Having left Camorre after the deaths of their fellow Gentleman Bastards at the hands of the Bondsmagi, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are running a new scam in the Sinspire, a high-class casino in the city of Tal Verrar. Unfortunately the Bondsmagi haven’t finished with Locke yet, and he and Jean find themselves working—decidedly unwillingly—for a Verrari warlord with an ambition to rule the city outright. Temporarily abandoning the scam they take up their new mission, starting with a crash course in seamanship and a new cover identity as the dread pirate Orrin Ravelle…
Warning: here be spoilers! Because it’s otherwise hard to say what I liked (and didn’t like) about the book. And hell, it’s six years old, so I reckon many of my visitors will have read it already anyway. Read more
A few weeks ago I heard that the Globe had transferred two of their summer productions to the Apollo Theatre for the winter – and more importantly from my perspective, these were two new all-male productions starring Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe. I’d read about the similar productions he’d done almost a decade ago, so the chance to see one at last was irresistible!
I hesitated briefly over which to choose, and eventually plumped for Richard III. Much as I love Twelfth Night, it’s a play I’m very familiar with, whereas the only version of Richard III I’ve seen is the well-known Laurence Olivier film. The reviews of Rylance’s performance suggested that this might be the better of the two, which swayed me further.
I booked stage seats, for the best possible view at the most reasonable price. This meant we were seated in one of two two-tier wooden stands, almost like a bit of the Globe Theatre brought to the West End, on each side of the stage. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get a lower-level seat, but the upper level still gave wonderfully up-close-and-personal views of the actors and set. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous – I spent a good deal of the play just taking in all the details, from the various styles of men’s hats (including a very silly fluffy white one with a pink hatband, like something a pimp would wear!) to the daggers worn tucked horizontally through the belt, in the small of the back. Another benefit of our seats was that we could see many of the costumes hanging up backstage, and even got a chance to thank the actors personally as we left, since they were still standing in the wings.
The undisputed star of the show was of course Rylance. He plays Richard as an almost pantomime villain, confiding in the audience about his wicked plans and getting them on his side. The result was an extremely funny play – surprisingly so, for a Shakespeare history play – at least until his final downfall. He was ably assisted in this by his foil, Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham (better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses). Most of the actors apart from the few leads played multiple roles, but the distinctness of their costumes meant that I was never confused when they returned in new guise. From our stage seats we could also make out little details invisible to the rest of the audience, like the fact that the pewter inkwells really did contain ink and you could see the actors signing the various documents that appear in the play. This added a startling verisimilitude that I had not expected – and nearly gave Mark Rylance a turn when he all but dropped an inkwell in his lap!
As mentioned above, one of the main reasons I wanted to see this production was that it was being staged with full Elizabethan practices as far as possible. The stage was lit by masses of candles (albeit backed up by some electric lighting for the benefit of modern theatre-goers) – four huge wrought-iron candelabra hanging from the ceiling, and a large floor-standing one at the back of the stage. Scenes flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with incoming actors beginning their lines even before the previous ones had left the stage. And then of course there were the men in female roles.
Samuel Barnett (perhaps best known for his role as Posner in The History Boys) was brilliant as Queen Elizabeth, graceful in his movements and acting as effortlessly as if this were his usual type of role. Johnny Flynn was less successful as Anne Neville; he declaimed his lines stiffly, as if it was taking all his effort to maintain a believable falsetto. A pity, as this has put me off going to see Twelfth Night, in which he plays the key role of Viola.
One difference from Elizabethan practice is that the actors playing female roles were a lot older than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day – Barnett, for example, is 32. Some actors did indeed continue in such roles until their early twenties, but the majority would have been around fifteen or sixteen, an age at which many an undernourished Elizabethan apprentice might still have an unbroken voice. These days, finding boys young enough to have such voices but old enough to play leading roles in Shakespeare must be practically impossible!
What struck me, though, during the play was that I soon stopped thinking of them as “men in drag”. On the one hand, they clearly weren’t actual women, but the combination of the artificiality of the stage environment and the contrast between male and female Elizabethan dress made them so distinct from the men as to seem like women by virtue of that fact alone. It gave me a striking insight into the Elizabethan mindset, whereby a person’s identity (both in gender and status) was judged very much by their clothing and far less by the human body inhabiting that clothing.
