January 21, 2014

Women In Fantasy: Part Two

In my previous post I began looking into the issue of women in fantasy literature, specifically about women as authors of fantasy novels. In this post I will look into female characters within the books themselves, written by both male and female authors. The issue is the same—just as there has been a shortage of female authors relative to male ones in fantasy, historically and currently, there has also been a shortage of good female characters.

This issue has taken me longer to write about, because it's not as straight forward to me. There are a lot of different issues that I could bring up, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to try and confine it to a couple of the bigger ones I've identified.


First, A Rant About "Strong Women"


I was at a CFL game a few months ago, and during the half-time show they had a quick concert with a Juno Award-winning rapper with current and former cheerleaders as his dance posse. The PA announcer, when the former cheerleaders were introduced, said something to the effect of "come on fans, let's hear it for these strong women!" Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure there were some strong women among them. I'm also equally sure there were some not-so-strong women among them.

Are these women 'strong' because they're cheerleaders?
Two things annoyed me about that statement. First, when have you ever heard someone say about an all-male band, or sports team, or any group or even individual, "those are some strong men". You don't, because men are all supposed to be inherently "strong" in the first place. Second, what exactly is that statement supposed to mean? In fact, right after the PA guy made that statement I turned to my friend and asked "what, as a woman, do you consider to be a strong woman?". 

The answer I got was pretty straight-forward: a 'strong woman' is confident, resilient, and well-adjusted. To me, what this meant was that a strong woman is basically a human being. In fact the term is one that by itself annoys me, and has been used a lot in the past decade or so when speaking about some female characters in fantasy novels.


A Quick History Of Female Characters In Fantasy


The earlier fantasy books were basically male wish-fulfillment. I like to make the joke that fantasy is basically romance books for men. The main character(s) are the men who learn they have hidden powers and/or are really heir to a kingdom or empire and have to save it, and possibly the whole world. On top of which, they get the hottie, who is treated more as a reward for his quest than an actual partner in a relationship. 

That's some armor she's wearing
The other kind of female character that arose, and this seems to be where the "strong woman" trope in fantasy began, is that of the female barbarian. She's a badass, wields a big sword or axe and is as good if not better at fighting as men are. Basically, a "strong woman" had to act as a man—and not just a man, but a man's man, she has to out-man even the manliest man. Yet, if this same female character was also the love interest of the main male character, she would inevitably still wind up being a damsel in distress in constant need of rescue by her man.

One example of that kind of character is Kahlan from Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series or related books. She has some magical powers and also is very capable as a fighter, and yet Richard (the main hero and her love interest) is constantly rescuing her from being captured, kidnapped, attacked, and near-raped. Yet whenever Richard is in trouble, Kahlan rarely if ever returns the favour. The sad part of this is Goodkind writes good female characters, including Kahlan. But the taint of those bad male wish fulfillment tropes still lingers in them.


What Can We Learn From Good Female Characters?


Bad female characters are objects, not people. They're in the books to further the tropes of male wish fulfillment. They don't have fleshed out personalities, back story, or development—what 'air time' they get is what is required for their relevancy as the damsel in distress, the hot badass warrior to be tamed, and so on. Good female characters are written as actual human beings, with all of the emotions, behaviours, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. They're flawed, they make mistakes, they get into trouble quite a lot... but they're also resourceful, resilient, and capable so they can get themselves out of those situations. They learn from mistakes, they develop as characters and, more importantly, as people.

Vin from Mistborn
Vin from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn is "strong" in that she is resilient, even if she is self-conscious, lacks confidence at times, and mistrustful of people. Look at the cover art that depicts her to the left: she looks cute and slight, not very intimidating but resolved. She is not unrealistically attractive with huge boobs and ridiculous clothing. Sanderson also wrote Shallan and Jasnah, brilliant scholars who are overly shy and arrogant respectively, from his book Way of Kings. In fact, all of the books he has written contains at least a couple of women among the protagonists who are great characters.

