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!

Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds – Guest Post from Kameron Hurley

Here’s something new for a new year – the first guest post on my blog. I found it a fascinating read, leaving me thoughtful about my own work as well as casting new light on the other books I’ve read which Kameron references here. By the way, if Kameron’s own ‘God’s War’ (out in the UK this week from Del Rey UK) isn’t already on your radar as a book to look out for, I recommend you follow up the links at the end of this post.

Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds

My grandmother was a war bride, a young French Catholic woman who married an American G.I. He threatened to divorce her if their fourth child wasn’t a boy. He already had three girls, and four was just too much to bear.

He told her this while they were wheeling her into the delivery room.

My grandfather was full of ominous contradictions.

Until I was twelve years old, my grandmother watched after me and my siblings while my parents worked. My parents were too exhausted for church and didn’t care much for leisurely Bible reading, so much of my exposure to the conception of God and organized religion was framed by my grandmother’s Catholicism. I cut my teeth on bloody books labeled “Children’s Bible Stories” and was often admonished to take care of my “modesty” instead of flinging off my towel after a bath and dancing naked around the house. My memories of church are mainly of me sitting in the pews working on my coloring books, and standing up and sitting down as directed by my grandmother.

But my grandmother believed fervently and passionately in God. My grandfather dutifully sent the church $100 a month, even if it meant their family of seven sometimes went hungry. My dad and aunts and uncles seemed to be mostly motivated in their beliefs by fear – what was God thinking about them? What did he have planned? God was an unknowable being to be respected, worshipped, loved, and feared.

Belief may never have taken hold of me, but twelve years growing up in the same house as my grandfather taught me fear. It taught me caution. It taught me to step softly around great hulking powers with unknowable motives. It gave me a better understanding of my aunts’ and uncle’s love and fear of God, and how God and his unknowable motives could so thoroughly suffuse one’s life.

My grandfather was, at best, verbally and physically abusive. He worked as a nighttime security guard at a bank, so he’d sleep during the day. All us kids were warned in hushed tones “not to wake grandpa.” Sneaking past his bedroom door on our way to play down in the basement was like sneaking past a bear’s den. I’m not exaggerating when I say this – one afternoon we congregated too long outside his door at the basement door opposite his, arguing about who was going to carry some toy downstairs, and my grandfather burst out of the bedroom, enraged at being woken by our arguing. He threw my cousin down the basement stairs, and grabbed me by the hair and slammed my head into the wall. My grandmother’s response to my grandfather’s outbursts was to throw her own fit of rage, throwing dishes in the kitchen and swearing at my grandfather in French.

Needless to say, it took me many years to figure out how to have disagreements with a loved one that didn’t involve screaming, cursing and throwing things.

My grandfather was, of course, also a father and husband doing the best he could with the bad hand he’d been dealt. When I was older, I learned that much of his job during his tour of Europe in World War II was hauling and burying the bodies of thousands of people killed by the Germans in concentration camps. He grew up during the depression, and when we’d complain about not getting some cereal flavor we wanted, he would rail on about how his family once found a hurt pigeon on the beach, and instead of nurturing it back to health, had eaten it because they were starving.

What made my grandfather my grandfather was a wholly alien experience to me. He became an unpredictable monster – vacillating between affable old man teaching me to plant and nurture seedlings to reeling, rage-filled behemoth set on destroying everything he’d built.

It was my unpredictable, unknowable grandfather that became my mapped-on stand-in for God in some of the old Bible stories I’d read. Only an angry, alien all-knowing, all-seeing being would tell you to kill your own child to prove your love, then say, “Ha ha just kidding.” The contradictions, the freeing people from slavery and then forgetting about them for 40 years – all felt like the actions of a being with inhuman motives.

It’s no wonder I became fascinated with the idea of creating fantastic religions that embraced the alien motivations of an unknowable God.

We tend to personify a lot of gods, so Zeus and Vishnu and the Abrahamic God have love and anger and rage like people. They are often driven by human-like emotions, sometimes propelled by narcissism (worship me above others; worship me instead of the others).

But in setting the actual stories of these gods next to their actions, I couldn’t help but think they looked far less human than we wanted to believe. In my own reading of the fantastic, and in the religions I built, I was drawn to this idea of humans creating religions around beings we truly did not understand; beings driven by some experience or logic or existence so alien to ours that they would be forever unknowable.

