Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: 'The Emperor's Edge' by Lindsay Buroker

I was bouncing around websites looking at reviews for something else when I tripped over this. It was free, it had good reviews, it sounded intriguing - a female enforcer (cop) in a steam-punk fantasy setting - so I downloaded the sample, and just kept reading. It's not deep, but it's pacy, funny and has interesting characters, and sometimes that's just what I'm in the mood for.

I've never read anything steam-punk before, but it was well done. The setting felt perfectly believable, with steam-powered this, that and the other, and a lot of mechanical devices just there, without too much isn't-this-clever authorial explanation. And, being fantasy, there's magic too, which is cool, although it's a relatively minor part of the story. I very much liked the winter setting, which made the snow and the frozen lake significant factors in the plot. Combined with the steam-powered machinery, this gave the story a nicely atmospheric feel.

The main character, Amaranthe Lokdon (and no, names are not the author's strongest suit), is terrific - intelligent and self-sufficient, able to think her way out of trouble and only occasionally needing to be rescued by a bloke. I liked Sicarius the laconic assassin too, and super-smart emperor Sespian (see what I mean about the names?). And there's a backup team of colourful characters, and some perfectly credible villains, too. It's always nice to find bad guys whose motives are a little more complex than simple global domination (although there was an element of that, too, of course). And all the characters behaved believably; in particular, Amaranthe's conflicted emotions when face to face with her former enforcer colleagues or when seeing Sicarius in cold assassin mode was nicely done. She felt like a truly rounded personality, if a little unnaturally bouncy and resourceful, but then that very much fits with her being one of only a few female enforcers.

The plot - well, it's certainly imaginative (not the hackneyed emperor's-in-trouble motif, but the creative plan to rescue him). There are a lot of implausibilities, it has to be said, and Amaranthe's unlikely team falls into place surprisingly easily for such a motley crew. Sicarius, in particular, seems like a confirmed loner, yet he signs up for Amaranthe's slightly hare-brained scheme remarkably easily. And it surprised me how often they walked openly around town, despite Sicarius being a notorious assassin and Amaranthe having her face plastered over the wanted posters, and sometimes Amaranthe was a bit too keen to confront possibly hostile enemies or beasties. But still, her seemingly unlimited capacity for devising ingenious escapes more than compensated, and frequently put a big grin on my face as she insouciantly walked out of yet another scrape.

My only complaint is that sometimes the plot devices were a little too obvious; so when there's a piece of machinery or a spade lying around, you know it's going to come in handy before too long. And is it just me, or are there an awful lot of secret passages and ducts in these buildings? I don't know whether it's intentional (because the protagonist is mid-twenties), but the book would fit perfectly well as young adult. There's no swearing or sex, one not-very-graphic near rape (but isn't there always?) and the violence is not particularly gory. It's all good clean action-packed stuff, without a single sagging moment. The romance is fairly low-key, too.

The ending is suitably dramatic, and even though the outcome was never really in doubt, it becomes a real page-turner. As always, the situation is resolved by ingenuity and dogged perseverance rather than brute force or magic. Of course this wouldn't be fantasy without a certain amount of badassery on display, but still, the majority of the fighting is more of the elbow to the chin or tripping up variety, and there's always an air of disappointment from the heroine that differences couldn't be resolved more peaceably. It's notable, actually, how often Amaranthe simply talks her way out of trouble. This is an entertaining caper with loads of humour, a believable and interesting setting, and a nice mixture of characters. Despite the implausibilities and contrivances of the plot, it's a fast, enjoyable read. Four stars.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Review: 'Back On Murder' by J Mark Bertrand

This is one that I picked up for free at some point, experimentally, and I really enjoyed it. It's not at all an original premise - washed up cop trying to find his way again, some traumatic history, rocky relationship with his wife, a drugs-style shooting, a missing girl, leaks to the press, blah blah, and many of the twists and turns were quite predictable, but it really didn't matter. I found myself drawn into it almost at once, and was soon tearing through it in every spare moment.

The key factor for me was that all the characters felt like real people. The cop himself, Roland March, his wife Charlotte, the other cops, the various people drawn into the investigation... all of them felt like the sort of folks you could meet any day of the week, with all their little foibles, their histories together, the way they behaved. I read so many books where the characters are simply one-dimensional that it's a real joy to find one where they're fully rounded, and make stupid mistakes from time to time, or even get distracted by an attractive colleague.

This book has been categorised as 'Christian' by a number of readers, but if that is normally a turn-off for you, don't be deterred. Several of the characters are openly Christian, and there's a connection to a local church, but there's absolutely no preaching. The main effect on the plot is no swearing, no obvious sex outside marriage, and no real vices amongst the main characters, but that doesn't make it dull or heavily religious at all. Actually, it makes a refreshing change from the usual book of this type.

Some negatives: there were moments when the plot required characters to do fairly stupid things, or fail to make the obvious connections, just to trigger a dramatic moment or a big reveal. There were a lot of minor characters to keep track of, especially when they would disappear for several chapters and then pop up again out of nowhere. Thank goodness for the Kindle search function. And the hero's wife has to be fairly unpleasant for a while in order to ramp up the drama: at one point she starts in on him as soon as he steps through the door, then accuses *him* of always arguing, and when he eventually does what she's been nagging him to do, she rewards him with sex, which felt a little odd to me.

One aspect I felt uncomfortable with was the link to 9-11. Sometimes it seems as if you can't open a book without one or other character being connected to the tragedy, and in this case it seemed like a bit of an unnecessary stretch, a cheap appeal to emotion which could have been dealt with more creatively. It's a small point, however. On the plus side, I enjoyed the setting of Houston. I lived there for a while way back when, and it was strange to find what were respectable neighbourhoods in those days characterised as drug infested now. But the descriptions of the area seemed spot-on to me, as far as I could tell.