The play ended, as all Globe productions do, with a traditional jig performed by all the company. The dancing was superb, with so much leaping, stamping and clapping that I almost expected the men to start break-dancing any moment! It also reminded me a great deal of the ball scene in A Knight’s Tale where they suddenly start boogying to Bowie. Anyone who thinks that an Elizabethan ball would have been as sedate an event as its equivalent in Jane Austen’s day should think again – this was seriously sexy stuff!
All in all it was a wondrous experience, and well worth the considerable sum I paid for the tickets. I’m already starting to eye the coming season at the Globe Theatre with interest…
At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.
At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.
It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…
Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.
Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.
So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men
Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!
An unexpected post today, as I belatedly* received my Worldcon schedule this morning!
Thursday 30th August
Friday 31st August
9-10.30am Panel: Writing gender roles in science fiction
1.30-3pm Panel: “To Be” or not “To Be”: constructed languages in SF&F
Saturday 1st September
10.30am-12pm Panel: Why I love my editor
So, a busy couple of days at first, then I’ll be chilling out on Sunday so that I can enjoy the rest of the con without collapsing in a heap!
* I didn’t receive my confirmation email at the same time as everyone else – must have been lost in the ether, or perhaps caught in a spam trap? – so on impulse I contacted the organisers yesterday, just in case. So glad I did!
The Bechdel Test is a well-known yardstick used by writers and critics to assess the feminist credentials of a narrative. Taking its name from an episode in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the basic principle is that in order to pass the test, there must be at least one scene in which two women talk about a topic other than men.
Some people define it very strictly, in that the conversation shouldn’t mention male characters at all, but this is (IMHO) an impractically tight definition that excludes a lot of films, TV and books with positive portrayals of women. Taken to extremes, it means that a scene where two female cops discuss their strategy for taking down a male criminal doesn’t count, whereas one where they talk about shoes means a pass (and one could even say that the latter is far less feminist* for being focused on sexual attractiveness, not professional competence). Personally, I prefer a more liberal interpretation: the conversation doesn’t have to avoid all mention of men and relationships, but they should be incidental to the topic rather than the topic itself. For example, if two women talk about their favourite books, should the scene fail just because they don’t restrict the conversation to female authors? Personally I’d say no, not unless the conversation turns to which of the male writers is more attractive!
At any rate, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot whilst writing my Night’s Masque series, because gender plays an important role in the story. But do my books pass?
I chose to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period for many reasons—the plays and poetry, the gorgeous costumes, and the extraordinary parallels with our own times, for a start—but in doing so I’ve saddled myself with the decidedly un-PC attitudes of the times as well. Elizabethan society was pretty well segregated along social lines, in that a respectable woman had few opportunities to socialise with men outside her own family and her husband’s social circle.
I was therefore faced with a choice between an all-male core cast or trying to fit a female character into the story without totally violating Elizabethan mores. I decided to attempt the latter, not because I felt obliged to include a token female but because I wanted a diversity of point-of-view characters for my own satisfaction as a writer. The character who eventually became Coby started out as a respectable young widow, but as I wrote and revised the early chapters I found it increasingly difficult to believe in her as someone who would run around Southwark with a bunch of, frankly, disreputable young men. So, I decided she was an orphan who had disguised herself as a boy to get a proper job (i.e. anything but prostitution).
All well and good—and nicely Shakespearean!—but as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window! On those grounds, The Alchemist of Souls is a big Fail. And honestly, I don’t care. The only way to make it pass would have been to write a completely different book.
In The Merchant of Dreams, which has just gone off to my editor, Coby gets to spend some time in female guise at last, and the book just about squeaks a pass as a result. She doesn’t have many conversations with women, and the ones she does have are often limited by language barriers, but as the revisions went on I found myself coming up with more and more opportunities to introduce female characters for her to interact with. It wasn’t a conscious decision; looking back, I think it’s simply that Coby now has a much wider range of options than any other character in the book because she can present as either male or female, and in this historical milieu that opens up more storytelling possibilities than confining myself to one sex.
I’m therefore interested to see how things will work out in the final volume, The Prince of Lies. Whilst I do my best to create an outline for a book before I start writing, it tends to be a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and new ideas occur to me right up to the last draft. What happens next for Coby is still up in the air, and my focus is on staying true to her story, wherever that might take me. For me, respecting your characters means letting their story arcs develop at the right pace and in a direction that’s believable, not imposing arbitrary rules.