Those were the fantastic deities that interested me. Much of our history has us creating mythologies to make sense of things we don’t understand – shouldn’t our fantasy societies do the same?

Tim Akers executes this idea very well in his book Heart of Veridon, where the old gods, the “Celestes” appear to be a race of figures forever caught in stasis. Temples are built around them, yet no one knows where they came from or what they are:

“There are five Celestes, or were the last time I checked. Used to be six, but the Watchman flickered and disappeared, twenty years ago. I barely remember that, my mother crying in a closet, my father drawing heavy curtains across the dining room window and burning secret, heavy candles that smelled like hot sand. My parents followed the old ways, at least in private…

The Dome of the Singer [one of the Celestes] was, at first, a practical matter. She sang, loudly. Or she used to. When I stepped into the cool dark interior of the Dome, all I heard were feet scuffing on stones and the low moan of drafts circulating through the drafty heights. She was silent, and I felt a chill….

She hovered in the air at the center of the opening in the floor, surrounded by an iron railing. Her skin was pale against her bulbous, crimson roes. Her clothes were dark red and shiny, retaining form almost like a chitinous shell. Her eyes were closed. Her lips and the tips of her fingers were blood red and smooth. Light poured off her skin like mist on the river in winter. I had forgotten how beautiful she was, hidden away in this drafty stone building. How had we forgotten this, how had the city gone on to other gods?”

I also see a number of fantasy novels fall into the “singular religion” trap, where everyone believes in the same gods then follows one or the other. This not only erases a lot of potential depth to the world, but eliminates an incredible amount of potential tension. Look at tension and conflicts between those of different faiths across the world (many of which are built on very similar tenets), and throughout history. How do those tensions play out in a fantastic setting?

Akers creates two major religions in this novel, both with very different ways of viewing life, neatly shown in prose via the protagonists’ story of a near-death experience:

“The Celestes teach nothing of an afterlife. Not like the Algorithm, with its infinite pattern, its eternal calculations and the intricacies of their metronomic prophecies. Their lives are a soulless pattern, and their deaths are as well. The holy Wrights of the Algorithm teach of an afterlife of clockwork, the hidden engines of the world swept back to reveal the calculation at the middle, the equation that is God.

I hold to old gods. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the darkness that took me after the Glory of Day shattered against the cold water of the river Reine lingered only for a while. Light came, and noise. I opened my eyes to a world of pattern, of engine. The world of the Algorithm.”

The prophets of such extraordinary religions also make for fascinating stories, as they remake their society’s conception of God (or gods), and their relationship with this higher power, in response to changing times.

Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina becomes the interpreter/reimagineer of the abstract, all-powerful or alien being that so many simply call “God.” In her two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler tells the story of an ordinary girl who becomes the prophet of a new religion based around acceptance of change – God is Change. She calls it Earthseed. Butler’s books follow Olamina’s compelling journey from ordinary girl navigating the violence and uncertainty of an apocalyptic world to prophet leading the rebirth of a more vital civilization, which takes a more science fictional approach to religion-building. It shows the importance of how human religions are created, led and sustained by very human people; just people, facing impossible odds, trying to frame events around the existence of a higher power, a greater pattern or purpose. Religions are, at their core, about people trying to come to grips with uncertainty.

Olamina’s religion reimagines people’s relationship with such a higher power:

“God is Change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end.”

And:

“There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”

In Olamina’s reimagined relationship with God, people are given the power to focus, divert, and shape God’s will. They are not simply pushed along by it. They are not submissive to His will.

Aside from the “one religion” trap, another thing I see many writers fall into when creating fantasy religions is to forget that people actually believe in their gods, and belief in those gods suffuses every part of their daily life. Just as my grandfather’s tempestuous emotions often ruled my days as a child – shaping and changing events based on his moods – God or the gods should play a similarly tangible role in characters’ lives.

As Akers’s hero draws on his beliefs to interpret the events after his near-death, characters will interpret the events of the world according to their own belief systems, and use those beliefs to guide their own behavior.

Saladin Ahmed does a wonderful job incorporating the beliefs of his characters into everyday life for both individuals and communities in his book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, an Arabian Nights-flavored sword and sorcery novel about an aging ghul hunter and his apprentice.

Whereas less attentive writers might have their characters only call on or remember the existence of God or gods for oaths and epithets, Ahmed ensures that the presence of God – and the absolute faith in His existence – suffuses his characters’ lives, from greetings to blessings to prayer to magic. God is never absent.