The story built nicely to the climax which was suitably dramatic, tied things up neatly and yet left the odd loose end to be picked up in a future book, perhaps. An entertaining, readable story. Four stars.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Review: 'Harbingers of Mortality' by Steve Thomas

I enjoyed the first in the 'Histories of Atreus' series, 'An Exercise in Futility', although it was a little dry. This one, however, is anything but, starting with a bang and going on in great style. Unusually for a fantasy series, this one starts many decades after the previous one, so it features a completely different set of characters and problems. It's not even necessary to have read the first book, as the essential details are explained in passing as the story develops.

The first book had a fairly limited view of the created world, but this one opens things out nicely to show us more of the world itself. The real focus, however, is not so much the geography or the political arrangements, but the different applications of magic. The use of magically imbued sand, seithsand or seidrium, to power spells through runes, is here seen in a formalised approach, through years of study at the Academy. In contrast, the Paiktur have an innate ability to live on the sand and use that for magic in an untrained and primitive way. And the elves are born with a fixed amount of magical capability, which has to be used sparingly because they die when it is used up.

The Paiktur have an unusual way of life. They live in Thelluk, magically created villages where a single adult male defends his harem of females and their children. Male children are turfed out to live alone in the desert when they reach adulthood, until they are mature and powerful enough to challenge another male for control of a Thelluk. If they succeed, they generally then kill the children. This is a type of society seen in many primate species, and also in lions, but not so often in human cultures, for although powerful individuals sometimes acquire a harem, infanticide is generally frowned upon (maybe because harems are traditionally passed from father to son rather than acquired by conquest). It's an intriguing idea to find in a fantasy novel, and the author quite correctly points out that where all the adults have magical power, the combined magic of the females will always win out over a single male, however strong, so really they have the final say in which male takes control of the Thelluk.

The characters are a lively bunch, with very distinct personalities. The best part of the book, for me, was when the motley group of Jeshu the assassin, Vunrata the mage, Gandahar the magically enhanced but mute knight, and Krinpet the not-quite-all-there bouncy young man were on their journey. The wildly different foursome sparked off each other very entertainingly and the humour flowed nicely (I love it when a book makes me laugh out loud). Once they split up, however, much of the humour was lost, and the other characters were a bit less interesting. I did like the ogre, though.

The magic in this book is getting very powerful. In 'Exercise', it seemed quite controlled, a bit difficult to master, but limited in application, but here everyone seems to be able to do anything they want, and the only difference is in the source of the power, whether it requires an external source or is in some way innate. I'm not a big fan of anything-goes magical power. It always seems too much like deus ex machina, somehow - a character gets into trouble, and poof, with one bound they're free (or invisible or transformed or tossing enemies aside or whatever it is). Although mostly the magic is constrained by needing seithsand to power it, once powered up they can seemingly do whatever they like. The distinction between having god-like powers and actually being a god is a bit too subtle for me.

The plot quickly got convoluted. I have to confess to finding it confusing at times. Once the main characters began to split up into subgroups and reform, and people kept disappearing and turning up at crucial moments later, it got hard to follow. The trick of hopping about in time to fill in missing details didn't help, either, and it seemed like a rather clunky technique to reveal something about one or two characters (and parts of the reveals were obvious anyway). Fortunately events were dramatic enough to keep me turning the pages, although the ending seemed a little flat, somehow. There was never sufficient emotional engagement with any of the characters or with the objectives of the plot to create the necessary tension. Sometimes it even seemed as if the characters themselves didn't much care about the deaths of their comrades, although perhaps that was just because of their slightly distant personalities. The final battle in the mine seemed curiously devoid of any focus - or, to put it another way, I wasn't at all clear who I was supposed to be rooting for, since all the characters involved had been point-of-view characters at one time or another, and none of them were obviously hero or villain at this point.

Unfortunately, although this is an enjoyable read and starts very well, it then loses its way a little from the midpoint onwards. The initial sharply defined characters and objectives - the elf looking to extend her magical capabilities with the Paiktur, and the mismatched four trying to track her down - starts to sprawl into less clearcut plotlines - the sulky goddess, the troubles at the mine, the rebellious local leader, the fight contests. All of it is perfectly logical, but it seems to be more an exploration of ideas about the effects of magic and the nature of civilisation than about telling a compelling story. The epilogue serves to tidy things up a little, although I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a happy ending, especially given what was done to the Paiktur. There is some good, detailed world-building, nice characterisation and an interesting, if not entirely believable magic system, and the humour is welcome, but the choppy later sections and the flatness of the climax keep it to three stars.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Review: 'Red Dust Road' by Jackie Kay

I knew nothing about Jackie Kay before opening this book, so it was a bit of a leap in the dark. She writes poetry, it turns out, and has obviously attracted some attention with it because she has an MBE. But this book is not about her writing, it's about how she was adopted and came to find her natural parents. Not that there's much to say about that - they never really become three dimensional, glimpsed in rather fraught occasional meetings in their old age. But if the central focus of the book is a little hazy, the decorative curlicues around the edges, the snippets of life with her adoptive parents, are what bring the story to vivid life, rich with humour and deep affection.

