Posts belonging to Category creative writing



Heroes are hard to write – and The Warrior’s Bond has two of them…

I’m delighted to let you know that The Warrior’s Bond is now out in ebook! Just in time for Eastercon!

Huge thanks as ever to Elizabeth and Cheryl, and you can currently buy the book at the Wizard’s Tower Press online store. The roll-out to other outlets, Kindle, Nook etc, will happen over the next few days as usual.

Meantime? As with each of these ebook releases, I’ve been thinking back to the challenges of writing each particular story and here, the problem was heroes.

Let’s face it; virtue is assuredly admirable but it can all too often be rather dull. A good man in a story really can struggle to rise above that single, defining characteristic. Be honest; who’s more interesting; Superman or Batman? Consider Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Luke’s story is as straight-forward as his personality and both of these things make him increasingly predictable as the first three (and only worthwhile) Star Wars films unfold. Yes, he faces trials and tribulations, with a noteworthy performance from Mark Hamill, but Luke’s done nothing to deserve any of this, good or bad, beyond being born. Consequently our emotional reactions to his story are likely to be just as straight-forward.

Han Solo? He’s unpredictable from start to finish (as Greedo discovers when Han shoots first) and that’s merely one aspect of his appeal. His back story is full of secrets and misadventures with lingering consequences that can and do come back to bite him. Our reactions are consequently complex. Yes, we’re anguished for him but honestly, Han, you do bring these things on yourself… As a result his story is a many-layered one of challenge and redemption and overall that’s so much more interesting, isn’t it?

I sometimes wonder how influential Star Wars was on my generation of fantasy writers. Is this one of the reasons why epic secondary worlds seem currently mired in grimdark, with characters displaying an infinite number of shades of grey rather than seeing heroes ride into battle on their white horses to face off against the black hooded menace of Tolkien’s day? Though this cuts both ways. We see a convincing complexity within evil now and that’s definitely a good thing. Motiveless malignity just doesn’t convince anyone these days. But I digress.

So where did thinking about heroes in these terms leave me, when I realised that the unfolding logic of the Tales of Einarinn would see Ryshad and Temar working together in Toremal, searching for the remaining artefacts needed to restore the lost colony of Kellarin. Oh, I had the framework of the plot, with any number of difficulties and puzzles to test them as they face treachery and rival ambitions determined to frustrate them.

But I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Both men’s personalities had to be integral to the story’s resolution and we had to see the effects of success and failure on their individual characters, from the start through to the end of the book. There had to be metaphorical journeys for both men, driven by intense, fast paced events, with The Warrior’s Bond unfolding almost entirely within the city of Toremal over the course of five days.

Well, as with so many aspects of writing, it’s always worth considering what other authors have done, when looking for a starting point. For instance, Jack Aubrey is an interesting hero, in Patrick O’Brien’s tales of Napoleonic sea-faring from Master and Commander onwards. Jack’s definitely a good guy but he’s what I’ve seen defined as a mono-competent hero, as opposed to the omni-competent hero; one in the Captain American mould. Jack Aubrey is second to none when it comes to fighting a naval battle, but when he has to deal with everyday life ashore? He is, to coin a phrase, all at sea. This gives him vulnerabilities and challenges which add complexity and interest to his story, by prompting actions and reactions which reveal more depth to his character.

So I looked to put both of this story’s heroes on a shaky footing. That was readily done with Temar because he’s a man out of his time. He cannot necessarily rely on what he thinks he knows about this place and how it works, while every day brings harsh reminders of what he has lost. He has to depend on what people are telling him, aware that they’re likely to have their own agenda but without the background knowledge to tell him what their personal interests might be and how far they might be shading the truth. Unlike Captain America (a very interesting current portrayal of a hero incidentally), he doesn’t have an Einarinn Internet to help him work through a list of things he finds to check out. Add to that Temar’s comparatively young, and as readers of The Swordsman’s Oath will know, he has been known to make ill-considered decisions with less than ideal results.