Fantastic worlds, for me, are richer when they acknowledge that the all-powerful beings that shape their characters lives – whether literal or figurative – are, for many of their protagonists and the societies they live in – as real and tangible and unknowable as our own families, our own histories, our collective pasts.

Those who lean toward the “rational” science fiction end of the spectrum must remember that it’s been shown that our yearning for belief is hard-wired into our genetic makeup. We yearn to believe in something greater and grander than ourselves – whether that’s a common purpose or a higher power. The vast majority of humanity strives to create narrative from random. People who are able to create larger narratives – those who see patterns or larger meaning in this randomness – are more likely to outlive those who don’t.

This is why fictional fantastic societies who’ve survived against all odds, or future people who’ve conquered a galaxy, will be far more believable if they’ve organized themselves around some greater purpose. We are more sated, more powerful, more focused, when driven by a belief in something outside of ourselves.

Whether your god kindly teaches your people to nurture seedlings, flings them down the stairs unexpectedly, or engages randomly in such acts, their presence should be felt, acknowledged, and mythologized. Organized religions help us come to grips with the larger world. These beliefs have a lot to say about how your characters and societies make sense of themselves, their worlds, and the ones they love.

So consider their creation carefully, and fully.

ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

What’s in a Name?

Something about names is on just about every writer’s FAQ, regardless of genre. It never fails to surprise me at a convention or literary festival, when someone sticks up their hand and asks the ‘where do you get character names from?’ clearly thinking they’ve just asked something unexpected and original.

The thing is though, as with so much about writing, no writer works in exactly the same way, or thinks the same about something, and names are no exception. As with much else, there are broad similarities across the spectrum but even two writers taking much the same approach can come up with some different and interesting observations or thought provoking comments.

So the “Names: A New Perspective” blogposts gathered together by Abhinav Jain promise some fascinating reading. He’s garnered posts from a goodly number of writers – my own contribution will come along in a few weeks. Meantime, let’s see what other folk have to say, shall we?

You can find the first post by Patty Jansen here

What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

(March 2016 – this post has been updated with new links to press articles on the discovery of some original Jacobean bed hangings in a Scottish castle – scroll to the bottom if you’re checking back)

As regular readers know, I like to embroider. I do canvas work and cross-stitch and thanks to an inspired idea by my sister, I’ve been learning Jacobean crewel work, courtesy of family and friends clubbing together to buy me birthday-gift-certificates for Royal School of Needlework courses at Hampton Court Palace. I’d like to show you what I was working on last weekend, not by way of an ego-trip* but to show you what nine hours of such stitchery looks like.

Jacobean rabbit

Yes, nine hours and as you will see, even this smallish design isn’t complete as yet. Granted, I’m still relatively new to this style of work. On the other hand, the tutor did remark I was making good progress.

Now let’s look at this. It’s a printed fabric but in very much the sort of design that crewel work was used for – embroidering with wool on linen twill – making curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens and other decorative furnishings to brighten up – and insulate – homes in days of yore.

birds-curtain

For scale, those humming birds are about the same size as the flower in that first picture. If they’re too small to make out, click on the picture for a larger view. So just imagine how many woman-hours of stitching would be involved in say, making a set of bed curtains, canopy and valances decorated like that. Even assuming a practised needlewoman could work say, twice as fast as me. Even if that flower represented five hours’ effort, the labour involved is considerable.

This is what wealth meant, in the days before Ferraris and Rolexes. A significant measure of wealth was the ability to buy other people’s time and endeavour. You can see this in other day-to-day things historically. Dark fabrics with rich colours required multiple dye processes, so they were more expensive. High-status food like jelly/jello took a lot of time-consuming preparation and skill, starting with boiling up calves’ feet for hours at a time. This premium on personal labour has some consequences we might not expect today. When clockwork roasting spits came in, they were convenient but they weren’t a must-have item for the wealthy. It was more of a mark of status that you could employ a servant to manually turn your spit and roast your meat with personal care and attention.

And let’s not forget that you need good light for doing work like this embroidery; either natural daylight, which means whoever’s doing it needs decent glass windows which are costly, or expensive beeswax candles.

I know I’ll be looking at embroidered textiles in National Trust stately homes and castles with a whole new level of insight now. I’ll also be thinking carefully before blithely decorating any fantasy homes with those richly embroidered wall hangings.

