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
Earlier this year I released desktop wallpapers of the lovely Alchemist of Souls cover art by Larry Rostant, and they proved rather popular. Since I love the cover of The Merchant of Dreams even more, I thought I’d better do the same for it!
So, here’s the lovely Jacomina “Coby” Hendricks for your computer-decorating pleasure. Just don’t say anything ungallant or she might cock that pistol of hers…
I’ve created two versions, one widescreen (8:5) and one standard proportion (4:3), both in sizes large enough for all but the biggest monitors.
Babylon Steel is the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s debut fantasy novel, an ex-mercenary turned madam of a moderately up-market brothel. Desperate for an injection of cash to pay for her girls’ expensive tastes, Madam Steel takes on a commission from suave gambling-den owner Darash Fain to locate a missing girl, and unsurprisingly finds herself up to her neck in trouble, not to mention haunted by a terrible past that is gradually revealed during the course of the story.
I came to this book feeling a little uneasy, given the profession of the protagonist. There’s a tendency in the fantasy genre to romanticise prostitution and stress the willingness of the participants, when in reality the vast majority of women only turn to the profession out of desperation. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about female characters with a healthy, nay enthusiastic, attitude to sex, and there’s a pleasing lack of the rape’n’misogyny vibe that pervades so much fantasy. Also, who can fail to like an author who creates a pair of BDSM specialists called Cruel and Unusual?
Part noir, part sword’n’sorcery, this is a difficult novel to pin down. The “present day” storyline was complex in itself, weaving the plotline about the missing girl with the everyday problems of the brothel, including a sect of creepy puritanical priests who seem bent on driving Babylon out of business. Add in regular tension-filled flashbacks to Babylon’s past as a teenaged trainee priestess and it almost feels like too much story is being crammed into a relatively short book – and yet everything is woven together with a great deal of skill, reminding me of one of Terry Pratchett’s more intricate Discworld novels. Thankfully, after a few chapters I was sufficiently engrossed to read the whole book in four (work) days, so everything stayed fresh in my memory. This is not a book to put down and pick up at intervals!
The setting is not your typical medieval fantasy world, either; it’s just one world—or plane—in a multiverse connected by portals and inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient species, from various human-like races to furry or scaly beings with more or fewer than the usual complement of limbs (or other appendages *cough*). It reminded me a great deal of the kind of SFF I read back in the eighties—Zelazny, Leiber and particularly Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor stories and Robert Asprin’s Thieves World anthologies—and owes far more to the American fantasy tradition than to Tolkien. Which is no bad thing, in my mind; the genre has become a little ossified. At times I felt it was almost too much of a rag-bag of creatures, with fey, vampires and were…somethings rubbing shoulders (and more intimate body parts) with beings that would have been more at home in a Mos Eisley cantina, but it does contribute to what’s basically a light-hearted setting under its sleazy, run-down façade of villainy and vice.
On the subject of race, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed by the whitewashed cover. On several occasions it’s mentioned that Babylon is typical of her race in having copper-coloured skin, and if I recall correctly she also has a high-bridged nose, which makes her sound more Central American than white. The art appears to be a photo-realistic painting rather than a straight photograph (click on it for a high-resolution version), so there’s really no excuse for changing the character in this way.
Another minor gripe was the fight scenes. In order to convey the immediacy and chaos of combat, the narrative shifts into present tense and becomes disjointed, giving only glimpses of the action. I can see what Sebold was trying to do, but the technique was so blatant that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Of course this could just be me being a typical writer and noticing the skeleton beneath the story’s skin, but it really didn’t work for me.
These small issues aside, it’s an enjoyable book with an engaging protagonist and an unusual setting, and I will certainly be trying to find room on my TBR list for the sequel.
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!
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.
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.
There’s been a teeny debate online this week between two people I met at EasterCon: Gavin Pugh of Gav Reads, and Sophia McDougall. The discussion centred on slash fiction and whether it was right to (homo)sexualise fictional characters in fan fiction. I won’t go into that here–you can read the respective blogs if you’re interested–but it got me thinking about the impetus behind slash, and ‘shipping in general. In other words, geeks vs romance.
