’s late 18th C historical novel, Life Mask I had failed to find any audio book that worked for my work-outs. When I find one, I settle in for several hours for often several weeks — Life Mask was 19 discs that played for about 70 minutes each. It’s hard to transition out of the world that one’s workout has signaled entry into after so long. Finding the right workout book is not easy.

 In any case, I followed Donaghue’s Life Mask on cd, with a print book, Joe Abercrombie’s 15th-century Italian flavored fantasy, Best Served Cold. Along with Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (also experienced via cd) and Treason’s Shore by Sherwood Smith, these were the novels that held my interest this summer.

Best Served Cold is signally composed with more originality and sharply limned characters than many Fantasies. This isn’t easy to do, since thousands of Fantasy works have been published, and published in ever more numbers every month since LOTR created this new publishing genre — and demographic audience.

 What I liked most about Best Served Cold is the picture it provides of the terrible harm private mercenary armies are to everyone. They are fighting a war for their own profit. They collude with each other to drive up prices, throw battles and wars, betray each other and their employers, create wars where there are none. You have to think about Blackwater and, at last accounting, nearly 200 other private militias that are getting U.S. military contracts. If you ever thought  privatizing a national military is a good idea, you should read this novel of Abercrombie’s, particularly p. 239. But surely there’s no one in these current real world militias who is a classic likeable rogue like the former merc General, Nicomo Cosca, in Best Served Cold.

 Like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy (2008), and Sherwood Smith’s conclusion to her Inda series, Treason’s Shore (2009), Best Served Cold is a Fantasy novel that feels infused with current political events and catastrophes.  But readers who read to escape the real world, never fear!  Though this deep connection to contemporary events and conditions is successfully accomplished, none of these works will lose anything in depth or effectiveness as all these events disappear from our national attention deficit disordered mind.

 This may be the first Fantasy novel that has a character of agency who is an autistic, just on the edge of functioning. Friendly has no bonds with other humans, or booty, or power. He’s not likely to commit betrayal. He counts things, anything. His dice are his comfort objects. He is happy and content in prison, where the rigid routine allows him to feel safe. He’s a splendid addition to any group of thugs or soldiers because he loves the dice, and he never miscounts. He’s a methodical killer in a fight or battle, counting, counting, counting. He’s a sudden savage killer when the numbers are wrong or someone has broken his comfort routines. Friendly provokes the reader into thinking about what the chances were back in such times and conditions of autistic persons surviving at all.

Morveer is the chemist/alchemist/master of poisons-for-hire. Morveer reminds one of certain portraits of Merlin, including TNH’s description of the “unreliable magician” in her current “Re-reading Sandmanhere, and which others like Kit Kerr have also discussed at different times – Kit has also employed this specifically in her Deverry works. Most of all it is Morveer’s relationship with his apprentice that recall a twisted Merlin, a penetrating reading of that odd end of Merlin’s life with the entry of Viviene, she who wished to learn all his magic and secrets. The Merlin parallel feels most strong around p. 195. However, you will be surprised how this narrative strand plays out.

 The two ‘primary’ characters are the peasant turned mercenary general, the ruthless and brilliant strategist-swordswoman, Monza Murcatto, and Caul Shivers, a Viking sort, who has foolishly followed advice proferred at home and come south to become a better man, rather than a killer and seeker after ephemeral booty. It’s seldom I see actors in the role of fictional characters, but I couldn’t get rid of the image of Shivers as Sex and the City’s Aiden:  hunky, competent, unsizzling personality, dull of expression, and twice jilted by Carrie Bradshaw. There are many more characters than these, but these are the most successful, with the most page time. All of them betray each other and re-align frequently.

 The structure of the novel includes a variety of time periods, a variety of charcters and multi-threaded narrative lines.  These are written with an admirable deftness.  Nor does the prose plod.  The opening section is some brilliant satiric repartee by deeply knowing, profoundly cynical characters who know each other better than they want to, and have loyalty to nothing or anyone. At first you can’t believe what you are reading — you think this author is maybe an untalented sap and you’re going to close the book. But that’s not what is going on. It’s a brilliant bit.  And something that’s included in this bit, is there, at the very end of the novel.

