Indie Review: Sarvet’s Wanderyar by J. M. Ney-Grimm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf the last book I read sated my taste for sword and sandal fantasy, Sarvet’s Wanderyar fits the bill for another craving: epic fantasy. J. M. Ney Grimm is a master at this genre, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the first paragraph I read; this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sarvet is a young woman who suffers from a sort of palsy in one leg. Because of this, she’s held back; she’s relegated to menial chores, coddled by an overbearing mother, and–she believes–prevented from achieving her dreams. Sarvet’s need to prove herself drives her to request a Wanderyar–a year of exploring the world on one’s own–which is reserved only for young men. She’s tenacious and determined from the start, so her coming of age isn’t something that happens to her so much as something she forges for herself. This gives her a certain strength of character that’s lacking in a lot of literature. It’s easy to cheer her on and revel in her journey.

Sarvet’s disability is introduced very nicely. Subtle hints before coming out and saying it makes for a reveal that’s not surprising, but not really expected either. A good set up for what will be an important plot point; she doesn’t beat you over the head with it, a sin that is far too easy to commit in writing. This also puts the focus more on her character and less on the disability, making for a nicely rounded heroine that’s easy to sympathize with. That, in turn, makes this much more than a run of the mill coming of age novel–it’s an entrancing story with a character you care about, and desperately want to succeed.

Sarvet, for all her determination and will, is also a tad naive. This serves the story well; it sets her up as a young woman who, despite her disability, doesn’t realize just how difficult life can sometimes be. Failure is a very real consequence for her, and it’s all the more tangible because of her adolescent exuberance. You get the feeling that if she falls, she’s going to fall hard–but even if she recovers there’s an “I told you so” in the wings. The lesson is not so much in learning to succeed on her own as that sometimes, a little control is necessary.
This leads into the mother, Paiam. She’s fiercely protective of Sarvet, and while this overbearance serves as her call to action, Ney-Grimm does a good job of tempering and justifying it. Paiam  isn’t just a controlling mother; Sarvet’s resistance is making that control seem more pronounced than it is. At first I saw Paiam as the clear antagonist, but I came to sympathize with her. This makes for a complex interaction between the two characters that rages almost completely in the subtext–very clever on Ney-Grimm’s part, and very effective. In fact, I sense that there’s a whole other story for Paiam, and I’d love to see her developed in another book.

Once the action gets moving, the reader is thrown into a wild set of circumstances that move further and further away from Sarvet’s familiar, tame world. It’s an escalation that nicely reflects the issues one faces in growing up; problems seem insurmountable until they’re not–and completely trivial in retrospect. There’s a certain shift in tone here as Sarvet goes from climbing  a mountain to living among pegasi, and it serves well to show the stark differences between youth and adulthood. The metaphor may not be subtle, but it fits.

(On a side note, one of my favourite things about Ney-Grimm’s work is her treatment of fantastical creatures. She definitely doesn’t disappoint here–the pegasi seem ethereal but remarkably wise and strong; gentle but fearsome; creatures of light and gauze that are somehow the most real things in the world.)

As usual, the worldbuilding in this book is quite well done. Ney-Grimm has built a cohesive “universe” in which most of her stories take place, and each book explores similar but unique facets. I was a bit confused by some of the terms early in the book–holidays referred to as “Other-joy” and “Lodge day”–but the meaning became apparent as I progressed through the story. After I finished the book, I read a post on Ney-Grimm’s blog that explains that this lack of background is intentional. I can see her point, and agree with it–the worst thing you can do in worldbuilding is to bog the reader down with details that are, to a point, window dressing.
Otherwise, the worldbuilding is handled very well. It’s subtle in the first few pages. There’s a lot of information presented in a laid back, almost conversational way. While it left some questions for me, there weren’t enough gaps that it hampered my understanding, and what questions I had were answered before I got halfway through. Readers less familiar with Ney-Grimm’s “world” may have more of a challenge, but it’s nothing that would impede.