Winter from Django Wexler's The Thousand Names is pretending to be a man in order to serve in the army, and she is actually a terrible fighter and not ultra-smart. But she's tough as nails mentally and has enough common sense to see her through the greatest of perils she might face. She's leads by example, even when she doesn't really mean to. I mentioned in another post that I love heroes who win people over simply by being who they are, and Winter fits that billing.

David Hair's Moontide Quartet has four great female characters in his series, and they're all different and unique: one is a (originally) meek young woman raised to be a good wife and has a heart of gold; one is a mage who constantly struggles to be a tough as nails warrior among men; one is a young princess who by the laws of her people cannot rule but fills in as a capable regent for her child-brother when their parents are assassinated; and one is a cruel and conniving empress who is probably the most feared person in the world.


Conclusions To Be Drawn


I had a much longer list drawn up, then I realized I was basically writing down the entire cast of female characters from all of the fantasy books that I like. Considering how I can like good, well written characters in a book before anything else, I suppose that can't be a coincidence. 

It only makes sense for authors to put the time and effort into writing good female characters. They can be good and evil, young and old, or strong and weak, as long as they're conceived of and written as real people, just as you would do to write good male characters. You allow yourself a much more diverse and interesting pool of people to draw from, whereas to focus only on the men you cut that down by half. 

It also needs to be said, that even from the beginning of fantasy literature as a genre there have been good female characters. In my previous post about female authors, I created a long list of examples that reached back to the earliest days of the genre as proof that women can be the best fantasy authors. I could make a similar list of female character in some of the earliest fantasy books to make a similar point. The bad types that I ranted about and condemned above come from the type of books that have given fantasy a bad reputation still to this day. Truth to tell, those types of books will probably always exist, just as bad novels in general will always exist. 

Just as great women will always exist in fantasy, in every single way.

January 14, 2014

Women In Fantasy: Part One

This is a subject that I've read, thought, and talked about fairly often over the past few years, as it's become a more prominent issue within the fantasy community. The discussion seems to center around two issues: women as authors of fantasy, and women as characters within fantasy books. For the sake of length, I will divide my thoughts on the subject into two according to those two aspects. This first post will be about women as authors of fantasy novels.

There are two main questions that can most summarize the debating points.


#1 Can Women Write Fantasy Novels?


As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether women can write fantasy novels is very easy to answer:

Abso-freaking-lutely.

Perhaps an inspiration for new female authors?
Try these names on for size: Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, Elspeth Cooper, N.K. Jemisin, J.K. Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and Mary Stewart are all female authors of fantasy novels that I've personally read and love. And I love them for different reasons: some are just beautifully written, some are epic tales that pulled me in, some have marvelous characters that I fell in love with... kind of like with male authors that I like, actually.

And that doesn't take into account other popular female fantasy authors that I haven't read (yet): Tamora Pierce, Kristain Britain, Trudi Canavan, Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, Patricia Briggs, Elizabeth Moon, and so on. I'm sure there are at least a few authors I'm forgetting in that list as well. Some are newer, some have been publishing fantasy books as early as the 1960's. 

Not only that, but they can write fantasy just as good as male authors. Elizabeth Bear has some of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, Robin Hobb has one of my favourite characters, and J.K. Rowling has one of the best selling, most widely read books (among kids and adults) of all time. I'm not sure what the figures are, when it comes to the gender ratio of authors of fictional novels in general, but I wonder how close the ratio within fantasy comes to matching it. The popular assumption is that male authors in fantasy greatly outnumber female authors, and despite all of those names that I mentioned (and all of the ones I didn't) I still assume the same.

Which begs the second question: if women can write fantasy novels as well as men can, and those who do are not exceptions to the rule, why is there such an imbalance? Why are there so few woman authors in fantasy, compared to men?

#2 That Question I Just Asked


This is a much more difficult question to answer, because it more than likely includes a number of factors.

In recent years there's been something of a civil war, or perhaps Renaissance is a more appropriate term, in the greater world of Geek-dom. After some small circle of men launched vitriol against "nerd girls" and tried to argue for the exclusion of women from nerdy hobbies, the much larger population have fired back. This is about the same time, probably not mere coincidence, that the debate about women in fantasy heated up.