Ryshad is older and wiser and well used to thinking things through, as we have seen in The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath. So how could I throw him off balance? Well, if an anti-hero struggles to reconcile the noble and selfish sides of his character, a good man can be pulled in two different directions by conflicting loyalties. As Ryshad returns to Toremal, he discovers he’s increasingly a man out of place. His travels and his experiences, including but by no means limited to falling in love with Livak, have changed him. But his old life and duty cannot easily be discarded. Given his age and life experience, the one thing he simply won’t do is make a rash choice and consider everything else well lost for love. But his relationship with Livak isn’t some casual rush of lust either. He’s absolutely not about to give her up.

So now I had my heroes each with one metaphorical hand tied behind their backs. Now we could see if the bond between them would enable the pair to overcome the challenges they were about to face…

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What I did with my Saturday, explaining the lack of a blogpost yesterday

Had an excellent day at the Oxford Literary Festival today. I chaired a conversation between/with Dr Susan Jones and Dr Fiona Macintosh on ancient and modern dance which was absolutely fascinating, and touched on all sorts of things we could have discussed for hours, such as the ways in which all arts reflect the era in which they are performed, and are subject to use and abuse by both sides on then-current socio-political debates. Also the ways that an open minded and inter/cross disciplinary approach can contribute all manner of new understanding to a field.

And afterwards, in our bit of interdisciplinary conversations, Susan and I had a quick chat about the common approach to using core strength in ballet (she’s a former principle dancer) and in aikido. Incidentally, I have met a good handful of male dancers who also do aikido over the years.

Then I had the pleasure – as always – of listening to Andrew Taylor talking about his own writing and crime and historical writing in general. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, do take it. Meantime, if you’re not reading his books, do start.

My last event for the day was the debate – ‘Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction’, with Elizabeth Edmondson and Gaynor Arnold for the proposal and myself and Anita Mason against. That really went with a swing – and with any luck, our respective arguments will get posted online somewhere. Naturally excellent points were made on both sides and overall, I’d say the debate concluded what really matters is books that offer richness of experience & respect for readers.

On a purely personal level, I’m extremely pleased to know I nailed a fair bit of unthinking anti-SFness among the audience, judging by the folk who came up to me afterwards to say I’d made them rethink their belief that SF and fantasy weren’t for them.

And now, I have a very good friend’s 50th birthday party to go to, so that’ll conclude an insanely busy day in a really fun way.

And preparing for all this, as well as going to Birmingham yesterday evening to see a friend performing in a show (which was excellent – Oliver! by the Coleshill Opera Society in Solihull) is the reason why I had no time or indeed brain for a blogpost yesterday.

And I shall think on the question from the audience respectfully, even tentatively asking whether it’s possible to enjoy SF without being immersed in all its traditions and classics of the genre for a future blogpost…

Where do our ideas go? Creativity inspired by SF&F writing

‘Where do your ideas come from?’ One of the most common and most genuine questions authors are asked – and one of the hardest to handle since the answer will be the single word, ‘everywhere’, or a ten-hour trawl through everything that writer’s ever read, watched, heard, glimpsed in passing through the window of a car, a train, a house…

So let’s set that aside and look at some examples of creativity inspired by SF&F writing – my own and a few other authors among the many I know and admire. No, I’m not talking about fanfiction. Yes, that’s certainly an expression of the creative urge and I understand that. I also know it’s a hot button topic on both sides, so let’s set it aside for this particular blog post.

Because what really fascinates me is when writing doesn’t beget more writing but inspires creativity in non-writing fields. Transformative responses to the stories we tell.

Artistic interpretations have fascinated me since Geoff Taylor did the covers for my first series. In particular, his vision of Toremal, as seen on The Warrior’s Bond cover – and here’s a good view of the whole picture without titles etc.

You see, I was working from a whole lot of pictures of central European 16th and 17th Century architecture as I wrote the descriptions of that city. I often work from visual references, for places and people. Geoff took my words and created this vista from them. Then someone who knew nothing of my writing and didn’t read fantasy fiction at all, studied the picture for a while and then said thoughtfully, ‘that reminds me of our holiday in Salzburg’. I love the way that sequence of old pictures inspiring words inspiring a new picture came full circle to convey exactly the desired atmosphere.

It’s not only professional artists with cover art commissions who are inspired. Martha Wells’ Raskura books and novellas are well worth reading, for fantasy adventure with substance as well as style in a world of winged and otherwise distinctly different-to-us humanoids. If you’re used to predicting a story’s outcome on the basis of genre traditions or commonly held notions of human nature, think again…

Is the intense strangeness yet convincing reality of this world what’s inspired some fine fan art? I honestly don’t know, not being in the least visually creative myself, but do check out this selection.