The moral of the story–beyond the coming of age themes–seems almost Taoist: resistance can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. It’s okay to stand up for one’s principles, but it’s the stiff branch that breaks in the wind. On the other hand, flying with the wind allows you to master it. It’s a powerful lesson used to great effect.

In the end, I have nothing but good things to say about this book, and wonder why it took me so long to get to reading it. I’ve always enjoyed Ney-Grimm’s work, but I particularly like this book–it’s one I can imagine one day reading to my children at bed-time, a fantastical adventure with a strong moral lesson. Absolutely worth a read!

J.M. Ney Grimm writes fantasy with a Norse twist. You can find Sarvet’s Wanderyar and other books of hers on Amazon, Kobo. iTunes, and B&N. She’s also on Twitter, and keeps a blog on writing (and often cooking!).

Indie Review: Wrath of the White Tigress by David Alastair Hayden

One of my favourite genres to read is fantasy, and I’m partial to a certain sub-genre: sword and sandal. I love the Conan stories, and so I’ve been looking forward to a book that has a similar flavour: Wrath of the White Tigress by Davaid Alastair Hayden. Hayden has a unique flair for fantasy that’s pulpy in all the right ways. These are tales of sword and sorcery you would have found in Weird Tales or other magazines from the days of yore.

I don’t usually pull quotes from a book in a review, but I’ll do so here because it reflect the story so succinctly. It’s a conversation between the main character, Jaska, and his saviour.

“I’m thoroughly corrupt. I don’t deserve life.”
“You did evil, that’s true, but you weren’t in control of your actions, weren’t you?”
He shook his head. “I should have been.”

Jaska is a Palymphar, a sort of knightly order that ostensibly stands for right and honour–but which has become decadent, violent, and corrupt. Jaska is the worst of them, and his…indulgences…are legendary. As the book opens he’s sent by his master, Salahn, to capture the temple of the White Tigress, a powerful goddess which Salahn wishes to imprison. Jaska is waylaid by the high priestess of the temple, Zyrella. After an altercation with the White Tigress herself, Jaska is converted to the cause of rescuing her.

What follows is an adventurous romp involving a sea battle, spoiled cities, wolven creatures, oracles and prophecies, and lots of bloody battles. This book is just fun–but it’s also pretty hardcore. Hayden writes a series of young adult novels that take place in the same world, but White Tigress is certainly rated M for mature. There’s sex, blood and gore galore, and the book makes no apologies for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous–it fits in with the tropes of the genre (without the flagrant sexism of the Conan stories).

One thing that really stuck me about this book–and Hayden’s writing in general–is the amount of research that’s been put into it. It’s obvious that he has an affinity for Eastern culture, and things such as weaponry and meditation techniques feel authentic to the book, while serving as a respectful nod to the cultures that inspired them. Quite a lot went into the world building, (something I’ll touch on in an upcoming interview), and it comes through as a well thought out and vibrant setting. It lends a unique aura to the book; it’s not Persian or Indian or Chinese, but a cohesive combination of them all.

Also impressive is the way magic is presented. As I’ve mentioned before, Hayden uses an intriguing system of magic: spirits of  a long dead race have been captures in stones called Qarvra, which allow the wielder to command powerful spells. Some are more adept than others, and this gives a nice range of powers that can be tapped into. It’s an elegant system; all too often magic is used as a deus ex machina, but not here. It adds a crucial element to the book without becoming center stage.
Alongside the use of Qarvra is another system: Star magic. This is shown only once or twice, and it’s enticing–I certainly want to see more. Nalsyrra (who also appears in Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess,) is Ojaka’ari, a mysterious creature who is granted extreme power by the Star Spirits. She’s in the service of Salahn, but her fealty is to the Star Spirits, who grant her the gift of prophecy. She’s a compelling character, and I wish she had been explored more fully, but what we have of her is tantalizing. But, to go into her story any further would have taken away from the book’s plot, and we couldn’t have that!