Author N.K. Jemisin
What the issue focused on is the... erm... exclusivity that some nerds tried to maintain. Google things like "fake geek girl" and you'll find things like comic book artist Tony Harris' sexist rant. Do another search for "#1 reason why" and you'll find a whole slew of tweets and articles where women in the tech and gaming industry report numerous cases of sexism and even sexual assault they have to deal with. So I think its safe to assume that some women who might have had an interest in fantasy literature had to face, at the very least, active discouragement from men in the industry if not in their personal lives.

But that's historically, and while I'm not naive enough to claim that such issues are completely gone I have already pointed out that there has been a lot of female fantasy authors in the industry in recent years. That said, there are still a good deal more male authors than there are women. The good news is that more and more we're seeing women writing fantasy novels, which will mean there will be more and more creative minds churning out fantasy books.

As a fan of fantasy, I'm very excited to see this trend continue. We could very well see the beginning of a Golden Age in fantasy literature, as more diverse minds from all genders, races, sexualities, religions, and cultures contribute to its evolution.


In Conclusion...


Women can and do write fantasy novels as well as men do, and despite a historical gender imbalance there has been a surge of new female fantasy authors. This is a good thing, and all fantasy fans should hope that the trend continues.

Profound stuff, right?

January 9, 2014

Review: Shadow Of The Wind By Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.


The review for Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon could be very short. It would go something like this...

"This is without a shadow of a doubt the best all-round book I've ever read. It's easily a 10 out of 10 for me, and anyone who likes books at all should read it."

End scene.

If I could describe the overall feel of this book, it's like it strikes a near perfect balance between literary, artistic fiction (like Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje) with formulaic, mass appeal fiction (like Tom Clancy or Dan Brown). It is both easy to read and accessible like the latter, but with the depth and complexity of the former. It's a book lover's book, but also a book for everyone. I could gush about this book for a long time. But for the sake of every sane person's attention span, I'll keep this shorter.


Do You Remember Your First Love?


The book is set in Barcelona, Spain in 1945. The Spanish Civil War just ended, though the aftermath is still felt occasionally throughout the book. A young boy named Daniel still mourns the death of his mother, and to try and cheer him up his father – who works as an antiquarian book dealer – takes him to a secret bunker called the Graveyard of Books, which served to protect thousands of books from destruction during the war. Daniel is told to pick any one book and become its guardian, and he chooses Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.

What happens next is what sold me on this book before I ever got into the main plot line: you have a young boy falling in love with a book for the first time. He stays up until the wee hours of the night... or morning, really... reading his book under the bed sheets by candlelight. The way in which Zafon describes Daniel's adoration of the book, the way he is so captivated and pulled into its world, touches very close to home with me. You can tell that Zafon is not only a book lover who knows (as I and many others do) what it feels like to truly lose oneself in a good story, but also has the ability to express in writing those sensations in breathtaking detail. That isn't all there is to this book either, because the same superb writing that painted such a charming and evocative scene here was present through to the last page.


Michelangelo Had His Brush, Zafon His Pen


He consumes ink for its power!
What helps make this book so great is Zafon's ability to paint beautiful scenes and settings, but he does it quickly and without bloated descriptions. I used the word 'evocative' above, and that's the best word I can think of to describe his style. He always uses the right words and phrases that can seize on the reader's imagination and use it to fill in the rest. It's similar to those artists who can craft an ultra-realistic scene with only a few quick and accurate strokes of their brush. 

This ability allows him to establish beautiful settings that captures the reader's imagination quickly, so he can move on to the development of his plot and characters. And because he is able to handle those with the same crisp efficiency, the book manages to avoid lulls and slow pacing that you might see in other books. Zafon's writing style is what allows him to add in elements of every kind of literature imaginable: it has mystery, romance, suspense, comedy, tragedy, action, and probably other things I can't remember off the top of my head.


In Conclusion


This is without a shadow of a doubt the best all-round novel I've ever read. It's easily a 10 out of 10 for me, and anyone who likes books at all should read it.

End scene.