There are links to more fan art on Martha’s website Scroll down to the bottom of this page to find them (Check out a few samples of her writing while you’re there too).

Here’s another visual creation – a fauxto. No, I’d never heard of them either, until this was flagged up to me. As the creator explains –

In the early 1990s, Garth Nix went to a flea market in Sydney, Australia and looked through a box of old, early 1900s photographs that were being sold for a dollar a piece. As he flipped through the photos he came across a photograph of a young woman in a military style coat wearing a belt made out of bells and holding a sword. He studied the photo, wondering who this mysterious woman was. He purchased the photo, took it home and promptly wrote the draft for his young adult high-fantasy novel, Sabriel.

THIS DID NOT ACTUALLY HAPPEN. But what if it did? And that, my beautiful friends, is the idea behind this fauxto.

You’ll find a whole lot more fascinating images at The Real Fauxtographer website.

By the by, if you have a reluctant teen reader on your hands, buy them a copy of Sabriel. I’ve lost count of the kids I know who’ve been kickstarted into the reading habit by that book and series.

Then there’s music! Quite possibly one of the coolest emails I’ve ever got from a reader was when Paul Vandervort let me know he’d completed a suite of five pieces inspired by my Tales of Einarinn series. You can find the first piece here, and links to the rest.

Now, I enjoy music. I sing, or at least I used to, as a proficient chorus soprano and alto, and similarly was a reliable orchestral player on cello and viola, but composition has always been a mystery to me. I’m also not one of those writers who’s directly inspired by music, as quite a few of my colleagues are. So the notion that my words can spark that particular creative impulse absolutely intrigues me.

Anyone seen any other noteworthy transformative fanwork they’d like to flag up?

‘Genre Fiction is no different from Literary Fiction’ – Discuss, here and at the Oxford Literary Festival

I’ll be taking part in this debate, at 2.00 pm on Saturday 29th March, at the Oxford Literary Festival. This will be part of the St Hilda’s College stream of programming, now in its fifth year as a distinctive element of the Literary festival, and one which incidentally markedly raises the female author quotient over the entire programme.

The other authors debating this will be Orange Prize longlisted Gaynor Arnold (The Girl in the Blue Dress, After Such Kindness), Elizabeth Edmondson, who writes historical mysteries and romances under her own name and as Elizabeth Aston (Devil’s Sonata, the Darcy novels) and Booker-shortlisted Anita Mason (The Illusionist, The Right Hand of the Sun), all of us St Hilda’s alumnae – merely a few of the great many of us now working in all areas of the media.

We will be considering the value or pointlessness of labelling and compartmentalising fiction, in a debate chaired by Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian.

If you’re within striking distance of Oxford on the 29th, do come along if you can. Tickets are £11, click here to book.

Meantime, what do you think? I’ve already got my thoughts in order and made my notes but I’m curious to see if someone comes up with something that hasn’t occurred to me.

The St Hilda’s stream has other fascinating events – at 10 am, I’ll be chairing a discussion on literary influences on modern dance, from Isadora Duncan to Fred Astaire and Martha Graham, between Dr Susan Jones, former soloist with the Scottish Ballet, now a fellow of St Hilda’s and author of Literature, Modernism and Dance, and classicist Dr Fiona Macintosh, fellow of St Hilda’s, director of the University of Oxford’s Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, and editor of The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World.

Another of St Hilda’s annual literary events is the Crime & Mystery Conference held each August since 1994. At 12.00 noon this year Nicolette Jones, critic and chair of the St Hilda’s College Media Network, will be interviewing one of the event’s most long-standing speakers and attendees, Andrew Taylor, acclaimed crime writer and historical novelist, winner of the Cartier Diamond Dagger and of the 2013 CWA Historical Dagger Award. They’ll discuss his latest crime thriller, The Scent of Death, and much more besides, I’m sure of that.

We’re rounding off the day with opera! Specifically, Glamour and Grubbiness, the Inside Story, as revealed by Wasfi Kani telling the story of the Grange Park Opera, in Hampshire. There will be singing and afterwards, a glass of sparkling wine. How can you resist?

