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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Women in SFF recently sent out their weekly email with its attendant blogs, stories and news.  And Liz Bourke wrote an interesting column and interview following a piece I did not read.  There seem to be several points to her post, and the one previous, which I will first sum up.

1) There is a bias against female SFF writers
2) There are fewer new female SFF than male authors each year because of it
3) There is a bias amongst reviewers that indicates the same
4) Does it matter?

I wanted to add my own two cents here.  I'm going to make a little list.

My feelings:
  1. If I am guilty of reviewer's bias, it is certainly not a conscious one.  Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less of a bias. 
  2. I certainly am guilty of reader's bias.
  3. I like central male characters, a bias that has nothing to do with the sex of the author, but my own preconceptions about viewpoint have, in ignorance, played to that point.
  4. Publishers have to play to their audiences.
  5. Yes, it matters, and yes we should at least make the occasional effort to expand our horizons.
1. To start, that there is a bias amongst reviewers clearly holds with me as well.  I have reviewed only Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey, and Azure Bonds, by Kate Novak and Jeff Grub.  Both of which are at least twenty years old.  So, keep in mind, I don't review "new" titles.  My reviews are long-winded, seldom read, and I have no particular following to keep up with.  When I find a book particularly bad or good, or thought provoking, I write a review.  If I have time.  Publishers don't send me books hot off the presses (please do publishers! I've been using the friggin' Library for the past six months!) The selection process is random at best, and stilted, heavily leaning to books already in my collection at worst.  So I don't have the same kind of operators that Stefan Raets, or Renay, neither of whom I had ever heard of before today.  As all three of the bloggers, Raets, Bourke and Renay point out, the fact that I'm not consciously choosing titles according to author sex is still a bias, and a grievous one.

2.  I had to think, in my history, what else have I read by female fantasists?  Certainly almost the entirety of Margaret Weis's collection.  Raistlin Majere is certainly one of my favorite fantasy characters of all time, and he was her creation.  Recently, I read Robin Hobb's series, Assassin and Magic Ship, and Fool, or whatever the three series are called together.  And, I just found out that C.S. Friedman was a female, and I loved her Coldfire Trilogy.  All three of these women wrote incredibly strong, very detailed, and very interesting male central characters.  Did I think them less genuine because of that?  Not at all.  I was impressed by Robin Hobb's epic, but I confess, it wasn't my cup of tea.  I don't know if that had anything to do with the sex of the author.  It was a problem, or question of the theme.  I just left feeling somehow disastisfied.  I also read some C.J. Cheryh back in the 90s.  That's about it.  As I confessed years ago, I typically pick out books by the covers.  So if the publisher laid out for a good bookcover, and the book was at least four-hundred pages... there was a pretty good shot I'd try it. 

3.  Even though I quite like Jim Butcher's Furies series, I find the parts with Amara and her husband Bernard saccharine to the point of distaste.  I am a man, and the story has to appeal, find common ground with me.  I know a number of people who hated Rand al'Thor and the Ta'veren Trio, but his story always had a great deal of appeal to me.  Particularly as the 'nice' boy began to fade, and rage began to consume him in the ladder half of the series.  And I've spoken to some female fandom who find all three of them, Rand, Mat and Perrin inherently boring.  Still given what I pointed out above at the capacity of female authors to write excellent male characters, I suppose this bias really must end.

4.  I had this conversation with a female anthropology professor (not my wife) once, regarding the sexualization of female body parts in comic book characters.  And she showed me this image:
It is a pretty funny image, but she looked thoughtful when I told her that most of the readership of comic books are men, and that they wouldn't sell much if their characters all had bubble butts like this!  I also said, to say that male characters aren't over sexualized is ridiculous.  They don't frequently have gratuitous butt shots like those above, sure, but they all have tight abs, large shoulders, strong chins, cheekbones, large packages, and let's not forget, tight asses.  Interestingly, that's not to sell to women.  That is to play to men's insecurities about our own bodies.  I told her that if she were to look at any of the comicbooks from the eighties, their pages are filled with ads for muscle enlargement, how to get women, etc.  Their consumers were skinny, weak white dudes, and that was why you saw covers like this!  Still though, if you don't know about the HawkEye Initiative, check this out.

