jennygordon: (Hermit)
I've spent a delicious few days reading the first two of 'The Dark is Rising' sequence, and decided I'd throw down a few of the thoughts that have struck me this time around. Not a review as such, just some things that wafted through my head as I read.

I should mention that there are **spoiler alerts** throughout.

First up, 'Over Sea, Under Stone'.

Over Sea, Under Stone - Susan Cooper

1. This, of all the five books in the sequence, is the only most firmly rooted as a children's book. Also, while many of the pieces for the subsequent books are set in play, it seems to me that Cooper is still learning her writerly licks. I wonder how old she was when she wrote it ...

2. "Great-uncle Merry walked along beside them in silence, very tall, brooding, his face lost in the shadows. With every long stride he seemed to merge into the night, as if he belonged to the mystery and the silence and the small nameless sounds." This gorgeous description showcases Cooper's gift with words, and perfectly sums up the mysterious figure known to the three children at the heart of the book as Great-uncle Merry. His full name is Merriman Lyon. It's Barney, the youngest of the children, who realises at the end of the book who he might really be (the clue's in the name).

3. Cooper has a gift for portraying snapshot moments that stick in the memory. In this book, for example, the moment Jane and Simon turn to see dark figures lit by the moonlight up at the standing stones on the headland they have just left, is truly creepy.

4. I liked the fact that the children get scared quite a lot, and have to battle their very understandable fear. It works to enhance their ultimate courage.

5. Landscape, landscape, landscape. A sleepy Cornish fishing village in high summer, its cliffs and seascape, are core to the plot and the atmosphere.

And next, 'The Dark is Rising'.

The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper

This is my favourite of the series, and was actually the first I read, way back when. It's also likely that this book was responsible for instilling in me a love of using weather to enhance mood and story. There's a clear step-up in writerly technique in this book, with Cooper ironing out extraneous adverb-usage and tightening her storytelling. At its heart lies a perfectly-paced quest, in which all the pieces fit together just so.

Also, gorgeously creepy cover, or what?

1. This time around, the part of the story that really grabbed me was the subplot around the tragic character of Hawkin. Foster-son of Merriman Lyon from the thirteenth century, he is taken out of his own time in order to play a pivotal role in Will (the MC's) story. His reaction to what he is required to do, and his subsequent betrayal of Merriman and the Light, is that of a character of complexity and depth.

2. And speaking of Merriman, am I the only person who finds him frightening? Always did. While he's a key agent of the Light, and first among the Old Ones, he can also be grim and distant and intimidating, with his "fierce, secret face." He's like a combination of Gandalf and Saruman.

3. This is the main book of the series in which the time of year and the weather are particularly significant. Set between Midwinter and Twelfth Night, when the power of the Dark is at its greatest, this is a book of snow storms and fearsome cold, sent and used by the powers of the Dark to gain their foothold on the winter-locked country. The atmosphere of encroaching cold and growing fear is perfectly evoked, and deliciously shiversome.

4. For a relatively slim children's book, this one has a wide cast of characters, from Will Stanton's enormous, mayhemic family to the local Old Ones, agents of the Dark, and other village folk. It's striking how successfully Cooper creates pen-portraits of each one.

5. I still love the use of the Hunting of the Wren in the story. It's one of those ancient British traditions that's so strange it always makes me wonder where its origins lie.

6. In fact, Cooper has successfully bound together traditional folklore tropes and strands of old, old history to creates a new mythology that's utterly convincing. It goes to show that if you weave your invented world/magic system with threads of real, historically-rooted facts, it helps create a depth and resonance it might otherwise lack.

7. Perhaps one of the reasons why this book appealed to me so powerfully when I was a sprog was that it is full of things I was already falling in love with - ancient British folklore and Dark Age history, with echoes of the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial in the King of Ice and Fire. It's no coincidence that I went on to specialise in Dark Age history for my degree, with a focus on the pagan Anglo Saxons. It probably also explains why the era never entirely ceased being bound up with magic for me, despite three years studying it as an archaeologist and historian. What can I say? 'The Dark is Rising' marked me for life!
jennygordon: (Hermit)
This one's for all you fellow lovers of fantasy fiction out there. I've shamelessly pinched this wonderful quote from Laini Taylor's blog to share with any of you who, like me, haven't come across it before:

"Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofus, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to Middle-Earth."