January 7, 2014

My Top 5 Fantasy Covers

I'll preface this post with a quick explanation on styles of art that I prefer, and not just for cover art on books. I attended a high school for a specialized visual arts program, and I mention this not to drop some cred card about my 'expertise' on art but to explain my preferences. While in this program, I wasn't a particularly good 'artist'. I wasn't very good at capturing realism in my drawings or paintings, and I held a fair amount of disdain for the type of modern art where realism is the opposite of what artists are after. But the people who accepted me into the program must have thought I had some strengths as a prospective artist, and I can't help but think that it is my love of colour.

I love vibrant colours, especially in nature – sunsets and sunrises, trees in the spring and autumn, glacial water with the sun's reflection glittering on the surface, and so on. It's why I love landscapes, and artists like Monet. It's not just using vibrant and natural colours for the sake of it that appeal to me, it's using a scheme of colours that work together and suit the concepts you're trying to convey.

With all of that in mind, here are my five favourite fantasy covers.


Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff



I absolutely love the colour scheme. There is a sharp and vibrant contrast between red and black, but a whole slew of subtle tones to each. The red of the lotus flowers with what I assume to be the implication of blood stains, the woman's tattoos, and the accent in the clouds work so well together. Then there's the blacks and greys of the woman's hair and clothing, and the dark grey mixed with, I think, a bit of blue for the clouds in the background. The style seems to mix Japanese art with modern, western fantasy art (not that I'm an expert on either, so I could be flat wrong on both accounts) and it does so superbly. 

The absolutely absurd thing about this book is that there is an alternative cover art that is much different, but even more gorgeous. It is the cover art for the UK edition, and considering other differences between North American and British covers I'm starting to feel like I get shafted here in Canada. See for yourself...


The use of colour here is much different. Everything is far more subtle and more natural, but feels so natural and appropriate that I absolutely adore it.


Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss



This is a perfect example of a cover that, to me, suits the book itself. The relief of the mythical creature's head, the slightly darker tones to the colouring of the leaves, and the appearance that the leaves are being scattered by a gust of wind – possibly from the mouth of the creature – it all works for me. The colour of the background, that is either stone or wood, also really suits the contents of the book, and especially the third-person parts that take place in a small village tavern.

And, of course, like with Stormdancer there is an alternate cover style that was used in the Brazilian edition of The Name of the Wind. To me, it best reflects the nature of the series: the epic scale, and Kvothe's wandering and musical soul that defines his character.



Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson


I suppose its no coincidence that two of my favourite books both make this list, and I wonder which way it works: do I like the covers more because the book itself is so good, or does the art help me like the book even more? Or is it purely coincidental? There are numerous cover styles for The Name of the Wind in particular, and there are many that I don't really care for.

But I digress...


I absolutely love sunsets, especially in the middle of a beautiful landscape setting, so this cover just wins so many points from me. The use of colour in the background with the sunset is incredible, and the rest captures the unreal setting of the Shattered Plains in which much of the book takes place. The cover as a whole is epic, which the contents of the book matches easily.


Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear


If it's a funny coincidence, if its a coincidence at all, that my two favourite books make this list, it's another one that the other three are all Asian-themed. This is the second of those three.


I like the wisps of smoke, coloured with a mixture of blacks, dark blues, and purples. I like the figure astride the horse, the larger figure among the smoke holding a bright jewel that is also the moon, and the stars that filter through. There is a special significance of the moon and stars in the mythology and lore of the series, so seeing them worked into this cover art is very appropriate.


Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay



The third Asian-themed fantasy book whose cover cracks my top five, this one presents a different style from the other two, which are themselves different than each other. But they are all fantastic. This one is much simpler, using different tones of green throughout. The stone head of the horse is very relevant for the plot of the book, and the subtle blending of the Chinese-style symbols and letters give you an easy idea of the inspiration Guy Gavriel Kay drew for the story.

January 1, 2014

Review: Path Of Anger By Anthony Rouaud

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.