 What was problematical for this reader concerning the novel was the name Abercrombie gave the featured region of his world-building — Styria. My eyes and brain insisted on seeing Syria every damned time, which threw me out of where we are. Nor did it feel like a name that would be found on the 15th Century latinum peninsula, of which this tale of warring city states is so reminiscent — as well as of Mario Puzo’s The Family (2001), featuring the Borgias, with historical characters including Niccolò Machiavelli.

This novel was just about perfect for this reader — see, in ‘my interests’: betrayal. It feels  significantly superior to Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. This may be because the world is so emphatically modeled upon a historical time and place, and historical characters. There was more than one very strong female warrior in that period of the warring papal and city states.

 Hopefully, Best Served Cold is the stand-alone work it appears to be.

Mary Poppins versus Cthulhu, a writerly parlor game

May 27th, 2009

I just attended BayCon, the San Francisco Bay area regional science fiction convention.  It was, as always, a good chance to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, attend panels, and flex the brain muscles a bit.

While there, I invented a parlor game of interest to writers and fans in general.  It was inspired by this inspired blog post about matchups between heroes and villains to decide the eternal battle of good versus evil.  However, as the game evolved, it seemed a better name was needed than simply Good versus Evil or Heroes versus Villains.  Instead, taking the name from the most warped match-up that presented itself, let me present Mary Poppins versus Cthulhu.

The rules are fairly simple: You need two players, along with any number of judges and kibitzers to decide the fate of the battle for those cases where the contestants can’t agree.  Each player thinks up a hero or villain from the pages of history or literature, then on the count of three, says the name.  It is then decided which of them would win in a battle to the death, with all their powers and resources brought to bear on the problem.  Players alternate heroes and villains each round, and it’s of interest to writers because it gets you to think about characters strengths and weaknesses and the way things will logically happen in a plot. Continue Reading »

Fort Freak, and Writing in the Cities You’ve Never Visited

May 14th, 2009

As before, news and a rumination.  The news is that Fort Freak, the latest volume in the ongoing Wild Cards cycle, has been announced over at George R.R. Martin’s blog, and I’m among the writers tapped to write it.

Fort Freak

Fort Freak

Aside from the good feeling of having a proposal accepted, there’s also the writer’s anxiety about writing about something you don’t know and fear of getting it wrong.  Mary Anne Mohanraj (also among the writers, and new to Wild Cards) was writing about the same thing, relative to Fort Freak being a police story, something she knows little about beyond what she’s seen on television.  My knowledge of police dealings has a slight benefit in that one of my best friends had studied to be a cop (until health issues made him change to lawyer) and his brother is a cop, and I have other friends who work in law enforcement, so I have people to run legalities by so I won’t run too far afoul of Sjöberg’s Law of Cinematic Inaccuracy.   (“Movies get everything wrong. Hacking-based movies are laughable to hackers, military-based movies are laughable to members of the armed forces, and Indiana Jones movies are laughable to archaeologists.”)  Or, as it’s recently been termed on tvtropes.org, having a story “Dan Browned,” a subset of the trope “Did Not Do the Research.”

Of course, there are sins and sins.  Television budgetary concerns can excuse Television Geography and even “The Mountains of Illinois”, but novels and short stories?  Not so much.  I’ve read short stories set in San Francisco where people had a picnic in Candlestick Park (not realizing that it’s a baseball/football stadium) or walked from Alameda to downtown SF (somehow forgetting that not only is this quite a distance, but the bay is in the way).  And these were published too.

So, I’ll confess my failing: I’ve never visited New York.  Neither state nor city.  But I’ve written stuff set there.  Most recently for my story in Busted Flush (the scene cut for pacing and plotting, not inaccuracy), but before as well.  And now I’m about to do it again.

On the plus side, I’ve at least touched Connecticut brownstone (the Flood Mansion in San Francisco is built of the stuff, imported at ruinous expense back in the day) and being familiar with the architecture of San Francisco and other cities helps, in that what was built in one city was then reproduced in other cities of the era, often by the same architects.   (Driving around Mexico City a few years ago, I was getting deja vu, thinking at times I was in parts of San Francisco or New Orleans or even downtown San Jose.)  And with Wild Cards being an alternate timeline which diverges in 1946, there are structures which were knocked down in our Manhattan which can still exist in the world of Wild Cards.  Not tipping my hand too much, but I’m currently researching  one of those, both because it’s neat in terms of alternate history to preserve something rather than destroying everything, and because if I’m pulling from museum archives and photographs, I don’t have to worry that much about someone who actually lives somewhere looking up from the book and rolling their eyes about how I’ve got it wrong.