The characters are, by and large, great. Jaska is well written and the anguish over the choices he’s made in the past is a clear call to action; Zyrella is a sensual and strong woman who serves as a great foil for him; Ohzikar, a templar devoted to Zyerella, has a wonderful arc in his dealings with Jaska. Even characters with small roles like the oarsman who befriends Jaska or Nalsyrra’s lover are well developed and interesting.
There are some flaws, however. Salahn, despite being a great villain, is rather flat. He’s totally evil, and besides on small passage that shows a bit of redemption for him, he’s single minded. He’s easy to hate (good in a bad guy), but he’s not complicated. This is especially apparent because Jaska is such a wonderfully drawn and complex character.
There are also quite a lot of characters in the book. That’s to be expected for a story of this scale, but by the end of the book I found myself wanting to know more about interesting figures for which there’s little time for development.

The only other real issue I had was that at some points, the Point of View changed rather regularly within a chapter. This didn’t happen too often through the book, but when it did it was jarring; sometimes I wasn’t sure who was “leading” the story, and found myself going back a page or two. It doesn’t really disrupt the narrative, though, and if such passages were separated by some sort of divider it would have been crystal clear.

Finally, the ending. No spoilers, I promise! I rather liked how everything was tied up by the end; there’s a certain amount of tradgedy I didn’t see coming, and it fits the world and tone of the book very well. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, even if you are a hero. It’s a well placed surprise, and one that rounded out a very enjoyable story.

All in all, Wrath of the White Tigress is what I’ve come to expect of Hayden’s work–thoughtful, exciting, and filled with adventure. There are a lot of nice little bits of worldbuilding here and there that really put a stamp on his style and voice. And it’s just plain fun–the fight scenes are awesome. Check it out!

 

Wrath of the White Tigress is available on Kobo and Amazon, along with several other great tales from the same world. You can also find David A. Hayden on Twitter, or on his own blog

Another Indie in Paper!

20130830-191938.jpgA nice quick post this afternoon–just wanted to share the further success of one of my favourite Indie writers, J. M. Ney-Grimm.

Savvy readers will know Ney-Grimm from the several reviews I’ve done of her work. If you haven’t read any of her stories yet, go check them out–they’re set in a Nordic fantasy world, often based on fairy tales (or such tropes), and have a very characteristic “effervescent” style. Well written, fun stories.

One of those stories, Sarvet’s Wanderyar, has been on my plate for a while. I’ll be reviewing it coming up soon on the blog, but wanted to share her good news now: she’s published it in paperback! You can get the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and CreateSpace. You can read about her release here.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you check out her work on Amazon and Kobo? Trust me, they’re great books.

Indie Interview: Ryan Casey

As a follow up to my review of his book Killing Freedom last week, today we’re being visited by Ryan Casey! I was impressed on a few levels with his book, and so I invited him to come here for another interview. As usual, my questions are in bold, his answers in regular text. Enjoy!

1. One thing that impressed me about this book is the amount of research you must have put into it. Can you tell us about your research process?

I’m going to throw an immediate spanner in the works and admit that I’m probably the worst researcher on the planet. Researching tends to bog down my first drafting process, and sucks the life out of the details. However, you’re right — I did have to research Killing Freedom, mainly because of a lot of technicalities with regards to all sorts of upbeat things, such as the correct lifting of dead bodies, and such.

That said, all of this research tended to come later in the process. After I finish a first draft, I go through it and make notes on areas that I know I need to elaborate on. Something I did have to try and account for was how Jared had managed to evade the police for so many years, but I think with the gang/government overarching narrative, I did a pretty decent job on it.
So, yes. Research can be a pain, but I think it’s about finding what works for you as a writer, then sticking with that.

2. Jared is a great example of how a character shouldn’t rely on the plot–his occupation is a convention that could be changed without damaging the character. Which came first–the moral conundrum or the story?