The Path of Anger by Anthony Rouaud was a book that caught my attention a few months ago. There are a number of book blogs that I follow so that I can hear about new books, and this one was coming up on all of them. It was originally written and already released in France and was being translated into English. None of the blogs had any actual reviews up, but they all seemed to be saying the same thing: this is a book that's getting a lot of hype. The bits that were made available online were enough to intrigue me, so I was pretty eager to get my hands on it.

So was the hype accurate?


The Good: One Heck Of A Start


When I got about halfway through the book and reached "Part Two", I was already considering this book to be one of the better new series out there. 

The back story for this book has a great empire toppled by a revolution of the people, and in its place a Republic was established. A young scholar, Viola, is on a special but unmentioned mission, and arrives in a port city at the edge of the known world. She finds a drunk old soldier who was rumoured to have boasted that he had hidden the famous sword of the emperor not long after the fall of the empire. The sword is supposed to be an ancient relic from before the time of the empire, and Viola wants to find it to preserve its history. She soon discovers that the former soldier, Dun, is in fact Dun-Cadal—the greatest general from the old empire. 

While trying to convince Dun-Cadal to give lead her to the sword, Viola also tries to learn his perspective of the empire's collapse. He comes to tell her about the first battles in the rebellion before it turned into a full-scale revolution. More specifically, he tells the tale of Frog, his student who he says was the greatest knight in the world. He goes on to tell of Frog's origins, their time training together, the tragedies of the final days of the empire, and how Dun-Cadal went into hiding with the fabled sword.

The world in which this book is set, the battles fought during the revolution, the politics and factions that were tearing the empire apart, and the main players that fought to control the course of history were fantastically interesting. In fact, the mixture of large scale warfare, revolutions and compelling characters reminded me a lot of The Thousand Names by Django Wexler or The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. Yet it offered enough unique writing to set it apart from them.


The Bad: A Whole New Direction


The start of Part Two seemed to hold the same promise and compelling writing that was prevalent through Part One. It involved getting a new perspective on the fall of the empire: Frog's. He seemed such an interesting character in the first part, and it meant delving deeper into all those things I mentioned above that made it so good.

But...

The author: Anthony Rouaud.
In truth, the parts of Frog's perspective of the war that led to the empire's collapse were still interesting. In fact, it was the only interesting part of the last half of the book. The rest of the time, Rouaud began working in what will be the main plot arc for the rest of the series. In this book, it involves Viola and Dun-Cadal, among others, having to prevent the Republic from being taken over by the same scheming nobles that helped facilitate the collapse of their own empire. Where the back story that the first half of the book touched on was in depth and compelling, the contemporary story line was clich├ęd and boring. After a while I realized that I only seemed to like the back story of this book, involving the fall of the empire. Everything else failed to keep me captivated.

On top of which, new characters were introduced or were given more prominence than they were before, but none of them wound up being interesting at all. In fact, some of them proved to be whiny and annoying. They simply failed to be as interesting and compelling as Dun-Cadal, who was no longer the only major character in the book. Coupled with the new plot lines, the second half of the book faded the further I read, all the way to the end. 


The Conclusion: A Lot Of Potential Turned Into A Mess


What I imagine Dun-Cadal looks like, in his prime.
The only times I felt compelled by the book was when it delved into the past, with the revolutionary war and the fall of the empire. The worrying part is that if the second half of this book is any indication, the back story is finished. Everything to come in future books will involve the plot arc from the second half of this one. Considering how poor that plot line was, I'm not very optimistic that it'll be much better in any further books. My one hope is that Anthony Rouaud proved with the first half that he is very capable of writing an interesting world, with good characters and a compelling plot, so perhaps he can recapture that magic.

As a side story, a friend of mine was leaving on a holiday vacation to Cuba and wanted a new book to read. At that point we had both known about this book, and I had read most of the first half that I've said I loved. So I recommend it, and he took my advice and bought it. A couple of days later I get a message from him, coming from Cuba, with this one sentence that rather accurately summarizes the entire book:

"What started out as a decent book with a lot of potential turned into a bit of a mess."

Overall, on the strength of the first half I'd still give this book a 7 out of 10 with the caveat that the rest of the series improves upon the foundation it set.