Monday, March 31, 2008

Ad Astra

A fun event every year, this weekend was no exception. There were some excellent panels, a few book launches, and lots of advice and encouragement for the aspiring writer.

Kevin J. Anderson, as a guest of honour, had some ideas I thought were great. The man writes a prodigious amount and now I know how he does it. He goes for a hike and dictates each chapter into a recorder. Why didn't I think of that? I love walking and I find it helps me get ideas. The problem is remembering the ideas when I get home or writing the passage out while the scene is progressing in my head. Either way, I always lose a lot of what I have come up with. But as I can think and speak much faster than I can type or write... The problem of course is you then have to transcribe it, or pay someone else to. Still, I think it's worth a try. If it helps me write more and get exercise and fresh air at the same time it's worth the experimentation.

Saturday night I forwent listening to the Filk in order to sit with Tony Pi (an aurora nominee and WotF contest winner) and Jim Hines (author of Goblin Quest, Hero and War) whom I met at Ad Astra last year. As the night wore on we were joined by Rob St. Martin (who sold his first story to the anthology Misspelled). A little later Stephen Kotowych (last year's WotF grand prize winner and a current aurora nominee) and Michael McPherson (who has published several short stories). Not long after that, Rob left and Kevin J. Anderson took his chair! He reached over the table to shake Michael's hand and accidently knocked over an empty wineglass, which shattered and shot glass everywhere. (One of those things you'll never forget, simply because of the privilege of being in such company.) After the glass was cleaned up we chatted about various things and were joined by Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink (a poet and editor). Unfortunately I had to leave around 11pm. Still, it was quite something to be sitting and listening to two top SF authors and several new talents discuss the field.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Author genders

Does it really matter what gender an author is? I know a man who swears he can tell if an author is a man or a woman simply by the writing. I've never been able to tell. Then again, I've never really felt the need to guess. If the author's name is Isaac, I simply assume it's a man. If it's Patricia, it's a woman. Things get a bit trickier when the name is Mercedes or Pat. And once they only use initials, it's traditionally presumed it's a woman (because women in SF used to want to hid that fact) so C. L. Wilson and P. N. Elrod are both women. Having said that (and not knowing the 'rule' when I was younger) it's only recently that I discovered P. N. Elrod is a woman. And the 'rule' doesn't work anymore. S. C. Butler is a man. As is S. M. Peters.

So if the name isn't always a clue, you go to the author photo on the back, right? Unfortunately not every book sports an author photo and some back covers manage to not detail the gender of the author either. Take this author blurb for example: Rob Thurman lives in Indiana. Nightlife is Rob's first novel. Visit the author on the Web at

Can you imagine my surprise when, after reading the books and going to the site, I discovered that Rob Thurman is a woman? I saw her photo and thought 'cool, he put up a photo of his wife and his dog. That's awesome.' Didn't occur to me until I was reading her blog that that might be her photo. All because her name is Rob. (It's short for Robyn.) Then again, it might not. Does it matter? Does the quality of the book change? Oddly enough it does. On the surface.

Assuming the author was a man, writing about men, of whom he'd know a lot, the books were great. They had action, a bit of emotion, lots of swearing. The two male protagonists are so well depicted I had no problem understanding their motivations for anything.

Knowing the author is a woman, writing about men, of whom she obviously knows a lot, the books are phenomenal.

Why should this be? Why should I be surprised that a woman can write a convincing, kick-ass male character? Am I surprised when men write well-rounded female characters? No. So what's the difference?

My bookshelves are filled with female writers telling the stories of men, and well told they are too: Lois McMaster Bujold's Illvin in Paladin of Souls (I'd use the Barrayar books but I haven't read them yet), Gail Martin's Martris Drayke in the Summoner, Carol Berg's Seyonne in Transformation, Mercedes Lackey's Vanyel in Magic's Pawn. The list can go on.

So what is the difference? Maybe, by mistaking the author's gender, I was more willing to accept that the characterization was accurate. However, discovering my mistake, the characterization remains accurate, only my perception in reference to it changes. In other words, there is no difference other than my acknowledging that I made a mistake in assuming the author's gender was male.

It makes me think of the Victorian era when women often had to pose as men in order to be published. Sometimes the opposite would occur though, and men would write as women, so their female characters would be better received. Apparently guessing the genders of known anonymous and pseudonymous authors based on analysis of the text was a bit of a pastime for critics. I can see why.