*As a general rule, I am averse posting ‘look at me, aren’t I cool?’ stuff. ‘Read my books, they are cool,’ is an entirely different matter.

March 2016 – I’m updating this post with links to articles on the fantastic discovery of a set of Jacobean bed hangings found tucked away in a linen store in Dunollie House, Oban, during the restoration of a derelict Scottish castle. Yes, really!

The story from The Scotsman and some fantastic pictures

From the Oban Times, with close up photos and information on restoration and display plans

‘Broads with Swords’ – a stupid title for what proved to be an excellent panel at World Fantasy Con

You may – or may not – be aware of the damn silly title given to the ‘Women in Fantasy’ panel at the World Fantasy Convention, held at the start of this month in Brighton. The full brief read as follows

Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more and more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field, and how are their books any different from those of their literary predecessors?

Now, advance reactions to that varied. Most were variations on ‘Good grief, whoever wrote this really doesn’t read epic fantasy AT ALL, do they?’ Some, looking at other similarly potentially provocative descriptions in the programme, decided to give the benefit of the doubt and read these as tongue-in-cheeky, looking to provoke lively discussion. Others were to a greater or lesser extent offended by apparent lack of professional courtesy, and not just with regard to this particular panel. Some were sufficiently offended to boycott ‘Broads with Swords’, and indeed I’ve seen some express an opinion that authors should have refused to take part in this panel.

Well, I cannot speak for my fellow panellists but for myself, I agreed to do this panel expressly to give the lie to any notion that strong female characters in fantasy are anything new, or that the only way for a woman to be a strong character is to take up armour and blade and essentially pretend to be a man. I’ve written 15 epic fantasy novels exploring those particular ideas (among a good few others), and was reading books with a far more intelligent and nuanced view of women in high heroic settings for decades before that. I’m also not about to give an inch of ground to the tedious misconception which still persists in rearing its hydra-heads that epic fantasy is only written by blokes for blokes.

As it turned out, my fellow panellists, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Gaie Sebold, and our indefatigable moderator Laura Anne Gilman thought much the same. All of them excellent writers in their own right, I should add, and well worth checking out if you haven’t come across their work thus far.

Happily, a packed room full of people had decided they could trust us to tackle this subject, irrespective of the panel title. I’m not going to recap the discussion here, because The Writers’ Greenhouse, has done an excellent job of noting the key points and most especially the many, many fine authors whose work was recommended. Do click through to read the whole post.

Indeed, I think the only thing that could have possibly improved that panel was having at least one male perspective on these questions – but WFC sees no need to avail itself of the benefits which panel parity brings to programming, alas.

Oh, and Robin Hobb signed my advance proof of Royal Assassin which I have treasured since my bookselling days in 1995… (my convention fangirl moment)

As to the rest of WFC2013, newcomers went away very, very happy, full of joy about talking to real authors! So many free books! So many interesting and famous people to hear talk, including but by no means limited to Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris, Susan Cooper etc etc. So that’s excellent, and hopefully bringing new folk into UK fandom. There were also considerable numbers of European fans there, and it was lovely to meet them too.

I had enjoyable dinners with various friends, and also a lovely lunch with a generous fan. I got to see many of my lovely American pals, and to make some new ones – it is great to be able to put a face to an email/twitter/fbook friend. I made time to schedule meetings with a couple of key folk I wanted to talk to, and had an impromptu and potentially very useful encounter with someone else, so that’s my professional writer boxes ticked.

The David Gemmell Legend Awards went with a swing, hopefully making even more people aware of the Awards, and the ‘Legends’ anthology was launched afterwards amid much good cheer and celebration. Through the weekend, publishers did a stellar job with parties and launches, so those were great fun, er, apart from the ones crammed into the low-ceilinged and painfully loud night-club-bar space. I couldn’t hear myself think in there, let alone speak, which was a shame because I’m pretty sure that’s where I missed some folk I wanted to talk to. There were soooo many people…

Like most established con-goers and/or authors I spoke to, I do have a few ‘however’s…

I came home with not only tired feet – to be expected – but tired thighs and knees. I can’t recall when I was last in a convention hotel with so many flights of stairs between where you were and where you wanted to be – and that’s over and above the ‘official’ accessibility problems with the venue which were considerable, and frankly in this day and age, inexcusable. And yes, having chaired an Eastercon, I know exactly how difficult it is to find a UK venue to host such a large event. Still no excuse. Also, signposting and information about facilities needed to be a lot more prominent. The two other seating and drinking spaces other than the eye-wateringly expensive and noisily crowded hotel bar were largely empty any time I went into them and that’s not good.