I’ll also be running the story by some native New Yorkers, so I can get the errors caught before publication.  But right now, it’s research time.

Lord Ooky Hellwrought’s Sixteen Unspeakable Utterances

March 25th, 2009

Lord Ooky Hellwrought’s Sixteen Unspeakable Utterances
(a Supplementary Lexicon for Lady Pixie Moondrip’s Random Craft Name Generator)

In her well-famed essay, to which I refer you for reference, the great loremistress lists the following thirty-one words as being the components of eighty percent of all craft names:

  • Wolf     Raven Silver     Moon     Star
  • Water     Snow  Sea     Tree     Wind
  • Cloud     Witch     Thorn     Leaf      White
  • Black     Green     Fire     Rowan Swan
  • Night     Red     Mist     Hawk     Feather
  • Eagle     Song     Sky     Storm     Sun
  • Wood

Aside from modern witches, Wiccans and neo-pagans, this list also holds true with the majority of witches and wizards in fantasy fiction, especially popular roleplaying games, and is thus of use and interest to the writers and readers thereof.  But with all due deference to the esteemed lexicographer, her rule breaks down in one crucial area: evil overlords and wicked enchantresses.

With the exception of the always serviceable “Black” and “Night,” few evil overlords or wicked enchantresses use more than one word from the above list in their craft names, seldom two, and never three.  The same holds true for the titles of books chronicling their black deeds.  However, this is not to say that the practitioners of the black arts are any more original than their white and off-white colleagues.  They simply draw from a second, but even more limited, word list.

After perusing my vast library of blasphemous texts and eldritch tomes (mostly the aforementioned fantasy novels and gaming supplements), I, Lord Ooky Hellwrought, have found the same sixteen soul-searing words repeated again and again.  Herewith, my addenda:

  • Bane     Blood     Bone    Curse    Dark
  • Death    Dire    Doom    Dread     Fell
  • Foul    Grim    Hell    Hex    Nether
  • Shadow

These words may be combined with those from Lady Pixie Moondrip’s original list in the same manner, or, for added effect, may be added to professional titles.  Dread pirates and blood ninjas can charge more than mere ninjas and pirates.  And while no one is much impressed by a merchant or thief, the same cannot be said of death merchants and shadow thieves.  (Lord Ooky Hellwrought notes that a few professions, such as hairdressers and proctologists, are beyond help.  Aspiring evil overlords and wicked enchantresses would do best to not list these on their resumes.)

The Fox in the Dollhouse

February 14th, 2009

After attending Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse panel at last year’s Comicon, I was eagerly awaiting the premiere.  So were friends, and there was even a party with a showing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to get us in the mood for more Joss goodness.  And then….

Well, while I don’t want to give any spoilers, Fox has put Dollhouse alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles in what makes sense as a scifi block, but had promos with Summer Glau and Eliza Dushku that, if the sound were turned off, looked pretty much like 976 commercials:  “SciFi girls want to talk to you.  Just call them.  They’re waiting….”

Regardless, there was talk at the party about how Fox had asked for revision up on revision so that the first few episodes had been turned into something other than what Joss was wanting.  Something with more cop drama and explosions.  But since I can’t really discuss the truth of this without spoilers, they’ll be there after the fold:

Continue Reading »

Memo to Hollywood: How to do (and not do) an adaptation

December 31st, 2008

I have just watched The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, a year after it came out (DVR is your friend, except maybe in this case) and I’m gasping in horror at how bad it was, and for no good reason.  You’ve got all the elements that would seem to make a great movie:  Beloved children’s classic as source material?  Check.  Lavish sets?  Check.  Gorgeous costuming?  Check.  Actors ranging from competent to excellent?  Check.  Impressive and appropriate special effects?  Check.  Script by a competent screenwriter?  Um, well, I understand they got the guy who did the adaptation for Trainspotting, which I understand was a decent movie, but….

