Venn and Now

Today’s storm in a teacup in fantasyland was the brief and unlooked-for revival of a Venn diagram, on Twitter. Take a look, and see if you can spot what’s wrong with it.

Now for context, let’s point out that the diagram was originally posted in a blog in August 2015, and the author specifically asked, in the post, for more women authors to be suggested in the comments. Which means that he knew the diagram was badly flawed. But not so flawed that he couldn’t resist resurrecting it now without any corrections, tweeting it without that context. Unsurprisingly, with that context not in view, folks started to get upset, and the author removed the tweet in a huff (well, in a huff with me, at least…).

Now, let’s finish sighing and shaking our heads, and agree that this is a bad diagram. It was bad in 2015, when the author didn’t add the suggested women to it, and it’s still bad now. Pratchett and Erikson are hardly alike, and nor are Bakker and Hobb. And while you could still perhaps argue that GRRM was a central pivot of the fantasy genre in 2015, I think the genre has changed massively since then.

In fact, this is a highly exclusionary diagram. These 25 are on the inside; everybody else is outside. Don’t bother reading outside this diagram, there’s nothing out there. Everything else is irrelevant. Well, that’s pretty bullshit. I like these authors but as Jake said at the end of the Gunslinger, There are other worlds than this.

Here’s the important bit:

Fantasy isn’t a Venn diagram. It’s a landscape. It’s a map. There are hidden treasures. Close your eyes, take a stab, that’s your starting point. Pick a direction, any direction. Go. Stay on the road, go off-road, up into the mountains, down into the grimdark swamps, have a good old ramble. See what’s around the next corner, and the corner after that. Make your own map. By all means ask for advice along the way, ask for directions, but don’t force yourself to travel only in one direction. Don’t go walling yourself in. Don’t get caught in dead ends. Tear down the borders. See that empty space beyond the Venn diagram? It’s all yours.

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Vote Cassia in the Stabbys!

From now until Wednesday 11th January at 12pm CST (whatever the heck that means), you can vote in the annual Stabby Awards over at r/Fantasy on Reddit

Among the nominees are the following Grimbold titles, which I personally reckon are definitely worth anybody’s time and vote:

Fight Like a Girl, edited by Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke (Best Anthology)
Heir to the North – audiobook release (Best Related Work)
High King’s Vengeance (Best Indie/Self-pub Novel)

Go on, y’know you want to…

Fancy giving me a sharp object to play with? Vote Cassia!

¹You’ll need to sign up for a Reddit account to vote, if you don’t already have one.

Every Forum Ever

Hi all, I just finished my latest read, and I wonder if you could recommend¹ –

MARK LAWRENCE

– a book –

BRANDON SANDERSON

– to move onto –

MALAZAN MALAZAN MALAZAN

– with some humour –

R SCOTT BAKKER

– and well written characters –

BRENT WEEKS

ROTHFUSS

GWYNNE

– standalones welcome –

WHEEL OF TIME

MALAZAN MALAZAN MALAZAN

– doesn’t have to be grimdark –

LORD GRIMDARK

BUY MY BOOK³

– and I’m looking to read more female authors.

HAVE YOU TRIED READING MARK LAWRENCE?²

giphy

¹This post is in no way made to insult or otherwise disparage the authors listed. I own and enjoy books by many of them. I’m merely using their names to illustrate a point.

²And there’s the point. Seriously. That conversation really happened.

³Guilty.

Meanwhile, over on another book blog, someone has listed the ten fantasy books they’re hotly anticipating next year. No VE Schwab, no Jen Williams, no Robin Hobb, no Anna Smith Spark, no women at all. Guys, it’s not difficult. You’re not invalidating the existence of us male authors by reading a little more widely.

GTFO

Okay, here it is. This is my genre, the genre I work in, the genre I read in. It’s open-minded. It’s imaginative. It’s speculative. It flies on great, draconic wings over mountains and plains, it slides between worlds with engines made from captive wormholes. It holds the line against vast legions of orcs, it bespeaks artificial intelligences that sit at the heart of Dyson spheres. Timelords, Eternal Champions, unicorns, Frankenstein’s Monster, Laputa, the Grey Mouser, Lyra, the fellowship, White Walkers, the Ringworld…

We can imagine all of that, and more. More than you can possibly ever list. We deconstruct the past, we create the futures. The possibilities are endless.

Unless.

Unless you want to include women, gay characters, trans characters, disabled characters, characters with mental health issues who aren’t automatically serial killers, real social issues, characters from other races than the generically white/Western automatic character creation mould – and do so well and positively

Because fuck, no, we don’t want real life infecting our genre. Shit, that would ruin everything, wouldn’t it? What if, as well as imagining dragons and aliens and starships and robots and orcs and castles and all that, and crafting them to within an inch of perfection, you had to do women, and non-white people too? And you had to give them rounded personalities and motivations, and had to treat them as… human? My god, that would be far too much like real life, wouldn’t it? And don’t we work in this genre precisely so that we can do unto imagined others what we cannot do in real life?