To be honest, I often wonder with a book of this type just why the author decided to write it. Fiction and poetry I can understand - there's a desire to tell a story, to create something new and original, to say something. But a memoir? Why would an author think these little vignettes from an ordinary life, however well written, would be interesting? Is it catharsis? It's clear that meeting her birth parents was a traumatic experience, on both sides, so maybe Kay felt the need for some kind of release, a kind of blood-letting, or perhaps a way of packaging it all up neatly into something small and manageable like a book, so it can be tidily shelved away. But what exactly do all her friends and relations (long-standing or newly discovered) feel to be written about in this tell-all way - the family's secrets spread out in the open for people like me to maul and comment on and make judgments about.

Maybe the author intended it partly as a celebration of her adoptive parents. Certainly the contrast with her birth parents could hardly be more stark, and makes their own eccentricities (they were active socialists and atheists) seem trivial and positively benign by comparison. It is also clear that, whatever the emotional ups and downs and physical difficulties involved in meeting her birth family, and however great her euphoria when things went well, it was always her adoptive parents who grounded her, and formed the solid bedrock of her life.

This is not a particularly original book, in many ways. There are many other works written by people tracing their roots and finding out surprising things about themselves and their families. There are many other works about the experience of being black or lesbian or adopted. Some of them are far more profound or moving than this one. Kay had, after all, a fairly sheltered upbringing in a loving family. Nevertheless, however lightweight the subject matter, Kay's writing skills shine through, and there's enough humour and charm here to make the book an interesting, if not compelling, read. Three stars.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Essay: On Women In Fantasy

Yes, yes, I know - all those acres of dead trees and terabytes of cyberspace already filled with thoughts on the subject, undoubtedly way more erudite than mine. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Well, not a lot, probably, but the more fantasy I read, the more these ideas swirl around my brain like smoke, so this is my way of clearing out the fog.

Women in fantasy: it's a fairly broad topic, but I'm going to look at three aspects. Firstly, women both read and write fantasy (contrary to popular belief). Secondly, there's the question of how women fit into the fantasy world created by the author. And thirdly, what roles do women play within fantasy stories. These last two are connected, of course.

Before I start, I should state, for the avoidance of doubt, that I take it as axiomatic that women are just as capable as men in virtually all areas. There are a few physical differences, of course. Women are equipped by nature to conceive, give birth and suckle babies. Men are equipped to piss standing up. Men are, on average, a bit taller and a bit stronger than women. And that's it. Anything beyond the basics is open to argument, because, even if differences are measurable, there's no knowing how much of that is innate and how much is due to cultural pressures. Are men really better at reading maps and fixing engines, or are they just taught to be? Are women inherently more interested in appearance and better with people, or is it just the way they've been brought up? Who knows.

So how much of fantasy is written by (and read by) women? That's another 'who knows' question. There are no definite numbers, and it's a fluid situation anyway - new authors come along all the time, published authors quietly stop writing and no one asks readers what gender they are. I checked the fantasy books I own, and 35% of the authors are female, as best I can tell. I don't deliberately seek out or avoid female authors, I simply buy books which catch my interest. Wikipedia lists around 450 fantasy authors (those well-known enough to merit their own page), and around a third are identifiably female. Lists of 'best of...' or 'top however many of...', on the other hand, tend to have a smaller proportion of female authors. One best 25 list had just 3, which is 12%. This may simply reflect the historical situation - when many of the classics of the genre were written, writing was seen as an activity for the leisured, educated classes, at that time mostly men.

There is a perception that fantasy is largely written (and read) by blokes. So is science fiction, the theory goes, and historical drama and hard-edged thrillers and the like, while the softer genres, like romances and cosy murder mysteries, are a female domain. One female author writes historical fiction and fantasy using a name with only initials, to disguise her gender, because of a belief that men won't read them if they knew the author was female; her romances, on the other hand, use her first name. One male author writes science fiction and fantasy with a full, male name; and he writes urban fantasy (the sort with a semi-clad weapon-toting female on the cover) using only initials. There is one fantasy author with a long list of published works whose gender is, even now, unknown. I have no idea how much author gender matters to readers, but if authors believe it matters, then it does.

I never used to think much about this, because my first and defining experience with fantasy was J R R Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'. There was fantasy before Tolkien, of course, and the whole long history of legends and sagas and myths and fairytales informed everything he wrote. Nevertheless, a great deal of what came after was based on his work, and it still influences the genre to this day.

There are three aspects of Tolkien's work which have become traditional in fantasy. Firstly, it's set in a world without much technology. There are water or wind powered mills for grinding corn, there may perhaps be printing presses, but that's about it. When Saruman industrialises Isengard and later inflicts a smaller version on the Shire, it's seen as a Very Bad Thing, covering the clean, fertile land with smoke, debris and pollution, and enslaving the population. There are stone-built towers and cities (often built in an earlier age, and with the aid of magic), and there are metal weapons and tools, but most construction and artifacts are primitive.

Secondly, Middle Earth is a much simpler place than the modern world. It's not the densely crowded, semi-urban and heavily agricultural land that the author actually lived in. Instead it's a vast empty wilderness, with pockets of civilisation dotted about, each essentially isolated from all the others. There are many thousands of years of history, full of wars and other troubles, but somehow it feels very static and unchanging, with no science and no progress towards improvement, stuck in a time-warp of primitive agriculture, albeit an idealised Victorian version rather than the medieval feudal system. And when trouble comes, it's a straightforwardly evil Dark Lord, rather than the complexities of clashing politics or religion or economics.

Then there is the role of women in Tolkien's world. They were there, of course, but relegated to bit parts - wives, daughters, barmaids and the like. It was the men who buckled up their swordbelts and sharpened their daggers and went off to war against Sauron (with just one exception, which I'll come to later). Curiously, virtually all the key players were nobility or outright royalty, something which is often forgotten, but this too is part of Tolkien's mid-twentieth-century English world, where events of tectonic political importance were always the province of the higher levels of society. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir - all were princes, kings or similar. Even the hobbits - Bilbo, Frodo, Merry and Pippin - were 'gentlehobbits', that is, wealthy enough not to have to work. Only Sam, Frodo's loyal-to-a-fault servant, was truly working class.