What Do Female Villains Do That Bad Guys Don’t?

Following on from last week’s post, interesting points cropped up in various conversations. One caught my eye – though I cannot recall who said it or where, so if it was you, please raise a hand in comments. Essentially the question was what distinguishes a Female Villain from a Male? Let’s think about that, and broaden out the question. Is there any point in choosing to have your evil protagonist a woman rather than a man, if there’s no meaningful difference beyond gender?

This rang a chord with me, as I recall a related conversation we had at the last World Fantasy Convention about strong women in epic tales; the Female Hero I’ve already referred to. One thing all of us on the ‘Broads with Swords’ panel really like is the way strong women in fantasy fiction no longer have to be ‘fauxmales’.

Which is to say, we’ve gone beyond stories where the only possible way for a woman to be strong is to pick up a sword, don implausible boobplate armour, and go off to play Joan of Arc. Nowadays in epic fantasy, Female Heroes and Heroines alike can be politicians, scholars, and yes, wives and mothers, while still playing a central, defining role in the plot.

So what about Female Villains? How are they not just Evil Overlord in a dress? A few things have occurred to me as I’ve thought about that in spare moments this week.

Female Villains are often not the figurehead. They’re in the background, often working within the Evil Overlord’s support system. Dolores Umbridge didn’t want to be Lord Voldemort. She wanted to establish her own, much less obvious power base and used existing systems to change things little by little, rather than shattering the old order from the outset. She was a much more subtle, longer term threat as she distorted the education of the next generation of wizardry. And her goal was achievable.

Initially at least, Dolores Umbridge used what management jargoneers call ‘soft’ skills very effectively – not confrontation but manipulation, building consensus and convincing her victims and onlookers alike that this was all for their own good and in the service of broader, longer-term benefits. And isn’t that notion of ‘soft skills’ interesting from a gendered-language point of view?

Another Female Villain very good at this is Zavcka Klist in Stephanie Saulter’s GemSigns. She also highlights another possible trait of Female Villains. Evil Overlords rule from the top down. Female Villains seem more inclined to recruit allies rather than underlings, both directly on their own side and also among their opponents. They are very good at divide and rule and conquering from within. Using those ‘soft skills’ again. All ‘active listening’ and ‘reflective speaking’. ‘I understand your concerns. Let me help you resolve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction.’

Zavcka Klist also understands the value of information and of propaganda and PR. That’s something I see in other Female Villains, up to and including Ma-Ma in Dredd, even if her particular approach is more akin to the brutal South American drug cartel offer of ‘silver or lead?’ Money in your pockets or a bullet in the head? How much necessary evil will a society tolerate, to save itself from something worse? Female Villains seem good at that particular calculation.

Ma-Ma also makes extensive use of technology, to gather information as she plans her next move. Is this something Female Villains do more readily than their Male counterparts? Not sure. But that relates to something else that came out of last week’s discussions. The really scary, truly dangerous Villains – male or Female and as distinct from Evil Antagonists – aren’t psychopaths. On that scale, Dolores Umbridge is far worse than Bellatrix LeStrange.

Once I started thinking about this, I realised something else. I’ve seen a fair bit of this in action for myself. Some years ago, at PCon in Dublin, the ‘How to be an Evil Overlord’ panel was run as a role-playing exercise. For no reason that I can see, I was immediately nominated to be the Empress. Alas, I forget who else took on what other roles, apart from Kim Newman who was my Minister for Public Relations, or as he immediately renamed himself, Minister for Fun!

We fielded assorted questions from the audience, notably from one journalist who wanted to know where the realm’s substantial tax revenues were going, given the hardship of most ordinary folks’ lives. After Kim promptly made her Royal Cake Correspondent, I explained how all that money was being invested in scientific research and preparations for the realm’s wonderful space programme which would soon shower everyone with rewards as we boldly advanced the causes of technology and exploration to win the realm new resources.

Meantime, alas, the secluded space centre behind the high mountains on the far side of the kingdom would have to remain strictly off-limits, to prevent our scientists from being distracted and to avoid biological contamination, so on and so forth.