Well, no, we don’t. Not unless we’re total fucking tools. (John C Wright, I’m looking at you here. Do unto yourself what you willed upon the creators of Korra, please.)²

But apparently we can’t talk about diversity in fantasy and science fiction without bringing the genre into disrepute, without tarnishing it and ruining it for the “genuine” fans who don’t want politics in their fiction. Diversity should be invisible, ignored, unspoken. There are far more important issues to address in fantasy and science fiction – like orcs, elves, sweaty grunting males swinging axes at each other, deep and meaningful Christian allegories, the inevitable defeat of evil social justice at the hands of valiant capitalist starship captains³. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t try to be represented. Don’t take valuable air from those it rightfully belongs to.

And now, with America Tango’d by a squinty-faced peanut and a VP who wants to “re-educate” gay children in “camps” (presumably guarded, and walled with barbed wire), with intolerance and violence rife on both sides of the pond, fiction is only one of the frontlines for visibility and oxygen in the face of celebrity fascists and anti-intellectuals.

What can we do? Simple: Keep those voices alive. Keep those books in the public eye. Make diversity count. Make people uncomfortable in their privilege.

Who am I to say this? A white, middle-aged, bearded bloke with a mortgage and a cat? Yeah. And I’m not the most diverse writer in the world. But doesn’t that mean that I’m one of the people who really ought to be saying this?

I’ll go further. If you think politics and social issues should be kept out of fantasy and science fiction, and that by extension they should be made invisible in real life too, it’s you who is living in fantasyland. If you voted Trump, or for the appalling cackwitted shift to the far right over here in Britain, then you’re legitimising hatred and fear and encouraging the silencing of diverse voices. If you feel threatened by the presence in this genre of people who are not like you, then you don’t belong.

Get the fuck out of my genre.

 

¹I’m very aware of the irony here, by the way. Scroll back through the last few posts to see criticism of Heir to the North for its lack of female characters aside from Cassia. The TL;DR is that I’m aware of my own shortcomings and working to overcome them.

²He’s not the only one, obviously. But I’d rather write a good book than list a whole bunch of fucksticks who don’t deserve any more publicity than they already have.

³Yes, sarcasm.

Heir To The North – Pre-order Now!

Yes. Exactly that.

The North Will Rise Again!

Heir To The North is up for pre-order on Amazon right now. Just £3.99 in the UK on Kindle format, and $6.09 for those of y’all Stateside. Paperback links will come shortly! You won’t be able to read it until October 23rd (just before Fantasycon – what a coincidence!), but you can be a part of the rising North today.

Why pre-order? Why not wait until the release date? Here, I’ll let Joanne Hall explain it far more eloquently than I can:

One of the reasons it’s really good to pre-order books by your favourite authors (or even by me 😉 ) is that all the pre-order sales count towards the first days sales – a good amount of pre-order sales can boost a book right up the Amazon charts on the day of release, and the higher up the Amazon charts a book is, the more Amazon will promote it and the more exposure it gets, which leads to hopefully more sales. A book can be promoted as a “number one Amazon best-seller” even if it reaches number one in a sub-sub category – it doesn’t have to be Number One across the whole of Amazon, it just needs to be number one in, for example, Coming-of-age fantasy. It still counts. So please, if you’re planning to buy the book on Kindle anyway, pre-order it now and give it a release day ratings boost!

Because more book sales mean more cake for you… And because the better this book sells the more likely it is that Kristell Ink will be able to publish [The High King’s Vengeance] in the future. Books are sold on the performance of the one before. So if you like my books and want to see more of them, please buy this one!

Nuff said – for now. See you all at Bristolcon.

*cough* buy my book *cough*

Up the Junction… (Chopper on Tour, 2015)

It’s holiday time, so naturally I’m relaxing. No, of course I’m not. I’ve been off on a quick tour of locations that will be used in the next-but-one novel project (Project: TFL, acronym fans), walking the towpaths of the Shropshire Union Canal, camera swinging, mud flying everywhere.

Project: TFL takes place – or at least, the real world portions of it take place – between Market Drayton and Norbury Junction. I’ve done that route before, but that was probably around ten years ago, and I remember being exhausted and ill for at least part of the journey up the Shroppie. I could blag it all, and crib my descriptions from the Pearson’s Guide, but it seemed much more fun to go walk the route myself. After all, part of the fun is going to the pubs along the way…

I had three major aims: to scout the Tyrley Locks, to scramble through the tangles of Woodseaves Cutting, and to work out exactly where the mysterious “TFL” of the working title would be located. I managed two out of the three; that’s not a bad score.