So it's not a surprise that the three main female characters were aristocratic too. Arwen is the archetypal princess, protected by her menfolk, beautiful, dangled like a peach as motivation for Aragorn (as if defeating Sauron wasn't motivation enough!) and then wheeled out as a marriage partner because, after all, he's the king, so he has to have heirs. You can see why Peter Jackson itched to put a sword in her hand in the film version.

Then there is Galadriel. Now she truly is a powerful woman, because she has one of the three elf rings, but she uses it in subtle, secretive ways here and there rather than getting on a horse and riding off to war flashing it (the elves are really a bit wimpy in the book, they leave most of the swordwork to the humans). She has a man to keep an eye on her, too (Celeborn) just in case we mistook her for a fully independent woman. And somehow the whole business with the mirror makes her seem like a bit of a scary witchy lady.

And so we come to Eowyn (the exception mentioned above). Eowyn gets to wear her sword and ride off to war with the men, and I have to admit that her confrontation with the Ringwraith ("No living man am I!") is one of the great moments of the book. But let's not forget that the main reason she decides to do this is because she has been spurned by Aragorn, who tells her she should stay at home and look after the women and children and old folk and leave the fighting to the men. That, right there, is a woman's dilemma in a nutshell: dull self-effacing duty while you hang about waiting for your man, or else go for personal glory and stuff the women and children. She chooses to die in battle, and it's possible to read into that an unsettling subtext: without a man, she might as well be dead (and let's not forget, she is only 'cured' of illness at the end of the book by accepting her wifely role in life). Still, whatever her motives, she turned out to be pretty nifty with a sword and single-handedly inspired a whole trope of dynamic fantasy warrior babes.

These three archetypes, the princess, the witch and the warrior babe, formed the backbone of women's roles in fantasy for decades. For men, the options were similar: warrior or knight, wizard, priest, prince or king. The working classes could be either gender, in theory (the merchant, thief, innkeeper, farmer and so on), but at all levels of society, it tended to be the men who carried the story forward, and women were a sideline.

Tolkien was, of course, only reflecting the ethos of his time. When he first went to Oxford to take his degree in 1911, women had no right to vote or be a member of Parliament, could study but not gain a degree, were constrained in owning or inheriting property, were barred from many professions, and were taxed as a unit with their husbands, allowing them no financial privacy (this last was not changed until 1990). Women were respected and treated gently, but were seen as unquestionably inferior - wives, secretaries, helpers, certainly, but weak and delicate, not fit for important work. Men were in charge - of nations, of businesses and industry, of religious practices, of hospitals, of their own homes.

When I first read 'Lord of the Rings' in the sixties, this situation had changed hardly at all. Women had by then gained the right to vote, stand for Parliament, to be awarded degrees and to control their own fertility, but were still second class citizens, subservient to fathers and husbands and male bosses amid a still patriarchal society. Even towards the end of Tolkien's life, the obscenity trial of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' in 1960 considered the question of whether it was a book a man would want his wife or servant to read (although the lawyer concerned was much derided for proposing it).

But from then onwards feminism took hold, women became more assertive and vocal, and equality became enshrined in law in Britain, as in many other Western countries. During this period, I read a lot of science fiction, and then baby and child-rearing books, then computer programming manuals, and eventually, when I finally regained the time to read as a hobby again, popular science books. It was only in 2010 that I came back to fantasy, after discovering George R R Martin's 'A Game of Thrones'.

For a while, I read uncritically. There had been changes in the genre since Tolkien's day, naturally. His charmingly bucolic and simple agricultural setting filled with noble lords and honest workers had given way to something darker. The established norm now was the medieval feudal system, with the countryside filled with ignorant, mud-bespattered peasants and towns and cities seething with lowlife: thieves, assassins, whores, drunks, rapists, pickpockets, gamblers and a whole lot worse besides. Tolkien's simple-minded but honest hobbits with their well-regulated Shire had given way to anarchy.

Now there's nothing in principle wrong with that, of course. Fantasy writers can find their inspiration where they will, and it was inevitable that there would be a reaction against the sweetness and light of the elves and hobbits and the noble warrior taking up his sword to defend the realm and rescue the princess. A little gritty realism was probably long overdue. Now, one of the notable features of the feudal system was that women were subordinate by law. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were owned by their fathers and husbands. They were dutiful daughters, staying at home, marrying a man chosen by their father, bearing him children to continue this process into the next generation. Women who fell outside this system also fell outside the law - they had no choice but to become whores or thieves, or opt out of society altogether as nuns.

It tends to be forgotten, however, that everyone was owned under the feudal system. A woman belonged to a man, but he in his turn belonged to the local landowner, who belonged to a greater lord, who himself belonged to the king, who answered ultimately to God. Serf and free man alike owed obligations of labour and time to their superior, who himself had responsibilities to protect them. In such a system, it was easier to deal with family units rather than individuals, and the man tended to be the head of the family and therefore its representative. Usually, the whole family worked together to run the farm, weave the cloth, make the furniture or whatever the family business was, but the man was the figurehead, responsible for public dealings. If he died without an adult son, however, his widow routinely inherited all his obligations and rights. She could take over the property, the business and the family. If he belonged to a guild, for instance, then his widow could take over his membership and train apprentices. It was a pragmatic recognition that she was an essential part of the family business, just as capable as her husband. [See footnote on historical realities]

I never thought much about all of this as I was reading. I soaked up fantasy like a sponge, and none of it seemed terribly far from Tolkien's vision: men ran the show, women were there on the sidelines as love interest, to be captured by the bad guys and rescued by the heroes, to tend the home fires as wives and mothers, and keep things going while the heroes save the world. Sometimes they appeared as witches, to cast evil spells or make dire prophecies. Motivation and plot devices, basically. Now, some fantasy did have female protagonists alongside the men, helping out with the business of saving the world, but as often as not they were a token gesture, or else they still fell into one of the three classic roles: princess, witch, warrior babe. Or whore. There are a surprising number of whores and concubines and the like in modern fantasy. And even when they were out there fighting alongside the men, they still often ended up as love interest, or got captured and had to be rescued. How often does a male character have to be rescued?