We kept this up for a good long while, repeatedly recruiting the most persistent and awkward questioners for that wonderful space programme – if we couldn’t distract them with cake. Of course, that meant dispatching them to that top-secret facility beyond the mountains, which oddly, no one ever seemed to return from. As the hour wound up and more and more people were starting to say ‘hang on a minute…’ the Empress sent her handsome, charming, and clueless Consort out onto the palace balcony to face the mob. Travelling companionably though not romantically with her erstwhile Minister for Fun, she swiftly and discreetly departed for another country with no extradition treaty and a banking system of iron-clad secrecy which had profited for years from her substantial deposits.

That panel really was a lot of fun, though I did notice a few people giving me slightly uneasy sideways glances afterwards…

So, once again, what have I missed? What traits do you see as particularly distinguishing Female Villains?

Jim C Hines blog has some eye-opening guest posts exploring representation in SF&F

While we’re considering people we don’t tend to see in SF&F, you should really read the recent series of guest posts on Jim C. Hines blog, where folk who live with the day-to-day reality of issues around race, colour, disability and prejudice talk with eye-opening candour about what they do and don’t see, and what it means to them.

Start here and keep on clicking.

Where are our Female Villains?

Something I’ve spoken and written about since The Thief’s Gamble was first published is the rise of the Female Hero within fantasy fiction. By which I mean a female protagonist whose motives, adventures and ambitions are not first and foremost driven by, and in service of, her relationship with a man and/or by extension, motherhood.

A Female Hero can assuredly have male lovers, maybe even a husband and/or children. She can co-exist with Heroines whose roles in a story and within the world it portrays, are defined by their relationships with men and/or children. This doesn’t mean such women have to be meek or passive. One of SF’s greatest kick-ass Heroines is Sarah Connor from the Terminator mythos. She’s no less awesome because of her heroism is driven by her need to protect her son.

What distinguishes a Female Hero, whatever her quest or her story might be, is that she is free from controlling male/family influence, whether she’s seeking political power, magic, or something else, whether she seeks it for herself or to benefit others.

No, I don’t mean a ball-breaking man-hater who scorns all males. And I definitely don’t mean the Red-Sonja-I-will-kill-my-rapist swordswoman as interpolated into Conan the Barbarian’s mythos. That notion might have been ground-breaking in 1973 but has become a very tired, exploitative and often misogynistic stereotype in subsequent decades. Though please note, I’m not familiar with the latest comic book incarnation as written by Gail Simone, and I’ll be very interested in comments from anyone who is currently reading it.

These days you can find plenty of Female Heroes across science fiction and epic fantasy. I’ve written a good few myself. Feel free to suggest your own favourites in comments. How is the comic world doing for Female Heroes at present?

The thing is though, where are our Female Villains? We have plenty of Female Villainesses; strong, capable women with agency and ability, whose actions drive stories, whose motivation centres on lovers and children. Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones is one of the first who springs to mind.

Female Villains? The only recent one I’ve been able to think of while writing this is ‘Ma-Ma’ in the 2012 Dredd movie. Gang leader, drug dealer, all-round terrifying, viciously intelligent and ambitious and incidentally, a woman.

And yes, I have noticed that I’ve just cited three examplar characters who have all been portrayed on screen by Lena Headey. Not sure what that signifies…

Before Ma-Ma? Casting my mind way back, I can think of Servalan, in the late 70s TV series, Blake’s 7, who was quite ready to use sexual wiles but whose ultimate goal was always power. Possibly The Rani, a ruthlessly scientific female Time Lord (Lady?) in the late 80s Doctor Who? Given I’ve seen neither series since first broadcast, I’m open to correction by anyone who’s watched them more recently.

Since then? Where are the Female Villains? Who have I missed seeing out there, in books, TV, movies or comics?

The Guardian gets the idea! Women do write and read epic fantasy!

Following on from my previous post – and a good few others around the general issue of sexism/gender in genre this week, The Guardian is running a piece on women epic fantasy authors, actively soliciting recommendations. Do click on over and have your say!

Alison Flood’s article is here, illustrated with a great picture of Arya Stark.