The mass signing was fairly shambolic, with lots of empty author seats. I learned later that hotel security around the official start time were insisting that authors trying get in to take a seat, must join the line of con-goers waiting to come in, and since there was no way for said authors to prove that they were actually, y’know, authors, a good few just gave up and went away. Authors who’d turned up a little bit early, or a little bit later, had no such problems though. So a bit more forethought and planning on the organisation there could have made a significant, positive difference.

I have no clue how well attended, or otherwise, the whole stream of programming devoted to Arthur Machen was. Though I did find myself chatting to a chap who turned out to be a major Machen fan, involved in the official society, and he was asking me, genuinely puzzled, why there were so many panels dedicated to Machen, were fantasy fans really that interested…? I couldn’t possibly comment – genuinely. Personally I know very little about Machen and have less interest.

So that, in brief, was my World Fantasy Convention. Just one last note. If you’re ever heading for Brighton yourself, and want to stay in a delightful, comfortable and quiet little hotel, check out Brighton Wave. That’s where I stayed, and it was brilliant.

Serial Thriller – How Writing “The Ties That Bind” Has Been A Whole New Experience

About a year ago, SF author Tony Ballantyne sounded me out, explaining his plans for an ebook serial magazine for SF&Fantasy. He’d be committing to a year-long run of 12 monthly instalments, though individual stories could and should vary in length, so the mix for each issue would vary. Was I interested in being involved?

Yes, I was. ‘Always take the chance to try something new’ is a piece of advice from a famous author which I took to heart early on in my writing career. That said, I know very well that serial fiction is nothing new. Many of our greatest novelists’ works were originally published in magazines and newspapers; Dickens, Dumas, Conan Doyle, Scott. That’s how publishing popular fiction worked in their day. SF&F magazines continued that tradition through their heyday. Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” is merely one genre novel arising from linked, collected short stories. Even now, Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Since the best way of learning about something is always to give it a go, I was interested to learn first-hand what the idiosyncrasies of this particular writing style might be.

Once I’d agreed to be involved, I had a few decisions to make. I considered some of the story ideas I have jotted down in notebooks and found one that seemed well suited to episodic telling. Looking in more detail at that particular tale’s structure and arc, I found it fell nicely into eight instalments. Looking at the other commitments in my diary for 2013, I was confident I could deliver the equivalent of a short story a month, which is to say, five to six thousand words. So I drew up a more detailed outline and began work. Though only on the first few episodes. One thing I recalled from A level Eng.Lit. days is that Dickens in particular took a flexible approach to his writing, taking note of reader feedback as his stories developed. Would I get such feedback, especially in this Internet age? I had absolutely no clue but I wanted to be open to that possibility. I also had a vague sense that if I was writing a story to be read in instalments, that’s how I should work. Read more

Authors in the Digital Age – a few observations and reservations about an article worth reading regardless.

Just found an interesting article about writing and selling books in this new online reality – from a marketing guru so I read it with salt cellar to hand. Firstly, the guy seems blind to the fact that a talent for writing and a talent for selling yourself are not the same thing and a lot of folk do not have both skills sets. Also he seems to assume that every potential book-buyer is fully accessible online, and the more I talk to people, the more I think that’s a myth.

That said, among the most useful advice I had when setting out, was how important it was to understand the business of writing, as well as the craft of writing. Working for Ottakar’s for a couple of years brought that home to me like nothing else could have done – and made a crucial difference to me taking that step from hopeful writer with a file of ‘thanks but no thanks/good but not quite good enough’ letters from agents and editors, to getting that amazing phone call from the man who wanted to publish my book – in fact, let’s talk a two book deal…

In particular, there are some undeniable cold hard truths in this article which the sharks and charlatans of the ‘creative writing biz’ work so hard to hide. Namely misconceptions about writing.

* The publisher will do the selling for me (Those days are long gone).
* I’m a literary purist and selling is below me (Good luck making money off of snobbery).
* I’ll post a free e-book on Amazon and wait for everything to take care of itself (Enjoy the long wait).
* I don’t have time to write and sell my work (The problem isn’t time; it’s prioritizing your time)

Full article here.