* For a sharply satirical look at the extremes of feminism, I strongly recommend Is This Feminist? (thanks to Emma Jane Davies for alerting me to this hilarious Tumblr blog)
One of my favourite UK conventions is AltFiction, a relatively small event based in the East Midlands and focusing more than most on writing and writers. I first attended last year, when it took place in Derby, but this year it moved to what I understand will be its regular venue in future, the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. The convention is a day and a half long (all day Saturday, plus Sunday morning), with a packed programme of events.
My first day at the convention was pretty quiet – I had no panels or other appearances booked for Saturday – so I was free to mooch around, attend a couple of talks, and most importantly, catch up with a bunch of friends I had missed at Eastercon. In fact it was surprising how many Eastercon attendees managed to make it to another convention only a week later, especially given that many of them had been adamant a few weeks before that they couldn’t possibly do two conventions in a row! I think it’s a testament to the affection in which AltFiction is held that people turn up when they could be have a well-earned weekend at home.
The first panel I attended was “Not another f*cking elf!”, in which Paul Cornell, Emma Newman, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jenni Hill debated the well-worn fantasy races and how attitudes to them had changed over the years. It was entertaining and occasionally quite erudite, and the only downside was that many people had to be turned away as it was held in a tiny room with only about two dozen chairs. This turned out to be a significant problem of the venue – the huge size difference in rooms meant that the large one might be sparsely populated whilst the small one was overflowing. I’m sure the organisers tried to predict which panels would be most popular, but people can be contrary!
The afternoon panels were less successful. I went to one on genre TV which mostly discussed one-off mini-series that I’d never seen, pretty much ignoring all the big-name shows. Whilst I appreciate that shows like Doctor Who may have been discussed to death in other conventions, a panel that focused on British SFF shows and their mainstream appeal, and then totally ignored the success of Life on Mars and Being Human in favour of obscure titles, failed in my opinion to entertain – and I have to say that I blame the moderator, Steve Volk, for the narrow focus of the discussion. The other panel, writing as a day-job, was equally off-topic, in that none of the panelists earned a living as a writer, they simply didn’t have a day-job (for various reasons, such as unemployment). Anyone hoping to quit their day-job would have been better off going to Mark Chadbourn’s “workshop” (really a talk) on the business of writing, but numbers were limited and you had to sign up for it.
The evening passed in usual convention style, i.e. a bit of milling around whilst you and your friends sort out which restaurant you’re going to for dinner, followed by dinner itself (in our case, a good but unremarkable curry) and then back to the hotel bar. Most of us were staying at the Ramada Encore, only a few minutes’ walk from the venue – it was modern, clean and not too expensive, although the tea (at breakfast and in the bedrooms) was as terrible as one usually expects from a three-star hotel. Much better tea – and very reasonably-priced, good quality food – was available at the venue itself.
Although there were few book stalls, and none selling The Alchemist of Souls, I was asked to sign a few copies that had been brought along by friends. It was great to finally get to meet people I’d previously only known online, including book blogger Erik Lundqvist and my newest beta reader, Fatihah Iman.
The convention resumed late on Sunday morning, and I had a panel at noon on diversity in fantasy, with Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Sarah Cawkwell. Mark was our moderator and came well-prepared with a long list of notes and questions on his iPad, and under his guidance our discussion covered a whole gamut of topics – gender, sexuality and race – with regard to the books themselves, the authors and the fans. The panel was well-attended and seemed to go down well with the audience, and for me made a satisfying end to a short but sweet convention.
Next year, thankfully, AltFiction will be in late May, thus avoiding butting up against Eastercon, which will make it even more of a must-do convention. See you there?
As an aside, the Discover Festival that was due to take place in Coalville in May has been cancelled by the organiser, so I won’t be in the Midlands again until Edge-Lit in Derby, in July.
One of the issues that keeps coming up in reviews of The Alchemist of Souls is my portrayal of the non-straight characters. Readers who know the period praise the authenticity, whilst those who know little about Elizabethan culture seem surprised by it. Rather than comment directly on individual reviews (which seldom reflects well on the writer), I decided to discuss it here.