- George R.R. Martin
jennygordon: (Star Gazer Lily)
I'm not a big one for 'meet-the-author' events, but when I heard that Robin Hobb, a veritable legend in her own lifetime, was visiting a bookshop near where I live to sign her latest book, I made a note in my diary. I first knew Hobb's work twenty years ago, when she was writing as Megan Lindholm, in the days before she reinvented herself as Robin Hobb. It was under that name that she wrote one of my favourite books — 'Cloven Hooves' — which I've mentioned on my blog before, and which I took along to yesterday's signing.

"You know," Megan/Robin said when I handed her my much-loved copy of the book, "This is the strangest book I've ever written. It's in first person, present tense, and it was exhausting to write."

I'm not surprised, since it's the power of that first person, present, voice that is one of the things I love about the book.

Published 20 years ago, 'Cloven Hooves' tells of Evelyn, who grows up in the wilds of Alaska, and who is more at home out in the wild than with other people. Her only friend is Pan, a young faun from legend, who shares her connection to the wild things. An outsider even in her own family, the book opens with Evelyn and her husband and small son leaving Alaska to live with her in-laws on their farm, to help out there for a season. Those in-laws don't understand Evelyn, and she is isolated and ostracised by the clan, to the degree that when tragedy strikes, she isn't allowed to claim her feelings, nor even to find out what actually happened.

By this time, Pan has shown up in her life again, and it is with Pan that Evelyn leaves the farmstead and heads off into the wilderness. There, she spends the autumn and winter with Pan, healing, and reconnecting with what is of true importance in her life.

Like the best fairytales, 'Cloven Hooves' works on many levels. It can be read at face value, but its metaphorical roots reach so deep it's impossible to shake them off. Or so it proved for me, at least.

I read 'Cloven Hooves' at a formative stage in my writing life, and it taught me two important things:

1. The immense power of fantasy-as-metaphor, and
2. The immediate and emotive force of first person, present.

Which is why I wanted to head down to Waterstone's yesterday to say "Hi," to an author who, through a single book, proved such a significant influence on me. And she was lovely. Despite the length of the signing queue, she was happy to spend time with each person; to make their moment with a favourite author special.

"Thank you," she said to me, "for bringing this book along today. It's brought back memories of a happy time in my life."

I think I'll be reading 'Cloven Hooves' again soon ...
jennygordon: (Gargoyle)
Okay, so I have a question:

Why is it that adult fantasy novels tend to be so looooong?

I mean, I know there's generally some world-building to do, and — especially when it comes to Epic Fantasy — lots of characters to deal with and a big old story to wrestle into place. But seriously, do they really need to be so looong?

After all, take a look at YA Fantasy. When we're talking "otherworld fantasy" as opposed to urban/paranormal, there's often just as much worldbuilding to deal with, just as many characters and plot pieces to juggle as in adult fantasy. And yet, YA Fantasy, by its nature, usually manages to do this in under 130K words, and often far fewer.

Personally, I've learned heaps from studying how YA Fantasy can to be so slimline, and yet still tell a big, satisfying story, and I reckon writers in the adult Fantasy market could learn a thing or two as well.

So, what have I learned? Well ...

  • be concise in description. Just because the grass is purple and the cities are made of crystal, you don't need to expend ridiculous wordage to conjure it.

  • let you reader experience the world as your characters experience it. Only share minutiae of history, politics, geography, flora, etc, if the characters know them. Otherwise, simply let the characters inhabit the world.

  • question how many characters you really need to tell the story. Can you condense your cast of hundreds to a pertinent few?

  • equally, be concise in your plot. What's the story at the heart of this book? Ask yourself if you really need a wealth of subplots or a decade of questing, or battles to tell the tale at the heart.

  • and if you do need all of the subplots, then perhaps some of them belong in a book of their own; a different book where you can focus on them and explore them properly.

