I’m reviewing Starborn, first volume of The Worldmaker Trilogy, for my next Albedo One column, and with the final book out in December, this seems an ideal time for a guest post from Lucy.
Upon discovering Tolkien at 14 years old, I knew I would lose my heart to fantasy. Some months and several authors later, I realised I wanted to write for a living. I’d been at drama school for six years, but decided to drop it all in favour of locking myself away with a notebook, computer and a handful of ideas, which I hoped to fashion into a story. The authors I read as a teen are considered giants of the genre: Brooks, Goodkind, Pratchett, Jordan, Eddings, Garner – to name just a few. They were also overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know it then, but this fact and the implications it carried, would have a profound effect on my own writing.
Constructing an epic fantasy can seem a herculean task. The temptation when starting out is to create a ‘world bible’ – an encyclopaedia of a world’s society, religion, customs and culture. While this works for some authors, I’ve taken a more organic approach, letting the characters discover the world as they go. It means I’m not tempted to cram in a lot of omniscient information my characters couldn’t possibly know and it prevents the worldbuilding getting in the way of the story. I also like to consider each chapter a mini story in itself, which I can then link together once I have the whole thing down. Otherwise the sheer number of words left to write feels insurmountable.
I suppose some might call The Worldmaker Trilogy heroic rather than epic; at 130,000 words a book, it’s hardly the largest fantasy ever written. But it owes a debt to one of the most famous epics, The Wheel of Time, which I discovered at the impressionable age of 17. I loved the sweeping sense of history in Jordan’s series, the personal stories played out against a backdrop of turmoil. It’s this fight against unknowable hostile forces – a reflection of our own grappling with the things beyond our control – that I found so compelling. It’s what fantasy does best.
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the predominantly male-authored epics I so enjoyed as a teenager are problematic. As a genre built on archetypes, fantasy is particularly vulnerable to becoming stuck in a loop of restrictive thinking. Archetypes aren’t negative in and of themselves – they’re universal patterns of behaviour. But they do provide a framework on which to hang stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that have the potential to damage. Fantasy is inherently nostalgic, often bent on recreating a lost world somehow better than the one we have now. This can lead to a sort of homogenised pseudo-past, in which we romanticise aspects of society that a. weren’t great and b. weren’t true. The European Medievalist world popularised by Tolkien is especially guilty of this and is so over-used that it now comes with its own predetermined settings, the most worrying of which are racial stereotypes, a lack of female agency and misrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities.
Growing up under the auspices of traditional western fantasy, it took me a full draft to realise I’d inherited some of these problematic stereotypes and copied others, notably the heroic male’s journey. The genre is saturated with the whole boy becomes a man narrative, which relegates women to the side-lines. I had made a subconscious decision to follow suit and the first incarnation of Starborn featured a male protagonist. Realising I could write an epic fantasy with a woman at its heart was part revelation, part no brainer. I’ve spoken a little about the process of switching Kyndra’s gender here.
Although it’s a decision I’m glad I made, that doesn’t mean to say I threw out every trope. After all, my trilogy is in large part an ode to old favourites like Dragonlance and The Belgariad. But they and their contemporaries are very much products of their time, a time we no longer live in. Speculative fiction should be a progressive genre and even backward-looking fantasy must adapt and change to survive. So I’ve kept recognisable tropes, choosing to reinvent instead of abandon. My chosen one is no shining knight, or noble-hearted farm boy, but a flawed young woman who steers her own destiny, sometimes poorly. The autocratic empire brings technological benefits at the price of cultural oppression. One man’s heroism is another man’s tyranny. Overall, I’m trying to show that there are two sides to every story and that evil lies in actions, not ideology.
Dyed-in-the-wool tropes also extend to gender. I’ve kept the love triangle, but reversed the usual roles, putting a man between two women. An older man manipulates a younger man instead of the traditional younger woman. Because my world is not patriarchal, women aren’t excluded from male-associated professions like smithing, engineering, the military and the merchant elite. There is so much more to explore when it comes to gender, sexual identity and societal roles; I’ve barely scratched the surface, acknowledging my own biases and inherited opinion in the process. Now, more so than ever before, we need to be aware of these concerns, to equip ourselves to better address them in our writing, so that they may be discussed openly without fear of censure or harassment.