To apply that to fantasy authors, I honestly don't know what the breakdown is.  I was told about five years ago that men are reading less and less.  That was true then, of the overall market.  But SFF is a genre, and can the same be said?  If the majority of the consumer market is male, than publishers and reviewers choosing titles that best reflect their clients needs, is pretty if not fair, than standard practice.  I have lately seen more women than men reading in the genre, but that might also be a product of a completely different bias.  I didn't have the courage to be seen reading a fantasy book all through Highschool.  I kept them in my bag, and went off to secluded corners of the library to read them.  I frequently had my books stolen and ripped up.  I even had to chase them through the cafeteria from time to time because it just wasn't cool.  I'm not sure women and girls had to face the same bias in fantasy, though they certainly had to face a number of other ones.

5.  None of that matters.  The critics are right.  An effort must be made, it is simply the right thing to do.  I have three library books in my possession right now, all male authors.  But my next review, I promise will be by a female author.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Furies of Calderon - Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is a name that has haunted me for some time, his Dresden series has been out for almost two decades, but I was not the target audience. Not so the Alera Codex.

So here it is, Book One, the Furies of Calderon

1) Character. Butcher's characters are well drawn, if a trifle hasty. Hasty? Well from page one, this book has been an action thriller; and while the characters are intelligent, believable and deep, in between fighting, fleeing, flying and furycrafting (the four Fs of the Codex) there really isn't much time for in depth character analysis. What a comparison to my last review of Way of Kings, which plodded between boring character soliloquies. That said, I would have preferred a slower build. The character which is probably the most complete is the young Cursor Amera. A Cursor, somewhat unusual for a fantasy novel, is an intelligence agent with a license to kill.  She is finishing her years of study and graduating what amounts to spy school. Her mentor is another excellent character, the masterspy and cold-hearted killer Fidelias. Fidelias is an unusual type of villain, and it is to Butcher's credit that all three of the evil usurpers top mercenaries are, if not always like able, certainly understandable. Of course the central character is a 15 year old boy named Tavi. Tavi's character is at once the most interesting and the most unbelievable. Making an unusual choice, what makes Tavi special is that he is the only person in the kingdom to not have a Fury. More on what that means later. Suffice it to say, what makes Tavi special is his ordinariness, and that he must rely on his wits, curiosity and courage, where others can simply use magic. Sometimes though Tavi's courage seems enough for ten men, and this is what makes his character just a tad hard to believe. Still, you want to believe in him, and as one of the story's main voices--it isn't hard to do so.  Fantasy novels are often built initially on a gimmick.  And though the choice to make Tavi the only non-magical being in the kingdom is unusual, it is not entirely without precedent.  Still the choice feels very much like a gimmick.  I can see Butcher in a coffee shop, pencil tapping his chin.  What about a magical land where everyone had special powers but the main character?  That said, and this is a big "that said," I absolutely do not have a problem with a good gimmick.
Tavi and Kitai, by Dystopiaworld at Deviant Art
2) Cliche. So the most obvious cliche, continuing with Tavi, is the Coming of Age cliche. Young Tavi starts the action by ignoring his duties to get a kiss from a girl. This is a truly great fantasy cliche, and almost every book uses it. Boy, small and ashamed, faces fears, adult terrors, great extremities and becomes a man. Interestingly, I'm not entirely sure that Tavi does grow, or at least his growth is well contained. It is after all book one, and he is only 15. Another cliche, less seldom used in fantasy is The Ugly Duckling. Amara is described as a girl with golden skin and golden hair, faintly boyish with a face somewhat severe. When her arc begins she considers herself unattractive, but by the end, she has found a man who thinks she's beautiful and indeed, many men have always thought so. The ugly Duckling cliche is unfortunate some of the time and disingenuous the rest of it. It would have been better if she'd actually been ugly, or actually pretty and aware of it.
The unbeautiful beautiful Amara, Sandara at Deviant Art
As for typical fantasy cliches, though it receives little note in this volume, there is a Shield Wall, very reminiscent to George R. R Martin's wall in that a group called the Icemen dwell beyond it. That said, they are not the overwhelming enemy-at least not in this volume. Another cliche used by Butcher is the Innate Power Cliche. This is such a common fantasy cliche that it needs little explanation. Think Aes Sedai and their ability to use the One Power, think Raistlin of DragonLance, or the Will and the Word of the Eddings books. The idea is simple, magic is innate. Some people are special some people ain't. Of course the foil for these powers, at least in traditional fantasy is that those who were physically weak could use the occult powers to even the playing field. There is also a cliche for long lived people, but they don't live hundreds of years. They are the magic users who bonded with water elementals and as they are the worlds healers they preserve and regenerate their own bodies as a matter of course. There is one fantasy cliche that Butcher employs with a broad brush. Magic is divided into the standard four elements, Fire, Earth, Wind and Water, with some unusual additions. While that sort of cliche is a little tired, Butcher does some novel things with it. But more of that in magic. No elves or dwarves, but there are giant spiders!