Sincerest thanks to all who boosted the signal(s)

Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

I’ve held off writing this post for a while now. Because I’m so tired of it all. Why won’t this noisy minority of folk with offensive and irrelevant opinions just GO AWAY! Let the vast majority of SF&F readers and writers who are decently socialised human beings living in the 21st century get on with discussing the increasingly intricate and inventive ways in which speculative fiction explores and celebrates the human condition in all its diversity (racial, sexual, tentacle etc)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the noisy minority have scored big this week. I’ve just been sent a link to that dailydot.com story, revealing a mind-bogglingly offensive forum exchange among some SF writers and publishing professionals – from a friend active in crime fiction circles. Y’know, in case I hadn’t already seen it. I wish….

So this is one reason I’m writing this post. This stuff matters when onlookers unfamiliar with the current debate within our genre are noticing. When they read headlines like ‘Sexist, racist sci-fi writers forget their horrible rants are public.’ Because chances are, a great many won’t bother reading beyond that frankly ill-advised headline to discover the truth in an otherwise pretty good article. That the sexists and racists are squawking so loudly precisely because they’re being challenged and told their attitudes are unacceptable.

No, most onlookers will just glance at that, think, ‘ah yes, I see SF is still full of neck-bearded long-hairs* with Neanderthal attitudes to women and people of colour. I need not bother reading the article just to confirm I can continue ignoring that section in the bookstore.’

And in case any UK readers are tempted to think ‘Well, that’s over the US. We don’t need to worry’, do cast your mind back to the headlines and articles following the shortlist announcements for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Award. One disgruntled non-shortlisted author started hurling insults at those who had been listed and also at the judges. This got picked up by the national press. Since he also saw fit to insult a crime writer he’d shared a lit fest platform with, Twitter soon filled up with astonishment from other crime and mystery authors that this tantrum could be considered remotely professional behaviour.

My inbox filled up with email from folk I know who work in national newspapers, broadcasting and other journalism, whose response can be best summed up by one internationally and award-winning author I have the honour to know: ‘Why on earth do you waste your time on a genre full of such horrible people?’ So the time and effort I’ve put in over a decade and more, trying to convince these people that SF&F is a mature, nuanced literature worthy of respect had been effectively trashed by one entitled individual’s spiteful fit of pique. That infuriates me.

Then we had the newspaper article in 2013 ‘Arthur C Clarke award announces all-male shortlist. Mostly female judges overlook women in choice of contenders for UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize.’ Er, no we damn well didn’t, as Liz William’s follow-up article made clear. But that’s first article is the one that established the impression that’s lasted, that’s still being raised in conversations with me.

A common response when I say this is ‘Ah, well, we true keepers of the SF&F flame don’t need validation from the vulgar mainstream so that doesn’t matter.’ I can only assume folk with this attitude have never worked in retail. As a professional writer, it sure as hell matters to me, because it is onlookers unfamiliar with the genre who will make key decisions based on this stuff which will have a direct impact on my career. Not to mention a significant influence on my available choices as a reader.

I know this for a fact. I used to work in bookselling, working for Ottakar’s here in the UK. I was well up to speed with SF&Fantasy, also with Crime & Mystery and children’s books – because they were all genres I read and had a direct interest it. I didn’t read Horror. I never have. I simply don’t understand its appeal. But as a bookseller I had a professional duty to keep generally current with new authors and trends. I did that by checking reviews in the papers, and other mentions, via an invaluable paper newsletter called Books in the Media and other sources like the weekend papers and monthly genre magazines. This was in the mid-90s so the Internet wasn’t really A Thing. I was diligent because it was in my interests to present Horror reading customers with the books they would buy and thus ensure the shop’s sale targets were met and that would be reflected in our pay rises.

Then I became an author and started going to conventions – and discovered that I had significantly underestimated the number of women both reading and writing horror fiction. Because as an onlooker, the picture presented to me through the commercially-relevant media was badly skewed.

This is still going on. With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.

But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, the publisher will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, the most passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work, but that’s another discussion I’ve already written on several times.

You can see the same thing at work in the movies. How long have we been waiting for a female-led superhero movie? Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for decades. It’s taken the success of Black Widow as a character in (The) Avengers (Assemble) to convince decision makers to take that chance. Decision makers and money men whose choices are influenced by such things as the comic industry’s persistently sexually provocative and exploitative artwork, and trade events which see no problem in having no women creatives on panels at all. They don’t see the very hard work being done within the comics world by men and women alike to change all that.