Tyrley Bottom Lock
Tyrley Bottom Lock

The Tyrley Locks rise from a deep cutting, with sandstone walls on both sides. The Tyrley Cutting is typical of many Shroppie cuttings – deep, dark, grown over in the summer so that rays of sunlight battle through the leaves overhead. Many are associated with tales of hauntings. The canal is quite wide here, but you can still see that the foliage reaches over from the top of the sandstone. As you walk uphill, past the five locks, you reach rolling fields and bright sunlight instead. Peculiarly, people have left small toys in clefts and cracks in the sandstone just below the bottom lock – out-of-place meerkats, wedding cake decorations, and even a tiny house. Gifts to the fae, perhaps?

House in the cliffs
House in the cliffs

Woodseaves Cutting was inaccessible: the towpath was being repaired, and the entire path between bridges 59 & 56 was closed off. I was tempted to squeeze through the cordon, but I was mindful of the fact that my Pearson’s Guide reckoned walking the route was certifiable lunacy at the best of times and hopping over on my own was probably not a good idea. Instead I navigated overland to Bridge 56 and took a few photos from there. Even from these you can see how narrow the canal becomes, hidden deep inside the cutting, and how muddy and treacherous the towpath is. I missed Woodseaves’s pair of high bridges, described in the Guide as “portals to the mysterious chasms of another world”, but they’ll wait for another day.

Above Woodseaves Cutting
Above Woodseaves Cutting

It was time to move on to Norbury Junction, for a two mile walk back along the canal into Grub Street Cutting. Bridge 39 is a very odd feature – one arch atop the other, to shield the old telegraph pole. Rumour has it that the bridge is haunted by a “black, monkey-like creature”. A book called Shadows on the Water, by Allan Scott-Davies (The History Press, ISBN: 9780750952774) elaborates:

grub street

 

I didn’t see anything. I did find a steak & kidney pie the size of a small island at the Junction Inn, however. 🙂 And I also manged to sort out the first third of this book. Now I just have to put that darned thing on paper….

Why The Barbed Coil is still on my shelves

I don’t know about you chaps, but I don’t remember too much about 1998. I got a full-time job at the old dog & dansette, moved into a flat at the top of Woodseats Road, and thought – briefly – about buying a Playstation. The few albums I remember buying at the time (though there must have been much more than this, given the creaking sounds of massed vinyl coming from the attic): Air’s Moon Safari, Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, Six by Mansun, Good Humor by Saint Etienne, Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev, and Aluminum Tunes by Stereolab (I definitely remember that one – I have two copies of it, one sealed, the other smelling faintly of unrefined oil). And at some point in the year, though god knows when, I bought The Barbed Coil, by JV Jones.

The Barbed CoilThis is one of my favourite books. I may have mentioned this previously, on the Next Big Thing meme. The Book of Words trilogy which preceded it was pretty good, though not so good as Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow & Thorn series, but The Barbed Coil is damned good. In the 15 years since Orbit first published it, I don’t think many people have actually come close to it with another standalone epic fantasy novel. Characters, setting, intricate detail, romance and bloody death – all pinned with perfection. Hell, I think you could call this book one of my inspirations.

(In fact, if you look closely, three of my all-time greats are plucked-from-the-world-we-know-to-a-new-fantasy-world standalone novels/duologies: Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson, The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams, and The Barbed Coil itself. That says a lot about my reading habits, I guess.)

The book’s protagonist, Tessa McCamfrey (is anybody else hearing an echo of Anne McCaffrey, or is it just me?) is pretty pro-active, once she gets a handle on her situation. Having her learn the rules of magic, which here operates through manuscript illumination, is also a neat way of showing how the land itself works, how difficult and time-consuming any task in a medieval world must be. Tessa isn’t a weak character either – she’s not reliant on men for her success, and the plot advances most by her decisions. Her opposite number – her first contact in the new world – is the roguish Lord Ravis, who might be dashing eye candy, but certainly isn’t an invincible hero. (Writing this, it occurs to me that his name is startlingly similar to the character Rais, who pops up in my current WIP – perhaps a subconscious nod to The Barbed Coil?)

In fact every single character is sympathetically cast, even the bad guy. And nobody comes away unharmed – there’s no magic reset button that puts things back to how they were before. The characters change over the course of the novel; change and develop, so that the reader is rooting for real people to win the day. And note again that this is a standalone novel, not a great sprawling series. You want more at the end, but that’s it, that’s yer lot. In this way reader fatigue never sets in the way it does in the 57 novels of The Wheel of Time, or Jones’s own subsequent (and as yet still unfinished) series. That willingness to keep the story at a manageable length is something that isn’t common in the fantasy market, and that also made me look at how I wanted my own story to be told. My tendency to overwrite always made a single volume unlikely, but stretching Malessar’s Curse into a trilogy seemed like overdoing it. Two books mirrored the narrative’s structure very nicely.

If you are going to read this, try to get the British edition (see pic above), with cover art by Daniel R Horne, which illustrates Tessa as a far more active character than the US version does (it just looks lumpy and staid, like the US Wheel of Time covers). But do read it: this is one of the under-appreciated gems of modern fantasy literature.