I’ve grown up on a diet of blokes-in-cloaks fantasy – a feature publishing defends with remarkable tenacity given how much of it is out there and how tiring it is to pick up yet another testosterone-fuelled epic. But fantasy is still growing in popularity and the grimdark arena of Game of Thrones is no longer its sole setting. From scarred dystopian landscapes to the intrigues of faerie courts, young adult fantasy can offer a pacier, character-driven alternative. However, the twin rise of grimdark and YA has left an odd and unexpected gap in the market, making it tricky to find adult fantasy of the kind that helped birth the genre, fantasy in the vein of Le Guin, of Canavan, of McKillip and Hobb: fantasy that serves as a graduation of sorts from YA into adult, where the camera zooms out and world events play a more central role. ‘New adult’ is a term that never really took off, but I see it as an essential bridge between these two extremes. Focusing on character and storytelling, but without the brutal nihilism that distinguishes grimdark, this is where I’d like to think my trilogy sits.
This fourth volume wraps up The Aldabreshin Compass, bringing our hero Kheda full circle, as he realises no matter how far he travels, he cannot leave his obligations and responsibilities behind.
On the other hand, everything he has seen and experienced means he’s a very different man to the warlord he was when his domain and the Archipelago first came under attack. How can he resolve that particular conflict?
And once again, Ben Baldwin did a superb job with the new ebook edition cover.
J. Kathleen Cheney has invited fellow writers to tell all about research rabbit holes we’ve fallen into. That is one of the biggest hazards of world-building. Here’s my post about research going to the dogs… and do check out the rest of the blog series 🙂
Regular readers will recall my ire last week at the gender skew in the BBC’s most recent programme on fantasy fiction. One female author who got no more than a nano-second name-check when she deserves so much more is Susan Cooper. Happily, here’s an excellent interview with her, discussing Writing the Dark.
Wizard’s Tower Press is always keen to see a broader range of authors writing SF&F. Cheryl Morgan has launched a Kickstarter with a view to publishing an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories by writers from Bristol and the Caribbean. With pirates, obviously. There are some stellar names attached already, and a range of rewards and pledge levels (including the offer of the Aldabreshin Compass ebook series) so do go and have a look!
Further to booktrade and equality issues, this week, The Bookseller tells us that UK publishing seeks to address the industry’s lack of diversity. Here’s hoping.
For insights into wider issues around equality and cases where people end up at odds over questions of gender, religion and sexual orientation, I heartily recommend anything and everything that Baroness Hale, the UK’s pre-eminent female lawyer has to say. Specifically, the lecture she gave in Oxford this week which is available to watch here. (She starts talking around eight and a half minutes in, for those who wish to skip the preambles).
As well as attending that lecture, I also went to a talk by Mary Beard in Oxford this week, though as far as I am aware that’s not available online. You will not be surprised to learn that she’s as entertaining in person as she is on the telly, giving an intriguing and illuminating lecture on “Images of Roman Emperors from the Ancient World to the Modern: Understandings and Misunderstandings”. This relates to an ongoing research project which looks set to uncover some fascinating stuff. Because, for example, if you think Henry VIII is saying something about kingship by using Suetonius’ twelve Caesars in his palace decor, what does it mean when you realise he’s actually drawing on a very different piece of ancient writing? What’s the underlying message then? I really do hope this project makes it onto our screens somehow.
I think that’s enough to be going on with. 🙂
This weekend saw assorted awards presented here in the UK, as part of Fantasycon by the Sea, in Scarborough.
The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy –
RAVENHEART AWARD (Best cover art)
Jason Chan for The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence
MORNINGSTAR AWARD (Best debut)
The Vagrant by Peter Newman
LEGEND AWARD (Best novel)
The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence
The British Fantasy Society Awards –
Best anthology: The Doll Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Books)
Best artist: Julie Dillon
Best collection: Ghost Summer: Stories, Tananarive Due (Prime Books)
Best comic/graphic novel: Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV and Cris Peter (Image Comics) (#2–5)
Best fantasy novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Macmillan)
Best film/television production: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Peter Harness (BBC One)
Best horror novel (the August Derleth Award): Rawblood, Catriona Ward (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Best independent press: Angry Robot (Marc Gascoigne)
Best magazine/periodical: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, ed. Scott H. Andrews (Firkin Press)
Best newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Zen Cho, for Sorcerer to the Crown (Macmillan)
Best non-fiction: Letters to Tiptree, ed. Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best novella: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Usman T. Malik (Tor.com)
Best short fiction: Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award): The FantasyCon redshirts, past and present
Something for everyone there, I’d say!