Still, it all seemed fairly normal to me. Fantasy is, after all, a backward-looking, traditionalist genre, so it's not that surprising that so many works are rooted in the medieval, and portray women in subservient roles. But then I read a sequence of books that made me stop and think. The first was Glenda Larke's Stormlord trilogy, in many ways a conventional fantasy, but outside the standard medieval backdrop, which had some wonderful independent-minded female characters who, when captured, managed to escape by themselves. Then there was Sue Rule's Shehaios trilogy, which was set in an egalitarian society, facing up to a more patriarchal one. And finally Andrea K Höst's Medair duology featured a female protagonist and a genuinely gender-neutral society and story.

And then, by contrast, I read Richard K Morgan's 'The Steel Remains', which could hardly be more different. It's set in an extreme form of the medieval feudal system, and virtually all the female characters encountered are whores, or sex slaves, or are simply promiscuous. There's also a mad witch, and a bossy mother (married off to a man she disliked at the age of thirteen). The only main character who is female is employed at the whim of the emperor, and although she has the potential to break out into independence, and has elements of warrior-babe-ness, she is still the token female. I cannot remember a single female in a normal, everyday role - an innkeeper, say, or middle-ranking servant. I enjoyed the book, on many different levels, and it was wonderful to see a main character who was openly gay, but the portrayal of female characters made me uneasy.

For the first time, I started to notice how women were portrayed in fantasy, and then it became impossible to read a book without noticing. In fact, when I re-read the first four books of Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations prior to the release of the last two, I was struck by how helpless the women seemed, something that hadn't even occurred to me on the first read. Even when they were acting apparently on their own initiative, there was often a man (or a wizard!) behind the scenes manipulating things and setting the agenda. And inevitably they got captured and had to be rescued, made bad decisions or simply plot-related decisions, or else, like one character, gave up entirely and became catatonic for several books.

Now in all fairness, although they started at a ridiculously low point and climbed very erratically to reach a degree of autonomy, all the women did eventually end up as sensible human beings, acting intelligently without being prompted by a man. I have to say, too, that most people reading the books have no problem with the portrayal of women in them, and the author also disagrees with my assessment. But that's fine. I am simply stating my observations at the time.

It is a curious thing that while women in the real world have been steadily acquiring greater independence, in legal, financial and professional terms, in fantasy there seems to have been a trend away from that, and a retreat even from Tolkien's respectful if patronising attitude, towards something much more negative. I am not going to talk about agency, or the role of rape in fantasy, or misogyny, or whether there are differences between male and female authors - I don't have either the degree in feminist studies or the long list of already read fantasy to guide me. I can only talk about what I have personally noticed in the relatively modest number of fantasy books I've read to date, and wonder about it.

Firstly, there is the question of the types of society portrayed. In epic (or high) fantasy, the author has a completely free hand to invent whatever kind of world he or she likes. It is disappointing, therefore, that so many turn to some caricatured version of the European middle ages, complete with male primogeniture, arranged marriages, male-dominated religion and all the rest of it. And generally there are taverns with serving wenches and brothels and the emperor's harem, and all the usual paraphernalia. Maybe it's just laziness, who knows, but given that these authors can be endlessly creative with monsters and plot twists and magic systems, is it asking so much that they at least think about what sort of society they are creating, rather than regurgitating the whole cliché?

Then there are the roles women are playing in the story. This is not just a matter of character roles, like the princess, witch, warrior babe, whore and so on, but how they impact on the plot. Is the princess there for the hero to fall in love with, or is she actually moving her own armies around? Is the sorceress standing on the battlefield hurling spells at the enemy or even the enemy herself, or is she just required to spout the prophecy that initiates the hero's journey? Is the warrior babe actually fighting alongside the men, or is she there just to get injured or captured, and need to be rescued? And does she hang up her sword with relief when the men come along?

These two issues - of women's place in the created world, and the role they play in the story - are related, but they are not the same. It's perfectly possible for an author to create a traditional medieval world, and yet have female characters who are intelligent, spirited and act on their own initiative (which is to say, normal). Equally, the created world can be twelve kinds of awesome, and yet relegate women to no more than bit-parts designed to motivate the main characters (men). But it does seem to me that if an author starts with the idea that women are confined to passive roles and subordinate to men in their invented world, it's going to be that bit more challenging to make them act independently.

I've mentioned three examples above where I felt women were treated properly, all by female authors, and one, by a male author, which was different. I don't want to make any generalisations from that, or suggest that those four are particularly representative of their gender. There are male authors who write wonderful, fully autonomous female roles, Daniel Abraham, for one (in all his books). Chris Wooding's Braided Path trilogy had several good solid female roles, who drove the plot just as much as the men, if not more. George R R Martin manages to create females in his A Song Of Ice And Fire series who are every bit as devious, selfish and amoral as their male counterparts. And if you want examples of the reverse, of female authors writing submissive and subservient women, I would suggest a look at any number of paranormal romances, the popularity of which is unnerving evidence that a lot of women really like the idea of a creepy undead blood-sucking boyfriend. Eeww.