Romantic/erotic fan fiction is largely written by women for women, and seems to me to be a response to the lack of female-oriented storylines in early SF, particularly on TV. Yes, Kirk could often be found snogging the female alien-of-the-week in Star Trek, but as with most episodic TV, everything had to be reset to zero by the end of each story, so there was little space to develop a believable romance. Besides, maybe you didn’t dig Kirk, in which case you’d be lucky if the writers threw you a bone once per season with a story about Spock’s pon farr or a few scenes in which Sulu takes his shirt off. The response of female fans was to write their own stories. This still begs the question, why?
It’s not as though the world is lacking in romantic fiction. Indeed, it’s the bestselling genre by far, outstripping crime, thrillers, SF&F, etc put together. So it’s not like female geeks lack reading material. Or do they? Until recently, the romance genre was largely confined to contemporary, mainstream settings, with sidelines into popular historical eras such as the Regency period. These have limited appeal to the average geek girl, who wants her fiction to have aliens or faery folk in it, not doctors or shipping magnates (at least, not unless they’re xenobiologists or spaceship magnates!).
By the end of the twentieth century, things were starting to change. More and more women were writing SF&F, and romantic, even erotic, storylines were creeping into the genre. Mostly this was confined to new subgenres of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy (predictably enough – vampires have been a metaphor for sex since Bram Stoker’s day), although a few venturesome authors like Catherine Asaro dared to write romances firmly within the SF genre.
And yet, romance is still looked down on within SF&F. My publishers, Angry Robot, had a lot of fun on April 1st by pretending they were going to start up a romance imprint. A few people were taken in by this, perhaps because AR are an innovative publishers with a wicked sense of humour, so the bogus titles listed didn’t seem that far-fetched, at least not at first glance. But there’s a serious side to this story, in that romance still has “girl-cooties” and male SF readers in particular don’t want it in their books.
Myself, I fall in the middle of this spectrum. I enjoy a good romance as much as the next girl (The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee is one of my favourite books and makes me cry every time I read it), and when developing story ideas I find myself drawn to romantic plots and subplots almost against my will. At the same time it’s not the main thing I look for in a book, so I have sympathy with the guys.
To be honest, I reckon there’s more than enough room for both readerships in our genre. Room for the whole spectrum, from romance-free hard SF to steamy love stories that just happens to be set in a fantasy world. The important thing is that the cover copy and artwork don’t mislead readers into thinking they are getting one thing then giving them something completely different. The cover of my book is going to feature my hero with his sword out* for a good reason…
Caveat emptor. Here Be Romance. Or not, as the case may be.
From time to time I revisit The Bechdel Test, because my fiction tends to feature a lot more men than women. Now I’m not going to go out of my way to make sure my work passes, because I hate tokenism in any form, but it does keep me thinking about women in fantasy.
At the moment I’m reading The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, which is unusual in that one of the protagonists is not just female but black and lesbian. We haven’t seen as much from her PoV as the two male characters, but it’s enough to pass my version of the Bechdel Test; let’s call it the Lyle Test
For me, what matters in written fiction (as distinct from film and TV) is not how many women there are and what they talk about, as how unstereotypical they are, how integral to the story and how sympathetic. They don’t have to be nice people, but even villains need a human side or they might as well be CGI eyeballs.
Consider these two examples:
Exhibit A: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Now, overall I quite enjoyed this book (it could have done with some editing, but that’s par for the course these days), but it fails the Lyle test, I’m afraid. There are occasional mentions of Locke’s amour, who is supposedly clever as well as gorgeous, but the women who actually appear in the book are minor characters at best and stereotypical kick-ass warrior babes at worst. It’s probably no more than one should expect from a fairly young male author, but it’s still disappointing for this reader.
Exhibit B: The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg. For me this is a worse offender, since the writer is a woman. Each of the two male protagonists has a female partner, which ought to be good, right? Wrong. Seyonne’s wife is a out-and-out bitch with apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever (making Seyonne look like a total loser for being in love with her), and whilst Prince Aleksander’s betrothed is an assertive princess, she figures so briefly in the story that I was left feeling like she was just a convenient plot device to help the heroes in their escape. The whole trilogy revolves around the obsessive (but disappointingly unhomoerotic) relationship between the two men, and hence fails the test.
Contrast these with practically any book by Terry Pratchett, where there are women of all ages and classes (and species), as protagonists or in minor roles, and every last one of them memorable and believable.