I think it would be interesting to read a book without having any clues about the author to see if, based on the writing alone, I could guess the gender. It would also be interesting to read a book without any prejudice towards either the author or the characters, accepting the characters for who they are, rather than as a possible reflection of the author's gender.

Does the author's gender matter? Is the writing better or worse? Ultimately that depends on the author. A good author can see through the eyes of his/her character and write the character's story as it's meant to be. Whatever else we bring to the story, that's our problem.

Rob Thurman

Author of: Nightlife, Moonshine and Madhouse. I recently finished all three in a mad reading rush. Trust me, when you start you can't stop yourself from reading. Nightlife begins with a rather intense scene imported from the end of the book. You know what's coming. So you have to read feverishly to get there in real time. And the journey is well worth the effort. The story is interesting, the twists unexpected, the characters... well, if you like Supernatural you've got to read these books. As much as I enjoy watching Sam and Dean argue about, well, everything, Cal and Niko Leandros have something they lack. True brotherly love. Dean may be willing to die for Sam, but he's not willing to tell Sam how he feels about that. Cal and Niko know each other so well that when things go wrong they can't hide it from each other. And neither one is willing to let his brother suffer alone. Does that make them weak, effeminate or lame? Hell no. It makes them real.

Names are also important to the story.
Caliban - the monster born of a witch and an demon from Shakespeare's The Tempest
Niko - called Cyrano (de Bergerac - think Roxanne) by his brother for his big nose
Cerberus - the 3 headed dog that guards Hades, though only 2 headed in the novel
I've put my own interpretations on these next two names
Promise - because she's the promise of everything 'normal' Niko gave up by deciding to protect his brother: a girlfriend, a home, a family, which is suddenly in his reach again
Delilah - synonymous with betrayal, and the werewolf Cal uses to betray both himself and Georgina

Here the spoilers start, so if you don't know who Delilah is, stop reading.

As much as I liked the books I was left rather disturbed by the ending of the third book. Not because the ending was bad or unexpected. You could see it coming a mile away. It was disturbing because we're so trained to want and thereby expect the fairy tale ending that the fact that Cal purposely destroyed any chance he had at happiness with Georgina comes with a shock. The logical side of me congratulates what he did (not HOW he did it, mind you. I thought that was despicable, but WHAT he did). Whether his sacrifice in pushing Georgina away for her safety will be worth it, will be decided in the next book (when we see if the Auphe attack her to hurt him or not. If they do, than he's simply denied himself happiness and hurt her for no reason). The way he chose to do it, by sleeping first with Charm and then with Delilah, was, as we saw at the end of Madhouse, as detrimental to him as it was to her. The emotional side of me curses him for ruining what he could have had with Georgina. It berates him for not at least discussing his fears with her, and seeing what she thought of them (it was clear she wouldn't look into the future and see if they ended up with kids, but at 18 it wasn't clear she would sleep with him at that point anyway, so why not simply enjoy being with her for a while and see what happens?). Having said that, his actions follow his personality as set out by the other books. It's no surprise that he'd destroy this particular chance at happiness.

One of my favourite things about this series is the clear use of consequences. Cal isn't happy with his choices concerning George but he's smart enough to know that there are consequences, even if he doesn't want to face them. This was used throughout, but was most effective in the scene after Robin tries to hypnotize Caliban so he can remember the 2 missing years he spent in Tumulus. Robin's puking in the bathroom and Niko's voice sounding anguished for the first time in years were beautiful touches in bringing the story to life. And of course, after Cal massacres Darkling and ends up a mess, knowing what he did while 'under the influence'. Even the scene after taking out Hob was great, with one of my favourite lines, "That was an interesting new fighting technique you demonstrated. What do you call it again? Suicide?" (I'm writing this without the book so if it's not 100% accurate, sorry.) the situations are doubly forceful because under all the sarcasm expressed at each one you can hear the concern.

What I didn't like about the books was their (in my opinion) overuse of swearing. But that's a personal opinion and based on Cal's personality, it would be hard to eliminate all of that. I also seconded a line I believe Niko said (but maybe it was Cal) in the first book. Is Niko the only human in New York? Everyone they come across, even without trying, happens to be fae of some sort. From the woman they're doing bodyguard duty for to the used car salesman. It just gets more extreme as Cal starts working at a club catering to the inhumans. (Now that I think about it, that could be a result of the humans he worked with at the first bar all being killed by the Auphe. Cal started hanging out with people who would be able to defend themselves if attacked - another reason he didn't want to be seen with Georgina.)