3) Scope: so when I first heard about Jim Butcher it was with all the gushing excitement of a thirteen year old on the Tor website. They made it sound like he was the second coming of Robert Jordan. I was skeptical, but figured I'd get around to him eventually. My skepticism has proved well founded. What made the worlds of Jordan, Martin and Erikson so remarkable was their scope. This is why scope is a signal element to a great fantasy. When you step into a world of someone's making and, to your delight, find it every bit as detailed as your own--it's exciting on a level so deep that every chapter almost throbs with life. How does one achieve it? To be honest, I am still working on that. It's not the number of books, or size of the words on the page, its not a world map with continents of people. It's not the number of characters-though that has something to so with it. It's not the number of political parties, or factions or world destroying g forces. It's literally about how the book is written.

Jim Butcher's world is large, and I already took the next two books out from the library. But the scope... Is merely pedestrian. I wrote a scene recently in a Jordan fanfic that I work on, and in it I have described in detail the vintages of wine from Tear, Cairhien and Altara (three separate nations in the Wheel of Time) I also described three works of art from no less than three different Ages. I'm not tooting my own horn, Jordan's world supplied the framework for this level of detail. I could create the same in Butcher's world, but it would be of entirely my own creation, and it would be a desecration of his work to add such detail. But Jordan's world is different, from book one we were provided tantalizing glimpses into the history of this continent, glimpses from time periods as disparate as twenty years prior to a thousand years before the present! That is depth.

Butcher chose to begin these tales in medias res. and it works, the book is a fun, fast read. But starting a political drama at the center of a world leaves little room to grow. We know that the present King is old and heirless, we know that there is much unrest, and that there are "many" people trying to take advantage. But the plot, SPOILER, is based on just one Lord's efforts to unseat the crown. After book one of Game of Thrones, you knew Cersei was a bitch, but you had no idea that the next book would detail the first year of the War of Five Kings.
Gratuitous picture of Queen Cersei by Teilku
There just isn't the level of detail necessary in the Codex of Alera to do that, not in book one. Which leads me to your next objection. You say, but surely scope must be in some way dependent on size, book two and three will add detail. True, but without the proper set up, you run into what I call the Wizard's First Rule Problem. Terry Goodkind's series was very successful, but when a friend once told me that you could either be a Goodkind girl or a Jordan girl, but not both, I was offended. Both men's first novels were designed to be stand alone books. Both morphed into ten book series. Only the smallest part of Jordan's world was explored in that first book, but much was alluded too. Goodkind's kingdom and its Big Bad Lord Rahl were dealt with in that first book, to fix the error he had to invent a threat from a whole other continent. A place that had simply not existed in that first novel, it wasn't until the second novel that he layed down the seeds for a saga. The device lacked the cohesive foresight of WoT. Butcher has indeed left room to grow, the mystery of Tavi's parentage, the mystery behind the slave Fade, the First Lord's wife (SPOILER) having an affair with Lord Aquitane, etc.  Clearly there is much going on, and I am excited to continue reading.  But as of now I have no desire to visit Alera.