Returning to books, this has little or nothing to do with the actual authors. Macho McHackenslay’s personal credentials as a fully-rounded, decent human being who shows genuine respect to folk different to himself are most likely excellent. Chances are he learned such attitudes at his great-uncle’s knee, the famed ray-guns and rocketships, square-jawed hero SF writer of the 1960s, Blokey McZoom, who marched for Civil Rights in the USA and wrote passionately in support of Roe vs Wade and all manner of other progressive causes.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m writing this is because I have seen people saying ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, we just need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off and it’ll all be fine.’ Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. If it did, these rows wouldn’t keep recurring.

Having read getting on for 200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge, I found a range of attitudes from socially conservative/sexist/veiled-racist to adventurous, progressive, informed and thought-provoking social commentary. There was absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas. Some of the worst offenders were younger men and women. Some of the best work was written by middle-aged and older white men, for whom age and experience had brought perspective and insight.

There’s a logical fallacy at work here. A spider has eight legs but having eight legs doesn’t make something a spider. It can be an octopus. The currently noisy and offensive crowd may be predominately old white men. That doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be old, white and/or male automatically holds outdated and offensive views. Please don’t make that mistake and add further venom to this already toxic mix.

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. Because when that’s what the onlooker sees, those are the boxes they’ll aim to tick and hey, there’s no need to write decent prose because neck-bearded, long-haired* Neanderthals won’t know it if they read it, right? Okay, I exaggerate slightly – but not much.

So this stuff matters. This is why we need to speak up and make our voices heard above the noisy, spiteful old reactionaries. So that onlookers realise that SF&F is a genre worth looking into, for interesting, thought-provoking writing as well as thrills and spills and tales of high adventure. So new readers and writers continue the genre’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

* I have two sons of 18 and 20 both with chin-strap beards and very long hair and have no prejudice against such personal grooming choices except when I am the one declogging the plughole in the shower

Religion in Einarinn

Reading Kameron Hurley’s guest post earlier this week has set me thinking about the way I’ve created and used religion in my own fantasy writing.

When I wrote The Thief’s Gamble, I didn’t want gods or prophecies or anything similar playing a part in the action. I wanted this to be a story about people risking themselves for other people, for friendship and duty and similar personal motives. So there were definitely going to be no gods on stage, no holy inspiration or edicts from on high. Most especially, and absolutely, magical power, whether that was elemental or aetheric, was not going to stem from divine favour. I also know people of genuine personal faith, who find fantasy fiction with gods playing an active part in the narrative problematic. Given the stories I aim to tell, there’s no need for me to give such offence to folk of sincere belief.

On the other hand, if I was creating a believable fantasy world, I knew there would have to be gods. There have always been gods, and plenty of them, and throughout human history, that’s caused all manner of strife. I find fantasy worlds with a sole religion with everyone believing in it, unquestioning, as problematic as Kameron.

So I sketched out the Einarinn pantheon, drawing on my studies into ancient Greece and Rome and what I’ve picked up here and there about sundry other cultures. Anthropologically speaking, the impulse to create deities seems driven first and foremost by the human desire for explanation and comprehension of the world around us, and then by hope for some sort of control over the unpredictable shocks of nature and whatever terrors might be lurking beyond the circle of light from the fire. So Einarinn has a sky god, Saedrin, a sea god Dastennin, a harvest goddess Drianon, and a god of death, Poldrion, to mention just a few.

But just as I didn’t want to use a single deity and default to a religion that might just as well be Christianity, Judaism or Islam with the serial numbers filed off, I didn’t want these invented deities to default to being Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter or Hades with a shave and a different haircut or new dress. So I invented more deities; Ostrin, god of hospitality and healing, Arimelin goddess of dreams, Halcarion, goddess of luck and love, Raeponin god of justice, Larasion goddess of the weather, Talagrin, god of the hunt and wild places, Misaen the Maker, god of artisans, and Maewelin the Winter Hag. Oh and Trimon the Wanderer which was useful when I came to allocate the different gods and goddesses to the seasons and festivals of the Tormalin calendar and found I had one left over. It seemed fitting that the Traveller’s God wouldn’t be tied down like that.