It’s the old ‘chicken or the egg?’ question, reframed for a twenty-first century audience! But that’s interesting because with Killing Freedom, I knew I wanted to write a hitman novel of some form, but I wasn’t initially aware of the dilemma. It was only when I started digging into Jared’s backstory — asking questions, writing down stream-of-consciousness thoughts — that I understood his dilemma. I think any character with a strong enough dilemma is enough to create a good story. Jared’s dilemma is that he wants to be free, but he can’t be free because he’s a career hitman. The main source of transformation in the book, without spoiling too much, revolves around Jared reframing his relationship to that goal of freedom, which hopefully makes for an interesting read. I don’t always write my books like this, but it definitely worked in the case of Jared. He’s a fascinating character.

3. There were some moments in this book that seemed inevitable, but were still shocking–one character’s fate in particular. Are the twists and turns in your writing planned, or do they surprise even you? 

Thank you — that’s one of the biggest compliments I can receive. I always try to surprise readers, but I keep it within reason. I love creating suspense around the inevitable, if that make sense? As for that particular moment (slight spoiler alert) I was a little worried I’d make a villain out of Jared, but I think there’s something so sad and tragic about that scene too. Initially, it was a little bit lengthier, but I like ending the scene on that image of the indentation in the long grass on the horizon. It’s a really sparse, really lonely moment, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. I teared up writing it, I’m not gonna lie. It’s sinister, but it’s so, so sad, because that moment is Jared realising that everything he’s ever wanted is impossible. I’m pleased it worked for you, as a reader.

4. This book is violent, but never seems gratuitous when it easily could have been. Where do you draw the line between violence for the plot and violence for it’s own sake?

Thanks. I was worried Killing Freedom might go a little over the top in terms of violence because I was watching a lot of films like Drive and some Grindhouse stuff at the time. The reason I didn’t make the violence gratuitous is because I actually believe that it’s the smaller, more relatable pains that affect us more, as readers. If I wrote a scene where loads of people blew up in an explosion, then sure, that’s violent, but we can’t relate to that. However, our skin being cut by a sharp knife, or some rusty scissors? That’s real. It’s domestic items causing a lot of pain. The sequel (which I’m working on at the moment) also has some violent scenes, and again, I’m trying to find that line between necessary/unnecessary violence. I like to think that all violence should have a purpose — to advance the plot. I like to think that in Killing Freedom, it really does.

5. Everyone loves an anti-hero–what’s it like getting inside the head of a killer?

A lot of fun! Jared’s an interesting character because the sense is that deep down, he’s not all that bad a person. He’s sympathetic, despite all the terrible things he’s done in the name of somebody else. Killing Freedom really explores Jared’s relationship with killing for somebody else, and his realisation of whether he is truly comfortable with that. The sequel will explore another emotion, that I don’t want to go into too much yet, but it’s the natural and logical progression from book one.
And there we have it. If you haven’t had a chance, you can pick up Casey’s newest novel here. And of course, you can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter. Stay tuned for more reviews and interviews coming up!

Indie Review: Killing Freedom by Ryan Casey

There’s precisely one thing I don’t like about reading–plowing through a book so quickly you lose the chance to savour it. Now, if it’s a good book, I don’t mind too much, but it’s always a tad disappointing when you get to the end and realize you swallowed it whole. You can never go back and chew it slowly, wondering what the next mouthful will bring.

Although I’m a fast reader, it’s not often that I finish a book in one or two sittings. But with Ryan Casey, it’s becoming something of a habit. I devoured his newest novel, Killing Freedom, reading most of it while waiting for my plane at the airport; his trademark tension and the breakneck pace of the book was too much for my palate to resist–down the hatch!