I know not all stories can be condensed, and I know it's sometimes glorious for writers and readers alike to wallow in a great, big book. I get it, I do. For instance, I can't imagine Jacqueline Carey's 'Kushiel's Dart' being reduced from its huge size. The story truly does require that much space, and Carey is never indulgent when it comes to description, backstory, or any of those other typically word-padding areas. On the other hand, NK Jemisin's 'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' manages to create and strange, complex world, and equally strange and complex characters in under 110K words, when it could easily be far bigger.

In some ways, much of the modern adult Fantasy genre has come to define itself by the great length of its novels, but I do find myself wondering how often vast length is really necessary, and how often it's simply self-indulgent on the part of an author.

As a writer of YA Fantasy, I like to see it as a delicious challenge to tell the huge, epic stories living in my head in a manner concise enough to suit my proposed audience. It forces me to be economical in my writing and in my story decisions. It draws in my storytelling eye to focus on the elements that really matter.

And no, I haven't yet created a world where the grass is purple and the cities are made of crystal. Interesting idea though. You wouldn't be able to play racket-ball against the wall out your house for fear of shattering it!
jennygordon: (Skywatcher)
On perusing the adult Fantasy shelves in my local bookshop, it seems to me that - depressingly - the market is still dominated by two things:

1. male authors (writing male characters), and
2. epic fantasy (either "the invaders are coming; to war, to war!" or, "the invaders have been and now everything's gone to hell, to hell!")

(NOTE: I'm excluding the Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance subgenres here, where female writers and female protagonists are much more common).

Now, while there are certainly some fine writers amongst those books, neither of these things particularly appeals to me, which is why I've generally read around the fringes of fantasy, rather that in its heartland.

As a girl, it's desperately frustrating for me that the heartland of fantasy is still dominated by men writing about war in some form or another. For a start, it only bolsters the cliched stereotype of fantasy fiction, and for seconds, there are so many more story tropes to explore in Fantasyland.

For instance, I hear that Mark Charan Newton's new series will be Holmesian detective fiction set in a Roman-type fantasy world. And then there's Patricia McKillip's work, which is sometimes referred to as "domestic fantasy", because she tells stories on a much more intimate scale. That's not to say she doesn't include "epic" aspects. In 'Song for the Basilisk', for example, the protagonist ends up bringing down a tyrant. The difference is, there aren't any great battles, because it's the protagonist's personal quest to right the wrongs done to his family, and he's a musician, not a warrior.

This brings me to my second thought, which is that in the Young Adult market, fantasy fiction is dominated by female writers, female protagonists, and intimate rather than epic stories. (Again, I'm excluding Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy here, and concentrating on "otherworld fantasy").

Once again, "epic" is present in novels such as Kristin Cashore's 'Fire', which concerns nations at war; in Leigh Bardugo's 'Shadow and Bone', which is in the "light vs dark" vein, and in many others. Yet without exception, these stories are more concerned with their character's path and growth as a result of the wider warring, as opposed to the warring itself.

Undoubtedly, a lot of this difference between YA and Adult Fantasy is due to their target audiences, but my question is this: If female readers are being won over to fantasy in their teenage years, surely supporters of the fantasy genre want to keep them reading fantasy once they move over to the adult shelves. But where are the kinds of fantasy novels they've come to love amongst the male-orientated epic quests? Where too are the female writers of adult fantasy?

Alright, alright, I know there are female fantasy writers out there, and some have even emerged from the shadows of their male counterparts. I also know that books with male protagonists can be perfectly rewarding for a girl to read. My issue is the on-going skew in the market. For every one female author, there are a dozen hairy blokes!

It seems to me that a pretty large trick is being missed here.

Which is why I've decided to start a revolution!

Let's get more girls writing the kind of fantasy fiction that appeals to girls (of all ages). Let's hold on to the female audience who fell in love with the YA fantasy novels of Kristin Cashore, Shannon Hale, Rachel Hartman, Megan Whalen Turner and SJ Maas, and give them books to love on the adult fantasy shelves. Let's throw wide the doors of Fantasyland and show the boys how much more there is to explore!

Who's with me?

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jennygordon

January 2016

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