Partly it was a deliberate choice to play down any homophobia – I didn’t set out to write an LGBTQ novel, so I didn’t want that aspect to overshadow the plot. However the more I researched the topic, the more convinced I became that it would not be a big issue for my characters, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s the matter of differing social mores. Nowadays men and women are more-or-less equals, but they remain differentiated by expectations of how they conduct platonic relationships. Women’s friendships are expected to be affectionate, and it is acceptable for such feelings to be displayed in public with no assumption that the relationship in sexual in nature; in comparison, men are expected to be emotionally distant, and any physical contact is limited to horseplay.
Elizabethan men, by contrast, were legally superior to women and had very different expectations from women as to their role in society, but the social behaviour of the two sexes was less well differentiated; strong, emotionally deep friendships between men (based on ideals from both medieval chivalry and the Bible) were considered quite normal, and male friends could walk arm-in-arm or even kiss without any sexual connotation. Also, in this period a brief kiss on the mouth was a normal social greeting, no more sexual than a peck on the cheek. Hence I considered it entirely plausible for my gay male characters to express their affection for one another without social approbation, as long as they weren’t too blatant.
In this period, male and female dress was distinguished by cut, not by the fabrics used. Silk, lace, embroidery and jewels were markers of status, not gender, giving rich Elizabethan men a decidedly effeminate appearance to modern eyes. Portraits of young men and women can be hard to tell apart!
Perhaps under the influence of Greek literature, homosexuality in this period was conflated with pederasty. In both the poetry of the time and the legal cases that have come to light, the relationship under scrutiny was nearly always that of an adult male and an adolescent boy. The sexualisation of boys was further entrenched in English urban culture by the theatrical practice of having female roles played by boys and young men.
Until relatively recently homosexuality was not seen as a permanent orientation, equivalent to heterosexuality, but as a pattern of temporary behaviour and an indicator of moral degeneracy. Satirists described the fashionable bachelor as spending the afternoon with his mistress and the evening with his catamite; both relationships were considered equally unmanly and foppish, transgressing normal, respectable standards of behaviour.
An additional factor was surely that this was a highly segregated society where female virginity had both moral and monetary value, and where formal education and most professions were male-only. As in modern-day boarding schools and prisons, many men must have resorted to homosexual practices as a physical outlet. As a result, a Renaissance man who had sex with another man didn’t consider himself gay, any more than does the guy in prison who makes you his bitch.
Indeed the Venetian authorities were so worried about the proliferation of sodomy that they decreed that prostitutes should bare their breasts in an effort to persuade young men to part with their money! The bridge where the prostitutes displayed themselves is still known as the Ponte de le Tette (above).
Given all these factors, I imagined a culture where gay relationships between adults could slip under the radar, or even be tolerated in certain circles: amongst the more intellectual coteries at court, for example, and most likely amongst the theatre fraternity, which has always attracted outsiders. In other words, exactly the social circles that my characters move in.
I attempted to include some dissenting voices, through characters who openly disapprove of Ned and Gabriel’s relationship as well as through Mal’s ambivalence about his own dealings with Ned, but perhaps between subtlety on my part and lack of historical context on the readers’, I have perhaps not struck the perfect balance. This is always a problem for the writer of historical fiction – how to portray people from another era, whose attitudes were in many ways alien to ours, in a way that readers can relate to. But if the past was just like the present day, where would be the fun in writing about it?
Maybe it’s a cliché to write a romance-themed blog post for Valentine’s Day, but the celebration is rife with clichés so I thought, why not?
In medieval and Renaissance times, a romance was not a love story but “a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place” (freedictionary.com). Sounds awfully like the modern-day definition of the fantasy genre, doesn’t it? However when it comes to the modern definition of romance, you tend to find readers divided on the subject.
On the one hand you have the “girl cooties” school of fantasy, inspired by the work of Tolkien, who spent most of his life in the male-dominated circles of the early twentieth century English education system. Such books seem designed to appeal to the adolescent male, with female characters who are at best an idealised Other, and at worst a collection of sexist stereotypes. This is a gross generalisation of course, and there have been lots of fantasy novels with strong female characters, but there are nonetheless still plenty of readers who dislike any hint of romance sullying their heroes’ testosterone-soaked adventures.