I’m out and about elsewhere today, specifically over at Charles Stross’s website, discussing why I chose to write about an absolute ruler in The Aldabreshin Compass – and why I consciously included various elements to make readers go ‘Wait, what?!’
For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.
One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.
In defence of Narnia and other portals Simon Morden
I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.
Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.
Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.
The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.
Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.
At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.
I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.
At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.
Firstly, apologies to those finding all this stuff about VAT tedious and/or confusing. But it really does matter, and not just to authors trying to put out their own ebooks. Independent digital versions are increasingly the only way for readers to get hold of backlist titles and ebooks without DRM constraints.
Okay, here’s what little useful information I gleaned from yesterday’s HMRC Customer’s Twitter Clinic.
Let’s start with one definitive answer – which will interest the US authors of my acquaintance who sell direct or through co-operatives like Book View Cafe.
A Canadian knitwear designer asked
Question – As a Canadian selling online knit patterns, do I really have to track & pay #VATMOSS on the ~ 40 patterns/yr I sell in UK&EU?
Answer – Yes, if a digital service. Consider non-union MOSS scheme
So the next question obviously becomes – what is a digital service?
According to HMRC – “An e-service is one that is fully automated and involves no or minimal human intervention”.
So anything that’s an electronic product – ebook (fiction, non-fiction), music, training material, computer game, knitting or other craft pattern, the list goes on – that is delivered by any automated payment and download system falls under this legislation.
Okay, so what does ‘minimal human intervention’ mean?
At this point, HMRC’s answers started coming prefaced with ‘It depends’…
Q – Someone donates to my company in return for a digital “perk” (eg: through kickstarter or Patreon ) Do I need VATMOSS?
A – It depends on the nature of the perk.
Q – Are one-to-one web & graphic design services considered a e-service? Will this affect me as a freelancer?
A – Depends on whether the customisation is automated or involves human intervention. If latter, no.
Q – so web designers that design custom websites for clients are free from VATMOSS then?
A – Depends on whether the customisation is automated or involves human intervention. If latter, no.
Further clarification (I use the term loosely) from HMRC followed –“ “Minimal human intervention” is where a person takes some physical action for the service to take place.”
“Emails & attachments are included if generated automatically by system following customer inputting their details and payment.”
Q- If I sell a physical doc to EU buyer but then give them access to a free PDF version of it, do I incur VAT?
A – The new rules don’t apply.
Q – If a PDF copy of pattern/ebook is given complimentary with purchase of a physical copy of pattern/ebook is VAT owed on PDF?
A – No, it will not be subject to VAT.
Moreover, according to HMRC –
“Live webinars not e-service. If pdf and follow up recording are included in charge, will be treated same way as webinar…
If there is a separate charge it will depend upon whether the pdf or recording is an electronic service…
Virtual classroom combining live webinars, videos, pdfs would not be an e-service because of amount of human intervention involved.”
So we’re back to wondering what does or does not constitute the required level of human intervention.
Q- Does emailing with an attachment count as ‘human intervention’ when selling through a platform such as ETSY?
A- If they are physically submitting the email and it is not an automated process.
Q – But if the purchase is automated (ie via ETSY) and then I physically send the PDF in an attachment?
A- Payment service irrelevant to determine whether e-service.
Q – To be clear, regardless of how you’re paid, if you hand send out the download emails, it’s not an e-service?
A – That’s correct.
Q- Does that mean if I go back to the dark ages and manually send a download by file transfer it is exempt?
A -Manual downloads will be exempt.
Q – So even if I’m sending the exact same file to all customers as long as I do that manually myself I’m OK?
A – Yes, as long as email not automatically generated and you manually send it.
Q- What about videos? If a customer purchases to get access to private videos (hosted on say YouTube or Vimeo)?
A – Sending the password manually by e mail does not constitute an electronic service so the new rules don’t apply…
However, if the service they are logging into is an e-service then it would be affected by the new rules.
Q – If sell a product & the user is redirected to a receipt page and they MANUALLY DOWNLOAD it, that’s human intervention, yes?
A – It is the provider’s manual intervention not the customer’s that is important.
So you can only avoid all this mess as a seller only by manually hand processing all orders and emailing files to customers.