First off, let me make one thing clear: Departure from the source material is fine.   The Wizard of Oz dumped the scene in the Dainty China Country from the movie adaptation because it was boring, extraneous, and painfully lame.  Glomming the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Sorceress of the South together makes sense from a dramatic perspective, though making her a bubbly airhead was a bit much (although the MGM version does have her fans).  Having the Wicked Witch of the West be responsible for the poppies is fine for purposes of drama, and having them be foiled by snow as opposed to field mice is likewise fine for purposes of staging.  Mary Norton’s The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks do not contain Nazis, musical numbers, a young Miss Price, or magical football matches with talking animals–though all of these things are very fun in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I adored as a child and had to thank for introducing me to the equally good (if significantly different) book.  And Alfonso Cuaron’s version of A Little Princess took numerous liberties with the original novel, including but not limited to moving the setting from London to New York, making Becky black instead of Cockney, and most significantly, having Sarah’s dad not be dead of bad investments in India but instead poisoned by mustard gas and MIA in WWI.

The difference here is that The Wizard of Oz, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Cuaron’s A Little Princess are all great movies.   The reason The Seeker isn’t is not because elements were changed, but because elements were changed for the wrong reasons and the wrong way. Continue Reading »

Caliban and His Mirror: a Guest Post by James Enge

November 11th, 2008

Commenter James Enge posted a rumination on fantasy and politics on his own blog, and I received his permission to repost it here for your reading pleasure (or for you to take issue with–we’re equal opportunity).

Herewith:

Caliban and His Mirror: Fantasy and Politics (or not):

by James Enge
Deep Genre has had a couple of interesting posts lately about political values in epic fantasy–specifically the old “SF Diplomat” question of whether fantasy is inherently reactionary. The first was (by Kate Elliott, and the next by Lois Tilton; both have provoked interesting comment threads, and with luck there may be more posts to come.)

In the comments to Kate Elliot’s piece, Mark Tiedemann (a sometime Black Gate writer, among other perhaps more notable things) suggested that fantasy was not necessarily interested in politics–he described it as an “added benefit” for fantasy but not essential. “Fantasy is not about systems but about the essentials of self, and the problems of the given story are designed to reveal those qualities of character which are outside of or beyond ‘politics.’”

I was going to just comment with something like “Word!” or “True dat!” but my experts tell me that no one says that stuff anymore, and they also refused to tell me what people do say. (“For your own safety,” they keep insisting, as if that arrest for misuse of “groovadelic” in mixed company hadn’t been expunged from my record years ago.)

So instead I wrote

Great post and fascinating comments. I especially like Mark Tiedemann’s point. Matters of governance in a fantasy novel are rarely about politics; they’re identity symbols. This can be bad (in an Iron Dream sort of way) or good, but it’s not necessarily advocating reactionary political values. It has more to do with the Freudian “family romance.”

Kate Elliott wondered, in a very civil way, what the hell we were talking about. I can’t speak for Mark Tiedemann, but here’s what I was talking about.
Continue Reading »

On Fantasies and Kings

November 9th, 2008

In addressing the charge that genre fantasy displays a reactionary political bias by setting so many of its works in genre-medieval kingdoms, Kate Elliott aptly points her finger at lazy worldmaking instead. To which I would add the pernicious influence of the publishers’ marketing departments, who find it easiest to sell what they have sold so often before.

The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

Fantasy is the oldest kind of story, rooted directly in myth, the tales of gods and other wondrous beings who did wondrous deeds at the beginning of time. Moreover, fantasy continually revisits its roots, seeking to revive and capture that primal wonder.

It is for this reason that there is always a backwards-looking strain in fantasy fiction, usually not because of any reactionary political leanings of the authors, but because this branch of fantasy seeks the divine, the numinous, the wonder of those times when myth was alive.

There is a limit to how far back we can go. Our species has lived on Earth for about a hundred thousand years, but the historical record covers only the most recent five percent of that time, and that incompletely. We know from the finds of archaeology that our distant ancestors had religious beliefs, that they entertained hope of an afterlife, that they probably had invented gods and worshiped them. But we can only conjecture about the actual content of their myths, the stories the people told about their gods. This is the realm of the imagination, the realm of fantasy.

Continue Reading »

Blog party

September 18th, 2008

Nope, no essay this week.  I wrote one already for agent Lucienne Diver’s Epic Fantasy Week blog.  Other guest bloggers are fantasy writers Lynn Flewelling, David Coe, Diana Pharaoh Francis, and Sara Hoyt.  Join us for talk about characterization in fantasy, writer promotion, series arcs, worldbuilding, and writing fantasy in a scientific world.

Carol

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