In the opposite corner you have the new kid on the block, paranormal romance, which seems designed to appeal mainly to female readers. Owing more to the Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, these are love stories first and foremost, with the fantasy elements typically providing the obstacles between the lovers. I suspect that part of their rise in popularity, as with m/m romance, lies in the fact that modern Western couples face few obstacles in their relationships compared to previous generations. “(S)he’s a vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie” has replaced “our parents would never allow it” as the star-crossed lovers’ angst du jour.
But what of the middle ground? What are the fantasy novels that fall between these extremes, and where do you draw the line? This question occurred to me after reading Ten Ruby Trick by my friend Julia Knight. For the most part this is a fun swashbuckling adventure, like the old movies I used to watch on Sunday afternoons. Sure, there’s a romance between the hero, Van Gast, and the tricksy pirate captain Josie, but the love scenes are fairly infrequent and not terribly steamy.
In many respects, therefore, it’s not that dissimilar from my own novel The Alchemist of Souls – and yet Ten Ruby Trick is published by Carina, an ebook imprint of Harlequin, whereas I’m published by SFF imprint Angry Robot. So what makes Julia’s book romance and mine not? I pondered this for a while and realised it was all down to the characters’ motivation. In Ten Ruby Trick, both Van Gast and his enemy Holden are motivated by their love for Josie; if it wasn’t for their feelings, there would be no plot. In The Alchemist of Souls, the romance is confined to a subplot. Take it away, and you would still be left with Mal’s main storyline, which has nothing to do with romance (though it is ultimately concerned with love, loyalty and responsibility). It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in how the book is marketed.
What about you? Do you like romance in your fantasy, fantasy in your romance, or do you prefer the two genres to stay separate?
There’s been a lot of debate recently following an online survey asking readers for their “must read” SF list, the issue being that less that 10% of the suggested books were by women. Why, it was asked, the overwhelming bias?
Various explanations – and solutions – to this woeful state of affairs were put forward. Many pointed out that there is no lack of women working in the genre. From the writers themselves, through the often female-dominated corridors of the publishing industry, to the many women readers, we are everywhere. The problem is not absence but invisibility. Women’s writing is, by and large, being published, but apparently not reviewed, reprinted or talked about.
To me it all seems to come down to the same issue. Women are brought up to be mild-mannered and self-effacing. Girls do less well in mixed schools because their male classmates hog the teachers’ attention. Women have a cliched reputation for being talkative, but scientific observation has proved time and time again that in a mixed group, men do more of the talking and are far more likely to dominate the conversation. This is the real obstacle we are facing as women SFF writers – not active sexism or bias, but something entrenched deep in our culture, a potent mix of nature and nurture that drowns the female voice everywhere. Even we women are guilty of buying into this silencing, every time we worry that by standing up for women we are sticking our heads above the parapet and asking to be labeled as harridans or, perish the thought, feminists.
The fact that women’s voices can make themselves heard, without any apparent fuss, is proved by one writer currently in the limelight. Last month Lauren Beukes won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for her novel “Zoo City”. Now I haven’t read it yet, though a copy is sitting on my iPad waiting patiently, but I have a feeling that what attracted the nominations was not simply the quality of the book but the visibility of the author. Beukes is a South African journalist, a career that certainly isn’t for shrinking violets, so it’s hardly surprising that she is outgoing and fearless in the face of male domination of her genre. However she goes about it with such canny charm: stuffed toys based on elements from her books accompany on her public appearances, simultaneously disarming and attracting everyone she meets. She talks to everyone, and soon has them eating out of the palm of her hand.
Of course not everyone can follow her example – we’re not all that brave and extroverted. But it does show that, as the old saying goes, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. If there’s going to be any positive discrimination going on, it needs to be just that: positive. No whining, no apologies for making a fuss; simply tell the world about all the damned good SF and fantasy that just happens to be written by women.
Postscript: on checking my own blog, I have realised to my shame that, of the six books I have reviewed, only one is by a woman. Part of that is because I have been researching the competition, and my corner of the genre is dominated by men. Currently on my TBR pile are Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard and Romanitas by Sophia McDougall. However I would very much like to find more women writers to review, so if you know of anything suitable, please give your suggestions in the comments! I’m looking for recently* published fantasy with a strong historical flavour, either real-world or secondary-world – but preferably no dragons, which bore the pants off me
* I have read – and loved – The Curse of Chalion, and will probably review it some time, but it’s several years old and I’d like to focus on new works.