An Earth Fury by MctChapman at DeviantArt
Magic: where would we be without it? The source of magic in Alera at least for the local humans are elemental spirits that bond with them. These spirits or furies, vary in strength and some furies have physical manifestations, while others are more ephemeral.  The stronger a fury, the higher in the caste strata a man can rise.  That said nobility remains patriarchal and passes on from generation to generation.  An interesting point is that power over Furies does seem to be hereditary.   The Furies are divided up into the standard element cliche, Fire, Earth, Wind, Wood, Water, and though there doesn't seem to be a physical fury for Metal, they seem to exist in many people, particularly in blacksmiths and swordsmen. Likewise a man can be bonded to more than one Fury. So Wood and Earth furies are common in at least two of the main characters. Unusual for the genre, Butcher doesn't spend too much time describing his system of magic, which provides solid evidence against one of Sanderson's guiding fantasy principles. Namely that magic must be rigorously standardized and adhere to its own rules. Butcher's furies are capable of new and novel things and the lack of explanation doesn't truly inhibit the power of the story. So Woodcrafters can move the forest to cover their tracks. They can guide arrows to targets. Earthcrafters are strong but they can also sense things both above the ground and below it, they can build walls and roads. Windcrafters can basically do all the things that the X-man Storm could do, fly, cause storms, lift targets, etc.  One neat thing that Butcher uses to enliven this cliche is that the elements can combine in natural and intelligent ways. A windcrafter can't start a fire, but as fire requires air, she can propel one a long distance or make a fire into a conflagration. A watercrafter is a healer, and unlike most magical healing, that merely binds wounds, eliminates viruses or bacterial infections, etc. it can actually restore lost limbs. Another trope that Butcher breaks is that healers can't heal themselves. In Alera, healers heal themselves first.  In fact their furies do it without conscious effort, and thus Watercrafters can live for one to two hundred years. As I said earlier, the furies are somewhat undefined. They exist as beings that bond to people but, it is revealed in the second book that many humans do not bond with individual furies, or at least that the ones they bond with contain little individuality. City folk furies are like this, country folk name their furies and seem to have a relationship with them. Inconsistencies abound in the Fury lore, but while this was somewhat irksome to me at first, I sense that one of the overall plot devices for the trilogy will unravel some of these mysteries. Suffice it to say, it is a clever use of a cliche, and a novel new form of magic.

Theme: last and hardest to define. Butcher's world uses slavery. I'm not sure why slavery has become endemic to modern fantasy writers, Sanderson's new story uses it, as does Butcher's. Slavery existed in medieval Europe, but it existed as serfdom, which was different. Serfs were the lowest of the caste society but they were still part of the society. Slaves are not part of the society, they are alien and not accorded the basic rights of humanity. They exist outside the social structure which is why their rights can be restricted in ordinary men's minds. It adds a dimension of darkness to any realm. That said, while Butcher's world contains dark elements such as sex slavery, it doesn't feel dark. This is in part because of the main character Tavi. Tavi represents what is perhaps the ultimate fantasy cliche, he is Good. And he's smart, which makes him much more likeable than say Sam or Frodo who just seemed too saccharine and idiotic to be more than patsies. But Tavi, like The Ta'veren Trio, is good and pure in a way that makes every chapter in which he belongs a delight to read. There is one thing, a nit really, but it does alter the theme. There is sex in this novel. I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that. Without getting gross, let me say, I love sex, and eroticism. But I can't square the circle of seeing it in my swords and sorcery. I don't know if it's because it's too "sweet" or that it seems disingenuous, but I just don't feel it. Here or elsewhere. I guess it adds a component of adulthood to the text, which reminds me to warn you that there is a brutal rape scene. It added little to the story but did at the very least demonstrate the depths of depravity of slavery.

Suffice it to say: the Theme of Calderon is entirely wrapped up in the viewpoints of its three largest characters: Tavi, Isana, and Amara. All three of whom believe in what is good, what is kind, what is right, and the importance of the rule of law.  And those themes are good enogh for me.

Do yourself a favor, get the first four books altogether.  It's hell trying to wait until I can get my hands on a copy of the fourth book.

Marat, by Sandera at Deviant Art, a beautiful illustration of the Marat horde moving toward Alera.