In all seriousness, Killing Freedom is yet another success for Casey. I’m quite fond of him as a writer–there’s a youthful exuberance  behind his words that belies his passion for the art, but it’s tempered with a very mature voice. He feels like a seasoned author, despite releasing his first novel only last year. And while this newest offering is–in my opinion–not quite as well honed as What We Saw, it’s by no means the Curse of the Second Book. It’s an excellent offering, and well worth the $3.98 price tag.

Ostensibly, the book is about a hired killer who’s having a change of heart–but really, it’s the characterization of Jared that drives it. He’s in a tough spot: he kills people for a living but yearns to be free. As several characters in the book point out, it’s not the kind of job you just walk away from. But he feels he owes it to himself (and his sister) to at least try. This kind of character driven plot can be challenging to do well because you need to be sure your character is strong, well developed, and easy to sympathize with. This is doubly difficult if your character is an anti-hero like Jared.
But Casey pulls it off. He does a great job of making the reader care about Jared’s predicament, despite the evil things he does. There’s another hitman in the book, Frank, that acts as a nice character foil–he does the same job as Jared, but takes perverse pleasure in it. Best of all, Jared’s better at the job. The first scene they share is a great moment in the book because it demonstrates what Jared could have been, but for the grace of God, if you will. It’s that subtle difference that makes Jared believable, and makes the book work. 

As I read the book, I noticed a very quick change in Jared–no spoilers, but he’s sent to kill a family, and starts to doubt whether it’s the right choice. His early interactions with the family is the only thing that didn’t work well for me. Jared’s change of heart seems almost too quick–though looking back on his arc, I think that’s more because I was blowing through the book so quickly. Moreover, he seems a bit naive in his thinking that things can change, that this family will be the difference. He also seems to worry a lot about getting caught, making him seem unconfident in his own abilities. Of course, Jared needs this dilemma and second guessing to move his character along, and I don’t fault Casey for the way it’s written. It’s just that Jared seems to take a few things at face value which perhaps–as a seasoned killer and man or the world–he should be more cautious about.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it too: Jared’s simply so desperate to get out that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When all you can see is that one glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to miss the dangers that lurk on the way there. This interpretation works better for the book, though in all honesty it’s only something that became apparent to me after I finished reading.

All of the “set up” for the character development takes place in the first third or so of the novel–then there’s an Incident, including the scene with Frank, and everything goes to…well, there’s trouble. This scene is very disturbing, but not because of the violence (which is there in spades). It’s due to that difference between Frank and Jared, and how they respond to violence against the innocent. It perfectly highlights why Jared needs to change–his call to action, as it were. It’s a riveting scene, all the more so because you get a sinking feeling that it won’t end well.

From here on, the book is a roller coaster of circumstance as Jared tries to keep ahead of his choices. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying there are more failures than successes, because that’s what makes Jared’s journey so believable–he just can’t catch a break. This in turn informs the pace of the book, which gets more and more intense as it builds to a climax I almost saw coming, but desperately didn’t want to read. I won’t even touch on that scene for fear of ruining it for the reader–but suffice it to say a choice is made that upset me enough I had to put down the book and take a bit of a walk. And yet, Casey made exactly the right move–it’s the defining moment of Jared’s character, and justifies the entire story.

On that note, I should mention the book’s violence. It’s not gratuitous, which is admirable because it easily could have been a very bloody book. And while there is a good deal of violence, it never feels out of place, serving to further the plot as well it should. It;s the characters reactions to violence that make the impact here; the blood is secondary.

I haven’t touched much on the plot specifically because, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. Of course it’s the plot that makes the story, but in the case of Killing Freedom, it’s the character that makes the book.

I’m going to use an odd analogy here, so bear with me: Star Trek is such a great series because, despite it being science fiction, the science part of it doesn’t really matter. You could take a good Star Trek episode and wash it clean of all mention of science and technology and space utopia, and it would still be a good story. The science fiction part is just a convention, a consequence of the genre, and while it certainly helps put those stories into context, they don’t rely on it.
In much the same way, Jared has hard choices to make, and he’s in a difficult situation, but that situation could be something different from hitman and the character would work just as well. What Casey has done here is create an Everyman, a universal figure we can relate to, even though his occupation is something we’d never have direct experience with. It’s not common that you find such a character in a book, and while the way he’s written isn’t perfect, it’s really damn good.