Unlike for instance, Amazon who will continue to offer instant one-click payment and downloads. Right, so that’s going to make a customer’s choices pretty easy, eh?
Which brings me to the question of Amazon and other platforms like Etsy etc.
Q – How are devs selling apps on AppStore / GooglePlay into EU affected? Do the stores handle VATMOSS, or is it up to the dev?
A – Yes, App stores and marketplace will be responsible for VAT on dig services sold through their platforms.
Q- If u sell digi products via 3rd party platform but host selling buttons on ur own site do you have to register for VAT?
A- If providing a link to a third-party platform, no. If you sell through your own site, you would have to register.
Q – Can you provide approved list of 3rd party intermediaries that we can use instead of VAT reg?
A – Any sales platform is responsible if they initiate delivery or authorise payment process or set T&Cs.
Q – what if your third party platform disputes liability? Who is responsible in the meantime?
A – The third party platform is responsible
Q – what defines a third party platform and marketplace and what’s the difference between them?
A – A simple definition is that if a marketplace is responsible for authorising/allowing the download it is responsible.
Seems clear enough? Until people started getting into specifics
Q – Does this mean that the patterns I sell on @beCraftsy , @ravelry , and @EtsyUK are their responsibility for VAT?…
If I decide to sell via those platforms how can I be sure I am complying with law by leaving VAT to them?
Q – I believe you’re saying @beCraftsy @EtsyUK, etc are responsible, yet they say they’re NOT???
Q – I assumed that Paypal was more a payment processor than a marketplace.
Q – If ur PayPal account is linked to 3rd party, but the 3rd party provides order & delivery service, who pays VAT?
Q – What if one system initiates delivery (@fetchapp) and another authorises payment (@PayPal)? Which is responsible?
Q – But they authorize payments. I use Ravelry’s website to list patterns for sale, but PayPal handles the $.
Q- Are @gumroad included here? They said they are not but payment goes through them.
If there have been any clear answers to any of these questions, I have yet to see them.
And this is before we get into the considerable confusion of how traders with minimal turnover go about voluntarily registering for VAT in order to comply with VATMOSS. There are already reports of those who’ve tried being turned away as ineligible.
Another good question is how the advice to separate UK and EU trading into two separate companies despite both being part of the same overall trading business squares with other HMRC warnings that doing precisely this will be considered attempted tax evasion.
Reports are now coming in of small traders and companies simply abandoning e-commerce because of the complications and uncertainty, and also, the fact that getting it wrong will leave people liable to potentially unlimited fines.
At the moment, all my own e-publishing projects planned for 2015 are on hold. That’s the ebook editions of the Aldabreshin Compass series, The Ties That Bind novella and a related collection of short stories, and also a new urban fantasy novel. Because preparing those would require up-front investment of around £1500 from me for various art, map, editorial and other technical services.
Because I cannot get anything remotely resembling a clear answer on whether or not small presses are still/also liable for complying with these new EU VAT regulations as being part of a supply chain between the author and Amazon.
Until the small press I work with knows for certain what their liabilities will be, they cannot assess how/if to stay in business.
Clearly, if I was only publishing via Amazon, I’d be fine. But I do not wish to publish my ebooks with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing as their terms and conditions are non-neogotiable and subject to change by them, at any time, without notice.
Publishing with a small press means I can negotiate a mutually satisfactory contract and also that small press can make my ebooks available via a range of outlets and in both .epub and .mobi formats rather than exclusively through Amazon.
So that’s where we’re at.
Is it too early for gin?
You recall a while back I mentioned I was going a guest post as part of a whole series exploring the much debated topic of names within fantasy fiction?
So you can read that while I try to cram as much work into this week as possible, since pre-Christmas break stuff really is going to have to happen next week, I can’t put it off any longer…
Our lovely, and beloved, cat Buzz collapsed and died last night. He’s been unwell for a while, with a digestive upset that’s defied diagnosis, despite our excellent vets’ best efforts. So the last month’s seen a succession of tests and treatments which have ruled things out rather than solved the problem. But he’s not been suffering and we had no reason to expect yesterday’s abrupt decline.
The sons are taking it particularly hard- Buzz, and Sable who died two years ago this month, were their childhood pets. Husband and I have at least been through this hateful business more than once before, not that it gets any easier.
So we’re all very shocked and sad today.