In contrast, the urban fantasy sub-genre is also becoming the natural home to one particular kind of feisty fantasy heroine, the semi-naked leather-clad young woman toting an array of guns and knives (according to the cover), who spends her life chasing down demons and ghouls and various not-really-human enemies. This may seem at first sight to be similar to the vampire-loving heroine, but in one kind the woman is often a victim, needing male help to survive, whereas in the other kind the woman is a kickass Buffy-style heroine, albeit with a (largely male) Scooby gang. A sort of ultra-warrior-babe, which is fine as long as she really is acting independently and not just following a male agenda, Charlie's-Angels-style.

It is perhaps significant that so many of these feisty women pop up in urban fantasy, which is mostly set in the present day, and not so much in epic or traditional fantasy, which usually has a low-technology, often historical, backdrop. In a modern setting, active, self-motivated women are a perfect fit, but virtually all historical settings, no matter the location or type of culture, tend to have the sort of hierarchical social structure which leaves women at the bottom of the rankings. This does make it more difficult to create female characters who act independently. A princess in such a society has to sit at home in her castle with her tapestry waiting for her prince to carry her off (so that she can spend the rest of her life in his castle with her tapestry, of course), so how is she supposed to go off on that quest to find the magic thingummybob? She can't do it without breaking away from the strictures of her society - becoming a rebel, in other words. Or else a bloke tells her to do it. It's not impossible for authors to find ways round the problem, but it takes some ingenuity.

From an author's point of view, it's a lot of bother to create a world in which women have true equality. There are a lot of details to be taken into account. Education, for instance - are boys and girls raised and taught equally? What about contraception and child-rearing - science fiction can remove reproduction from the equation altogether with futuristic technology, but fantasy can't assume such things. Then there's the matter of choice in sexuality, sex partners and pregnancy - how much freedom will women (and men) have in this created world? And - a big question - who looks after the children? Then there are working roles - will women have the right to maternity leave of some sort? And even without the issue of children, how much freedom will anyone, men and women alike, have to take on any job they feel drawn to? How do economic constraints affect things? Will they even be paid for their work? All these things need to be thought about, even if not every detail finds its way into the story. It's easy to understand why authors shy away from all that bother, and buy into a simple, easily-understood template, like the feudal system.

Yet it does seem strange to me that an author who will spend many hours devising (say) an intricate magic system, or multiple religions, or complex political tapestries, or a whole array of weird and wonderful non-human creatures, will spend no time at all thinking about the role of women in that created world. They will simply be dumped into the time-honoured roles - princess, witch, whore, warrior-babe. Sometimes this is deliberate, of course, as with Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series, where he set out from the start to create a very traditional type of fantasy, as a counterpoint to the newer gritty style. And sometimes an author will acknowledge the issue, but not want to divert too much attention away from the story, so there will be an occasional female guard (say) to demonstrate the gender neutrality of the created world. This is all fine - so long as an author has thought about the problem, and not simply bought mindlessly into the whole medieval subservient female scenario. Not every book has to have a gender-neutral society, and stories about global conflict and vast battling armies are going to be more towards the testosterone end of the spectrum anyway.

But fantasy has one major card up its sleeve for female equality, and that is magic. If a character can simply recite a spell or wave a wand or wiggle their fingers to unleash great powers, then there is no reason why the reciter or waver or wiggler shouldn't be a woman. And, unlike Galadriel, there is also no reason why she shouldn't be out there in the thick of the action. A witch (or sorceress or wizardess or female mage) can defend herself as well as her male counterpart, she can be just as aggressive if need be and she can leave all the sword-wielding to the men, if she wants to. As mentioned, powerful female characters with magical powers turn up in urban fantasy, set in the modern world, but they work just as well in more traditional fantasy too. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card for authors, because it allows them to create truly independent female characters while retaining the conventional medieval backdrop (if they want to).

The ultimate question is whether it really matters. The patriarchal society has been with us for millenia in virtually all cultures, so fantasy is only reflecting the real world, after all. Even in today's world, where many countries have enshrined equality in law, the reality is not quite like that, and there are still many countries which are unapologetically unequal. Fantasy doesn't even have to reflect the real world anyway; one of its virtues is precisely that it's an escape from reality. So perhaps there's no reason to agonise over it. Fantasy doesn't have to be an equal opportunities employer. No one is going to insist that every book has as many female as male characters, that a fantasy army is fifty percent female or that every evil witch is balanced by an evil wizard (or a good witch, for that matter). Authors have the creative right to tell their stories however they feel is best, even if that means that the troop of heroic questers is all male. It doesn't really matter, does it?

Everyone will take their own position on the question, but my own feeling is that, yes, it matters, at least in some areas. It matters that the proportion of male to female fantasy authors reflects the readers of the genre. It matters how women fit into a created world. It matters how women are incorporated into the story. No one would (or should) insist authors follow strict guidelines, but it matters that fantasy readers and authors and publishers are aware of the decisions they make, and ask themselves the difficult questions: why is this character male or female? would it matter if the gender was different? is that female character acting like a real woman would, or is she just there as support for the men? should the next book I read or review or publish be by a female author? And in the end, that is probably as much as we can expect at this point in history - that authors (and the rest of the publishing world) be aware of the pitfalls and consider their creative decisions with the greatest care.