As I wrote the books, I drew on classical customs with regard to shrines and priests and local cults to create rituals and religious observance that doesn’t rely on any centralised system or hierarchy. I drew on the wide variety of degrees of faith among people I know day to day; to give some characters sincere belief, while others are variously sceptical to a greater or lesser extent while the rest simply adopt unthinking observance without ever really questioning the faiths of their fathers and mothers – and that’s all fine with me. As far as I am concerned, religion should always be a matter of personal exploration and private conviction.

What I found particularly interesting and rewarding as I wrote successive books was reverse-engineering the cultural history of these different gods and goddesses, as the various races of lowlands, uplands and woodlands blended in the Tormalin Empire. As it turned out, Saedrin, Ostrin, Poldrion, Dastennin, Raeponin, Drianon and Arrimelin were originally Old Tormalin deities while Halcarion, Larasion, Talagrin and Trimon were from the Great Forest, one for each season. Maewelin and Misaen are the original Mountain deities and that’s interesting, isn’t it; a dual vision of the divine. Once I had all that clear in my own mind, I could add depth and interest as the Tales of Einarinn unfolded by having different characters’ attitudes to different deities drawn from their varied cultural backgrounds.

But what about the Aldabreshi? They have no gods at all, and that was a conscious decision I made to mark them very firmly as The Other as far as the mainlanders are concerned, to make a central tenet of their lives completely incomprehensible to those who’ve grown up with the Tormalin pantheon.

On the other hand, the Archipelagans would still have that universal desire to find order and as measure of control over the natural world. So I drew on another tradition from my classical studies; belief in omens and portents. Once again, that worked better and better as I developed the concept, most fully in The Aldabreshin Compass. For instance, I wanted the Archipelagans to have some skills and talents well in advance of the mainland, because Other definitely wasn’t going to mean Lesser, not in my world. So as I developed the customs and practise of Aldabreshin stargazing alongside the many, many other systems of fortune telling I discovered, it became plain that the Archipelagans would be the foremost mathematicians of this world, as well as notable craftsmen with lenses, gears and other skills needed to make astrolabes and similar instruments.

As with the Tormalin deities, the effects of what I’d invented on my characters’ everyday lives soon became apparent in unexpected ways. The power of prediction became a significant aspect of the absolute authority of the Aldabreshin warlords. That was a sharp, two-edged sword, open to manipulation and abuse as well as laying obligations for all to see, on these supposed all-powerful rulers. Especially as the cultural imperative of belief in omens and portents offered up similarities with oppressive nature of the worst of medieval Catholicism. Wasn’t that intriguing? So wouldn’t it be fascinating if a central character lost his faith? Especially if he was someone who absolutely couldn’t let that apostasy become known. That added a whole further dimension to that particular series.

Religion continued to be one of the elements I used to enrich the background of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis. One thing that became more and more apparent was that mages are by and large, godless. When I realised that had become so, I had to work out why it might be. Well, the mageborn mostly come from other places as teenagers, sent to Hadrumal to get their dangerous talents well away from ordinary people. Some might bring familiar religious observance from home but I guessed most wouldn’t.

Add to that, when you have real, demonstrable power over the elements that make up the world, when the Cloud Masters and Flood Mistresses can control the weather as they wish, while the Stone Master and Heath Mistress can reshape the very land itself with earthquakes and eruptions, there’s not much room left for wistful wishing for divine intervention. And that becomes interesting of itself, considering the arrogance that can make wizardry so dangerous.

Then there’s another element in Hadrumal’s godlessness which I’ve barely referred to. It’s one of those bits of world-building which an author always knows but since it’s not directly relevant to any particular story, there’s been no great need to mention it. The wizard city of Hadrumal was founded by the first Archmage, Trydek. He was from Mandarkin, a harsh country with a brutal culture that’s never even been seen by anyone reading my stories. It lies to the north of Solura, which is another very different culture to the Tormalin Empire, which has become more familiar, most particularly in the Hadrumal Crisis books. What do readers know about Soluran religion? Very little so far. They don’t have gods or goddesses either, but they do have religious orders, centred on houses founded by notable practitioners of Artifice, the aetheric magic that scholars and rulers in the lands that once made up the Tormalin Empire are keen to rediscover. The aetheric magic that the Sheltya, the guardians of lore in the Mountains dividing Mandarkin and Solura, are determined to control.

What does all that mean? Well, if I get the opportunity to write a series focusing on these as yet unexplored regions and peoples, no doubt we will all find out!