All in all, I am anxious to read the next book. Part of me is still hoping for that fairy tale ending (maybe Cal will smarten up and go for Georgina, though at this point I can't imagine her forgiving him without some serious incentives or maybe he'll fall for someone else). But as long as the characters are true to themselves, and the story is good, happy ending or not, I'll be satisfied. After all, books that can keep you thinking about them long after you put them down are books worth reading. And a result every author should work towards.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Female Characters in SF & Fantasy

The negative review I did for Iron Kissed and the subsequent response from the author's husband prompted me to (again) think about why I was so disturbed by the ending of that novel. What I've come up with is this. Mercedes Thompson is a smart, capable woman. She isn't needy. She doesn't feel she has to compete with the men (werewolves) around her in order to 'prove her worth'. While she doesn't like asking for help she can accept it without rancor. She also accepts that she may not be the best person to do a job (though she also may not appreciate that knowledge). But when push comes to shove, even if she's afraid of the consequences, she'll act.

In other words, she's a realistic woman. With strong points and weak points.

What she's not is the kind of 'don't help me I can solve everything on my own and if I do get in over my head and need rescuing I'll simply resent you later for it' female character that's become so common nowadays. The problem (or, I should say, one of the problems) is that after one or two books this attitude is extremely irritating to read (or watch on TV since, let's face it, it's there too). I don't understand how 'feminism' (meaning women are as capable as men in dealing with life) turned into 'I'm a b***h' but that seems to be the way popular culture is taking things. If a female character needs help she's 'weak' (and why is that by the way? Why should having friends and a caring community be negative?). And yet, instead of painting female characters as 'strong' if they don't need help, things are shifting to the opposite extreme. Maybe it's a case of the characteristics that made someone attractive when you first meet them (strength, planning, thrift) turn negative with familiarity (overbearing, rigid, stingy) or maybe it's something else.

At any rate, there seems to be a rise in recent female 'kick ass' characters who run roughshod through life, not expecting to have to deal with the consequences of choices they make and resenting any interference in their lives, whether it was positive or not. And I personally find this disturbing.

Maybe it's Mercy's acknowledgment that there are consequences and her ability to take them into consideration BEFORE acting that drew me to her. Too many of the female characters never stop to think first (though everyone goes through instances where this is the case the fact that these characters never seem to learn from their mistakes and become more cautious speaks against them).

Added to this, the thought that Mercy might become a 'weak' character (losing her self-confidence, being afraid to do anything on her own) due to the rape, when I saw her in such a positive light is more than likely the reason for my strong reaction to the ending of Iron Kissed. Don't get me wrong, I understand that rape is traumatic and does affect how you view yourself and the world. For this reason I wanted the story to continue, showing how she worked out her fears and anxieties and regained her strength. Apparently book 4 takes up directly where book 3 ended, so it's likely I'll get my wish. I hope so. Mercy is a great character, and I for one would like to see more characters like her.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Iron Kissed - Patricia Briggs

This post begins with a disclaimer. Mainly, that though I've read several urban fantasy novels, I'm not a big fan of them. They're not bad, but the mix of romance, mystery and a modern setting don't thrill me for the most part. So, while I read them, I don't expect much from them. The one exception was Patricia Briggs's Mercedes Thompson books. I loved Moon Called and Blood Bound. Therefore, it was with a lot of anticipation that I picked up Iron Kissed. And that made my disappointment in the book that much worse.

Let me also say that as writer several of my complaints are things that most people would never notice let alone criticize. That's just life. There are serious spoilers ahead, so if you haven't read the books, consider yourself warned.

1) Sam never picks up an instrument in the first two books. He never sings. I think there's a short descriptive paragraph before we meet him the first time that states he participates in campfires but beyond that there's no indication that music is important to him. So it came as a huge surprise when Sam's love of folk music became a huge plot point in this book. All of a sudden he's always playing his guitar around the trailer. Odd for a man who never played before when he was upset or needed to calm himself.