I have to say that I think the future is quite rosy. Yes, there are plenty of dinosaurs around who think that women have no business writing fantasy (or anything else, for that matter). There are plenty of fantasy books filled with dynamic male protagonists and timid, helpless females, who only get active after they've been raped. There are plenty of fantasy books with virtually no women in them at all. But there are also shining beacons of hope, who write about real women acting intelligently and independently. There are bloggers and authors and readers discussing these subjects in depth. And there is, I believe, a whole generation coming into the fantasy field who regard gender equality as normal, who write wonderful stories with heroines who run businesses or countries, use magic adeptly, organise armies, educate themselves and others, have realistic relationships with men or women who respect them, and manage to raise families while doing it. Fantasy women are finally emerging from the high tower and the brothel and the kitchen, and taking their place alongside men. If you doubt that, you only have to look back to Tolkien and the others of his era, and compare that fantasy with the work of Höst and Larke and Rule and Abraham and many others. There's still a long way to go, but fantasy is getting there.

[A footnote on historical realities] I have not said much here about the historical accuracy of portrayals of the medieval period in fantasy, since it's not germane to my point - whether an author's chosen setting is true to history or not, there is still plenty of scope for women to be portrayed in a full range of characterisations, from fully independent to totally subservient, as their creator wishes. But author Daniel Abraham has an interesting blogpost on the subject here.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Review: 'Babylon Steel' by Gaie Sebold

This one is right on the cusp of fantasy and sci-fi - a city filled with alien races, surrounded by portals to other planes which come and go mysteriously, and are not understood by anyone. Is this magic or a lost technology? But there is a certain amount of magic in this universe, both learned and innate, and gods and demi-gods as well. There is enough inventiveness here to satisfy the needs of the most demanding of fantasy world connoisseurs, with languages and bizarre races and strange mannerisms and belief systems splattered around with gay abandon. Fey folk? Check. Were-beasts? Check. Lizard people? Check. Caterpillary things? Check. Fades, who didn't quite make it through a portal? Yep, got them too. And sex. Lots of sex, everyone having sex with everyone else, furred, scaled or feathered, male, female or hermaphrodite. So if you think mildly graphic lizard/human sex would turn your stomach, this is not the book for you.

The book has two different threads which (and this isn't giving much away) blend together quite early on, and each illuminates the other rather well. The main thread, as it were, that of brothel-keeper Babylon, quickly develops into a sort of find-the-missing-girl mystery, which conveniently takes her into every nook and cranny of the extraordinary city of Scalentine, so we get to hang out in a lot of bars and brothels and unsavoury back-street locations, and meet many of the city's weird inhabitants. This is quite fun, up to a point, but after a while it becomes really difficult to keep the various characters straight. Is this the lizardy one or the one with cute little wings? Or maybe the one whose portal magic went wrong and left him a sort of emotion-sucking vampire? Boy, there are some weird things (people? creatures?) in this book. Thank goodness for the Kindle search facility.

Scalentine feels very real - a truly vibrant melting pot of cultures, without the chaotic and dismal nature of many fantasy settings. Yes, there are scams and thieves and the occasional murder, but the citizens are (mostly) protected by a quite efficient administration. It feels like a rather civilised place, on the whole, although I thought the Red Lantern was a little too laid back to be a well-run business. No wonder it was in some financial difficulties. But the names - ! Previous? A pair of bondage specialists called Cruel and Unusual? Chief Bitternut?? Enthemmerlee??? Fantasy names are always difficult, but still...

The main plot of the missing girl quickly got tedious but fortunately the focus of the second thread, the Avatars of Tiresana, takes over and things get more lively. There are also a number of minor mysteries sprinkled throughout the book to keep things bubbling along. And yes, everything builds to a suitably dramatic finale, and if sometimes the uncovering of vital information felt just a little too convenient and glib, and if the ending was a little underwhelming, and if Babylon was just a little bit too resourceful and implausibly popular, it's easy enough to get swept along in the excitement and just enjoy the ride. This is not a book where an overly critical and logical mind is called for.

This is a fun read, a hugely imaginative piece of work, with vivid characters (even the ones with tails or tusks or issues with full moons), and a good pacy story (or cluster of stories, really - there's a lot going on), and the author manages to take several swipes at organised religion along the way. I liked the chatty first person narration, which brings out Babylon's self-confidence mixed with moments of terror perfectly, and is often very funny. I thought the two parallel threads, Scalentine and Tiresana, worked brilliantly to add depth to the story. I'm not quite sure where things go from here - a pointer to a possible sequel was squeezed in rather clumsily at the end, but whether this is going to be a trilogy or a series isn't clear. Whatever it turns out to be, this is a great start to it - four stars.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Review: 'From A Far Land' by G David Walker

This was a free book that attracted me because it starts in Scotland (where I live), an unusual feature for a fantasy story. I'm not sure what the relevance, if any, is to the plot, because the lead character is American, but it makes a refreshing change. By contrast, the basic premise is nothing out of the ordinary - a seventeen year old boy finds a portal in a ruined house which transports him to - a parallel universe or another plane of existence, somewhere very different, anyway. Oh, and there's a prophecy, apparently. More interestingly, this other place, Teleria, has suffered a catastrophic war long before (it sounds rather nuclear, actually), which not only created the usual devastation, but opened up rifts in the fabric of space, thus connecting with other dimensions. This, combined with the (presumed) radiation, has knocked out advanced technology, allowed all sorts of stuff, good and bad, to leak through from other dimensions and left Teleria with a number of non-human sentient races, as well as some seriously weird animal and plant life. And magic, although, rather nicely, it has a different name. This is much more intriguing than the usual dull pseudo-medieval backdrop, and gives the book an almost sci-fi feel.