You can pick up Killing Freedom on Amazon. Ryan Casey is online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for more of his library.

Site Update–And Why I Only Write Good Reviews

Just a quick, no nonsense post today–but an important one. I’ve made a long-awaited addition to the blog: look up, and you’ll see a link to a page where I’ve collected all the Indie Reviews I’ve written so far on Speaking to the Eyes. Since I decided to focus on Indie Reviews back in January, it’s proven a good direction for this blog–and this is the next logical step.

I’ll update it as I add new reviews to the site, and eventually I intend to fill out the page with links to Amazon or Kobo where you can buy the books I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, the list contains everything I’ve reviewed so far, listed in alphabetical order.

So…why are they all good reviews?

Fellow Indie and favourite on this site, J. M. Ney-Grimm, sent me a link to a blog quite a while back about writing only good reviews. She said it fit right in line with what I was doing, because I don’t review books I don’t like. I’ve unfortunately lost the link, but in a nutshell it said: don’t waste your time being negative.

Reviewing a book is a time consuming process. The scholar in me hopes I make it look easy–but really, it isn’t. Besides reading tons of books (something I’ve always been good at!), you have to read them with a critical eye. You need to take notes, pay attention to little details like plot holes, typos, the coherence of the World, and so on. At this point, reading ceases to be recreational–it’s a job.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I still love doing it, and I enjoy every word I read. There’s the old adage that if you love what you’re doing, you won’t work a day in your life, and that’s the case here. Some of my fondest memories of University were of holing myself up in the library for ten plus hours doing research for a paper. I get an honest thrill out of explicating literature, finding little connections and “ah-ha!” moments in a book, and learning why good fiction works.

But what it all boils down to is that reviewing a book takes a good amount of effort. And, quite frankly, it’s a lot less enjoyable when I’m reading a book that just isn’t that good. And I’ve come across many–I’d estimate that 1 in 5 Indie books that I’ve read are just tossed aside, unreviewed (though never unfinished). It’s not that they’re not worth reviewing–and in many cases, I can see great potential in what really amounts to a poorly edited or constructed work. I’d rather just enjoy the book for what it is (good or bad,) and not worry about working at it.

And there’s another–very important–aspect to this. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in University about critiquing literature is to avoid the “poison pen syndrome.” If you don’t like something, that’s fine–but don’t be a dick about it. There are hundreds of examples of poison pen reviews out there, and they serve absolutely no purpose other than raining on the author’s parade. If someone writes a bad book, they shouldn’t be bullied and mocked for it–they should be encouraged to try again.

I choose not to review poorly written books because it wouldn’t help anyone. It wouldn’t do the author any good to see that I didn’t like their work–if they even care what I think. It wouldn’t help my enthusiasm for writing this blog. And it certainly wouldn’t help push readers toward Indie work, or help sell books.

So there you have it. If you’ve ever read through my reviews and wondered why I tend to gush about how good a book is, that’s you’re answer. I enjoy each and every book I review on this site, and I’d recommend them all. But, to quote the master of reading advocacy, you don’t have to take my word for it…pick up an Indie book today and see for yourself!

 

Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?

Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

So, I’m a huge Star trek fan–and of course, I loved the new movie. I thought they did a clever job with the material, the characters…but this isn’t a review. I wanted to touch on an issue that several blogs have picked up on: the way women are presented in the movie.
Star Trek has always had (relatively) strong female characters–Uhura is an excellent example. But although the two female leads in the new film have a decent amount of screen time–and they’re set up to be strong and confident–they come off as “damsels in distress” (to quote the above articles). It’s unsettling…and it got me thinking.