Who Gets to Escape? Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown ask a fascinating question.

These two extremely talented authors are currently working on Kaleidoscope – an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy. This is a crowd-funded project, or hopefully it soon will be. Click that link to get involved.

Meantime, Sherwood and Rachel have written a thought-provoking post considering the nature of protagonists in fantasy fiction, taking a quotation from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” as a starting point.(Longer than my excerpt here)

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?

The key word here is ‘he’…

As the post goes on to say –

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape.

Furthermore –

…the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.

I urge you to read the whole piece, and you’ll see why this has particularly struck me, especially at the moment when the focus on epic fantasy seems to be defaulting to male writers and male stories for no good reason at all. This has been particularly notable in some conversations I have had about The Hadrumal Crisis, a trilogy where two of the three main point of view characters are women and yet interviewers ask me about ‘the hero’ Corrain. While they recognise how flawed he is as a hero, that’s apparently still his default designation.

At the same time, reader and reviewer reactions to Lady Zurenne, a woman whose story is driven by the fact that she cannot escape, are varied to say the least. Patrick Mahon’s joint review of Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies in the latest BSFA’s ‘Vector’ magazine describes her as ‘manipulative and calculating’. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing with this review – it’s a thorough and thoughtful analysis of those books which I’m delighted to see – and he’s not wrong. He also sees why she acts as she does, going on to say ‘- although this is to some extent understandable, given her need to secure the future of her two daughters…’

The thing is though, I’ve spoken to readers and seen comments from men and women alike who have even less sympathy for Zurenne, while they’re able to give Corrain much more leeway when his attempts at manly heroics don’t succeed. And again, just to be clear, I’m not arguing with those readers’ reactions. I don’t get to dictate those, writer or not and none of those folk I’ve spoken to are making unfounded assumptions based on anything other than the story in hand. From the books as written, that is an entirely valid response.

Yes, I’ve been a little surprised, since that’s not what I expected – but it doesn’t bother me, since there are plenty of other readers with immense sympathy for Zurenne. I am certainly intrigued though, wondering why this might be so. And I think this question ‘Who Gets To Escape?’ may well hold some element of the answer.

Definitely something to think on.

Unexpected Journeys – Editing an Anthology for the British Fantasy Society

This has been a whole new experience for me. I’m used to reading my fellow authors’ published work for review purposes, and I’m used to reading submissions from aspiring writers when I’ve been teaching. But putting on the Editor Hat and discussing work in draft from my professional equals? That’s not something I’ve done before…

Why have I been doing this? Well, I’ve been going to FantasyCon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual UK convention for the past decade or so and last year, Lee Harris, the current Chair asked me to edit a new anthology for the BFS with a particular focus on epic fantasy. I understood what he was asking and why. The BFS is a fan-run organisation with a focus on speculative fiction from horror to epic fantasy. It so happens most of the volunteers, who do all the very hard work without which such organisations simply cannot exist, have been personally more inclined towards the horror end of the spectrum and this taste has been reflected in the society’s publications – one of those unintended consequences.

Meantime, the growing attendance at FantasyCon (an event open to all, not just BFS members) has shown the keen appetite for epic fantasy among those attendees, not least in the packed-out rooms for the fantasy-discussion panels and the interviews with Guests of Honour such as (but not limited to) Raymond Feist, Gail Z Martin and Brent Weeks. So this year sees two anthologies from the BFS, one horror-themed, and one specifically epic fantasy, to cater to all tastes.

When I agreed to take this on, I had quite a few decisions to make. Some were easy. At the project’s outset, I was doing my second stint as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was Chair of the forthcoming Eastercon, EightSquared, scheduled for the last weekend in March 2013. So there was simply no way I could declare this an open-submissions anthology and give the necessary, critical attention to however many hopeful stories might land in my inbox. I just wouldn’t have the time. This was going to have to be an invitation-only anthology.

What sort of stories would I include? I decided I wanted tales which appreciate the core strengths of epic fantasy; compelling heroes (male and female), battles with swords and sorcery, facing down evil both intentional and accidental, a sense of myth and mystery. I also wanted to celebrate the way our beloved genre is currently flourishing with so much more than simple tales of high adventure or the concerns of kings and wizards. Epic fantasy now offers complex stories of personal growth, of mature reflection, exploration of the rights and wrongs of power. These novels feature people and places from hovels to palaces, enriched by so many more cultures and history than the genre’s original quasi-European inspiration. All threaded through with magic, danger and wonder.