The portal-leading-somewhere-bizarre is not an original idea, but it's a very effective strategy. The hapless victim can express his (and our) bewilderment and ask all the right questions, and whoever's on the other side (a Loremaster in this case) can explain some essential background information to him (and us). There's also the potential for some wonderful culture clash moments, and the author plays this up beautifully. There are some terrific laugh out loud moments - I love a book which makes me laugh. It's not just the amusement of hearing the Telerians trying to pronounce Missouri ("Misery? What a dreadful name!") or understand basketball ("... you do battle to establish dominance..."), the real fun is in the trickle of American teenager-isms ("I think my weird-o-meter is broken"), which runs on throughout the book.

The created world is not as detailed as some, but it feels plausibly alien, and I like the way the reader is gently reminded that this is a very different place by little snippets here and there - odd bits of other languages, references to a sixdays instead of a week, and a quarter day's journey instead of hours or miles, for instance (and it varies according to whose point of view we are in, which is brilliant attention to detail). All the strange creatures are well described, and are different enough to be interesting. I particularly liked the mysterious Shanthi, with their invisibility and strange code of honour. And the fighting pack animals seem like a very useful idea. There's quite a lot of history behind Teleria's current state of play, and sometimes the info-dumps seemed a bit heavy handed. We really don't need to know every last detail. Leaving some things mysterious can be more fun sometimes than having everything out in the open.

The magic system is nothing very special - almost everyone has some ability, it involves a bit of finger-waggling, some focus and passion, apparently, and the most adept can do pretty much anything - flame throwing, mind-reading, healing, defensive shields, you name it. I'm not a big fan of these kinds of almost unlimited abilities with the wave of a hand, I much prefer more elegant means of spell-casting (like the air-writing in Brandon Sanderson's Elantris, for example), or a single ability (such as the water-shifting in Glenda Larke's Stormlords trilogy, which the characters used in an amazing variety of ways). And frankly, it's just too convenient when people can be healed of almost any wound. But that's just my personal preference, there's nothing wrong with the arrangement here, and it's used consistently. And I very much like that magic is a post-apocalyptic feature, which also created a few people with super-powers, the Altered (but let's call them gods, for short). This is ingenious.

[ETA: I've been a little unjust here; there are a number of 'orders', each of which specialises in some aspect of magic - healing,animal life, metallurgy and so on. So it's not really as much of a free-for-all as I imply.]

The characters don't have a great deal of complexity, but then the book is (presumably) aimed at a young adult audience. I felt, though, that everyone was too black and white - the good guys were almost too nice, honourable, honest and kind to children, and the bad guys were too evil, razing villages to the ground just for the hell of it and bent on the inevitable global domination. A few shades of grey, or more complicated motives perhaps, would have lifted the book to a new level. And sometimes the tone becomes too overtly moralising and heavy-handed. But there were hints of something more interesting in the mistrustful relationships between some of the races - humans and Shanthi, for instance, and Ferrin and Yellowtooth. I would be interested to know more about that. By contrast, the gloriously mismatched trio of Gatlor, Seerka and Calador got along well, and their verbal sparring in the midst of battle was a highpoint. I also liked the Loremasters - their formality with each other, and their dithering over what to do with Jason, which felt very human (even though not all of them were!).

One other aspect that's absolutely note-perfect is the varying dialogue for the different characters and races. Reyga the Loremaster is done particularly well - a formal style of speech that never tips into the absurd. And Jason, the seventeen year old, never loses his Americanism and behaves exactly as you'd expect someone of his age and background to behave - he's sensible without being unnaturally intelligent, assertive without aggression and (sometimes) plain bewildered without becoming stupid. Even Bothan's Scottish accent sounded fine to me, and that's a hard one to get right.

The story itself is a real cracker, not an original plot but very well done. I was drawn in from the very first sentence, and from then on the pace moves relentlessly. Actually, sometimes it almost felt too fast. There were jumps of hours or days when I felt taking things a little more slowly could have given the book more depth, by expanding our knowledge of the characters, for instance, or allowing the reader to savour this strange world, or simply showing how Jason was feeling about things. The author does a good job of conveying Jason's bewilderment when he first arrives in Teleria, and occasionally when things get really weird, but I would have liked to know more about his reactions as the group travelled toward's Lore's Haven, for instance - there's very little description of the villages or the surrounding countryside, and it's all a bit dry. It must have seemed very strange to Jason, yet he seems to accept everything very quickly.

I very much liked the way the whole story is sprinkled with mysteries and unanswered questions from start to (almost) finish. As one question is answered, another two or three spring up straight away. It's never obvious who Jason can trust, and who might be working for the other side - or even which side IS the other side! And there's the usual problem with teenage-boy-with-unexpected-powers stories - why? How did Jason end up being so important?

There are some plot contrivances that stretch credibility somewhat. The information Nyala gives Jason, for instance, which is conveniently forgotten and then 'remembered' at key moments. The so-useful ability to 'see' auras. And the extremely capable Lenai seems to turn into a helpless female at crucial moments, such as the early attack by the Trellin, and more particularly her meeting with Reyga - this is someone who can make herself invisible, after all, and is a trained warrior, how could she possibly find herself in that situation? She would simply have disappeared the instant she felt threatened. Or, if she were sensible, she would never have been visible at all.

The ending feels satisfying on a number of levels, and although there are no great surprises in the actual outcome, the way things are achieved is rather slick. And, as is customary, while the story is complete in itself, it sets everything up very nicely for the sequel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, tearing through it in a couple of days because I just couldn't put it down! It's not a particularly deep affair, and sometimes the writing style was a bit dry and factual, but as a straightforwardly entertaining tale, it can't be beaten. Four stars.