When I saw the film, I was reading Lindsay Buroker’s Beneath the Surface (reviewed last week). Buroker has always impressed me with her strong female characters; it’s refreshing to see women portrayed on the same level as men, something you don’t see in a lot of fiction. Generally–and yes, this is a generalisation, and likely a controversial one–it’s my experience that women in fiction tend to be represented as people to be saved, helped, or pursued. Even strong women characters like Uhura or Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing* tend to play second string when a strong male character comes along. We could debate the whys and hows of this, but it’s an enormous topic–and I’ll freely admit that I’m not well versed in it. But I did want to get Buroker’s perspective, so we had a brief interview. My questions are in bold:

Your books tend to have very strong female lead characters, something not exactly typical in popular fiction. Was this an intentional choice (i.e. filling a perceived gap), or did it grow organically (it’s just the way you like to write)?
Thank you. I’m glad they come across that way. 🙂

I didn’t set out to make any statements or try to say, “This is how you write strong women, peeps–pay attention!” For the most part, I just like to write protagonists who drive the action. Even if my heroines are kidnapped and tied up in an enemy warship bound for who knows where, they’re going to try and take charge of their destiny rather than simply waiting to see what the world drops in their laps. I think those wilful types of people who make things happen have a tendency to be seen as strong characters. They’re naturally leaders instead of followers.
It is something of a challenge to make those kinds of people likeable–women in leadership roles are often seen as bossy or bitchy, even by their own sex–but by being in the character’s head, it’s possible to show all their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. That goes a long way toward humanizing someone, and it’s a shame we can’t look into people’s heads that way in real life to see where they’re coming from.What would you suggest in ways to improve the way women are represented in fiction?

I actually think there are quite a few people writing “strong women” for television, books, and movies, but what gets to me is that these are often one-dimensional Xena-like-characters with superhuman abilities to kick everybody’s butts. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of strong women and none of them do that. 😀
A lady I know always comes to mind for me during these types of discussions. She’s the middle child of 8 or 10 kids, paid her own way through school, built up a successful business from scratch in a male dominated field, ran a marathon after kicking breast cancer’s butt, and is fair and generous with everybody. That’s the kind of “strong woman” I’d like to see more of in fiction, and I think these are the kinds of role models young women need when they’re growing up.

I tend to see stronger female characters in Indie Fiction than I do with traditionally published books and entertainment (in general). Is this your experience, and if so, why do you think this is?
I have to confess that I haven’t read nearly as much independent fiction as I should have (I’m getting most of my “reading” done via audiobooks these days, and it’s still mostly traditionally published authors on Audible), so I’ll take your word on that. I’d guess, though, that indies don’t have to get past gatekeepers who tend to play it safe by buying more books like the ones that are already selling. Hey, those urban fantasy novels with the warrior women kicking vampire butts sell. Let’s print 50 more this year!

Can you point to other writers/artists that serve as an example of strong female characters in fiction that were inspirational? 
Lois McMaster Bujold always has strong female characters, and they’re rarely those brawny butt-kickers either. 😉 (I am realizing that I’ve used variations of kicking butt at least four times in this short interview… I assure you that such words rarely come up in my fantasy novels–maybe that’s why I’m unleashing them so often here!)
On TV (warning: I am a geek who has many SF series on DVD), I was always fond of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Sure, she’s a Mary Sue, but I loved that she was an astrophysicist and that her smarts were often critical to plot (I confess that one of my pet peeves revolves around characters who are described as smart but who never actually do anything smart :P).Thanks, Lindsay!

I’d considered breaking this interview into two posts, but thought better of it and posted the whole thing. I’d like to follow up with some discussion and thoughts on Wednesday, and I’d welcome your input–leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the meantime, I’ll invite you to check our Buroker’s work–it’s a great example of how women should be presented in fiction. And they’re just plain good books! Find them here on Amazon, and on Kobo. You can also check out her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
*Edited to correct my own mistake–I got the wrong play!

Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.