But who to invite? This really was the hardest decision of all, because the collection was only going to have eight stories. I could so easily list a couple of dozen excellent authors currently writing the sort of stories I wanted without pausing for thought. So I have done my best to find writers with different styles and approaches spanning the current breadth and depth of epic fantasy. Hopefully there will be something to satisfy each reader’s particular enthusiasms alongside something they haven’t encountered in their reading thus far, whetting their appetite for more.

The stories are –

A Thief in the Night by Anne Lyle
Seeds by Benjamin Tate
Steer a Pale Course by Gail Z Martin
The Groppler’s Harvest by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet by Liz Williams
The Sin Eater by Stephen Deas
King Harvest Has Surely Come by Chaz Brenchley
The Queen’s Garden by Kate Elliott

Reading these in draft was definitely a new experience. I’m used to being edited myself but now I was the one looking to nit-pick and ask awkward questions as I put myself in the place of the reader unfamiliar with this author and their work. Fortunately, working with talented professionals, there wasn’t too much of that to do, and our discussions were very amiable. Then I had to pick up my red pen and copy-edit, looking at the fine detail of the actual word-smithing. Actually the main thing I had to do was put my red pen down and sit on my hands, to make very sure I was only highlighting things which needed to be changed for clarity and flow. The temptation for me as an author, to think how I might have written a sentence differently, had to be sternly resisted. Otherwise I risked overlaying the rhythm and character of another writer’s prose with elements of my own writing style. That’s most definitely not an editor’s job.

Then I had to find some cover art. ‘Oh… help…’ was my initial reaction – swiftly followed by ‘thank goodness for the Internet!’ I began browsing various genre artists’ websites and discovered that, as well as their published covers and other art, some were displaying pieces of work which had been commissioned but for some reason or other, had never been used. These were available to be licensed. So I began hunting in earnest for such a picture which would somehow simultaneously manage to reflect the very different stories now gathered together. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find ‘Soldier and Sword’ by Geoff Taylor – one of epic fantasy’s most enduring and admired artists (among his other work – if you haven’t seen his wildlife art, do check out his website).

And now we’ve been doing the final proof-reading and the book is due to go to print. That’s both a relief, as the job’s finally done, and unexpectedly nerve-wracking, as I must wait to find out how far readers think I’ve succeeded in my aims. In the first instance, those readers will be current BFS members and those who join in the forthcoming months. Obviously, the authors retain the rights to their stories and they will doubtless appear elsewhere to delight their fans. For the moment though, this book is a gift from the British Fantasy Society to those who support it and I am very pleased to have been a part of the project.

soldier_and_sword-geofftaylor4
Soldier and Sword by Geoff Taylor

My very first Science Fiction short story has just been published! Wait… what?

Let me explain. Yes, of course, I’ve had a good number of short stories published since I began writing professionally. Not nearly as many as some writers but then I’m not an instinctive short story writer. My natural length is the novel – and it’s been said – with justification, especially about my early short work – that my short stories often read like extracts from a longer tale. Less so as I’ve gone on writing, since my appreciation and understanding of the differences between various writing lengths and styles has grown.

But almost all of my short fiction has been fantasy – some lighter, some darker, a few even verging on horror. Apart from that I’ve had a crack at steampunk a couple of times and I’ve written a few media tie-ins, for Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. There’s a sort-of-time-travel one waiting for the relevant anthology to be published as well.

But Science Fiction? A modern-day setting with y’know, actual Science at the heart of the story? Not before this one. Yes, I was surprised as well. And I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to come up with a decent idea when Mahiri Simpson got in touch and asked if I’d like to offer a story about women designing the perfect man.

A fascinating premise… So what would I personally like to see… What are some personally memorable moments for me, in the ongoing battle of the sexes? Well, there was that famous tennis match, wasn’t there, between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King… And I keep reading news stories about women working in science having to fight for respect…

Well, if you want to find out where that sort of thinking led me, you can read my story, Game, Set and Match? in Tales of Eve (ebooks via Wizards Tower Bookshop), published by, and available in a range of formats from Fox Spirit books.

Alongside stories by Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Fran Terminiello, Colum Paget, Andrew Reid, Rob Haines, Ren Warom, Suzanne McLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky

Will I write more SF? I think that will depend if someone offers me a concept that intrigued and inspired me as much as this one!