2) We're told in book 3 that Adam's claiming of Mercedes as a mate creates a weakness in his leadership that could be exploited by other werewolves. Didn't he claim her when he first moved opposite her? Wasn't that quite a few years ago? Why is this suddenly a problem when for years it wasn't? And why are people suddenly blaming Mercy for it when she had no knowledge of his actions before book 1 (or was it 2? At any rate, recently in the timeline).

3) Adam actively scared me in this book. I started wondering how much it would take for him to actually hit Mercy for opposing him. (Which may be why I objected to the ending so much, it was as if he were happy that her spirit was broken, though that would be going against his character as I understood it from the other books.) I actually wanted her to choose Sam. I thought they'd be able to have a more healthy relationship. Passion is great, but when it's coupled with fear (as a lot of the scenes with Adam in this book seemed to be) it's disfunctional.

4) The biggest problem I had was the ending. The others were merely annoyances that I could live with and ignore were it not for the final sentence in the book. Mercy is raped by the bad guy. As disturbing as the idea is, the scene was tastefully done. The problem I had was that Adam used this as a means of claiming her. He claims that since she asked him for help two times she's basically said she'll be his mate (say what? Gosh, I'll have to watch who I ask favours from in the future in that case). Also, instead of letting Mercy heal, and simply talking through what happened and what their mating will mean for their futures, he sleeps with her. Mercy's reasoning here is also flawed. She decides that sleeping with Adam will clear away the memory of the rape, allowing her to triumph over it. I saw it the other way. It felt like the rapist won here. Rather than healing and becoming a strong, independent woman who overcame her fear, she fell prey to fear, and decided that being with Adam would keep her safe. She can't protect herself so she'll find a protector. This will ultimately backfire on both of them. Adam will realize that Mercy's no longer the strong woman he fell in love with and will miss the woman who argued with him and pushed his buttons. Mercy, on the other hand, will realize Adam is a crutch. She'll come to resent the fact that she is no longer a strong woman because she leaned on him rather than learning how to live without fear on her own. Sleeping together also undercut several things that the author pointed out earlier, mainly that Adam was old fashioned and didn't believe in sex outside of marriage while Mercy didn't want a child out of wedlock (though she is on birth control). All the same, they should have waited until they were sleeping together for healthier reasons than 'I'm scared, protect me from the boogy man'. Even if the boogy man happens to be real.

I understood Mercy offering herself to Adam at the end, but I would have liked Adam more if he'd stopped her and said, 'You're scared and hurt right now. I don't want you like this. Let me help you through this and when you're ready, then we'll move on to the next step.'

On the other hand, I loved the scene where Ben explained why a rape (or molestation) if you can't fight back is horrific. Again, like the rape scene itself, it was handled with care and explained a lot about Ben's character.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Heroes Adrift - Book Review

By: Moira Moore

This is the third in her Shield and Source series, told from Shield Dunleavy Mallorough's point of view. Like the first two novels, there's a fair bit of comedy associated with the opposites forced to work together motif. In this book, the pair are sent off to a southern island where they must find the off shoot relatives of the queen. Unfortunately, the islanders don't follow continental laws, and they expect the pair to pay for things (which tradition states they should receive for free). Needless to say, our rather unskilled heroes must use drastic measures to ensure they've got food and shelter. Enter: Leavy the Flame Dancer!

And Shintaro is not happy about it.

Here's the spoiler area. If you haven't read the book yet, don't read this or it will ruin a major plot twist for you.

Against the rules of their order Lee and Taro finally succumb to their attraction. I'm glad the author wrote this scene the way she did. In the segment where Lee is under the control of music and comes close to sleeping with Taro she would have had a perfect excuse to discount the entire affair. But I think that would have crushed Taro's already fragile self-esteem, especially with the treatment he was getting from the islanders. I like the fact that Lee sat down and examined her motives and decided that if she went ahead with this, she should do it with her eyes open, accepting of the possible consequences down the road. I think this acknowledgement is the reason Taro is willing to forgo his flirtatiousness at the end of the book (that and I think he honestly loves Lee. Here's a woman who's opinion matters highly to him and who accepts him as he is, whether he looks immaculate or disheveled. And given his upbringing he's likely never encountered anyone like her before). Unfortunately, I'm afraid that the Moonlighting effect will set in. Once characters sleep together the sexual tension, and the verbal sparring that comes from it, inevitably tones down. Even if conflict arises and they break up things can never go back to the way they were before.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next book to see how their new relationship works out once they're back in High Scape where what they're doing is against the rules.