Fantasy War is Hell

I’ve noticed a trend recently for fantasy stories that explore just how awful war can be. From the gruelling swamp warfare of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn, to the monstrous horrors and civilian casualties of Attack on Titan, to the acts of brutality, cowardice and deception in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, fantasy creators are exploring the dark side of war.

It’s quite a contrast with traditional fantasy, in which there are clear good and evil sides, causes worth fighting and dying for, and warriors mostly experience courage, heroism and camaraderie. Tolkien’s war for Middle Earth this is not.

Like literary and historical fiction before it, fantasy fiction seems to have become more willing, even eager, to explore the dark side of warfare. It’s a trend I find pleasing, as I think it makes for more interesting stories and more realistic characters. But I wonder if it will last, or whether we’ll see a backlash and a return to the dominance of old-fashioned tales of war as a righteous endeavour.

I suppose only time will tell.

Danger in the Jungle – Lego Adventures With the Epiphany Club

Some scenes from my book Guns and Guano, immortalised in Lego…

Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon's wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?
Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon’s wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?
Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library.
Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library. Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, on the other hand, just wants a chance to fire his experimental gun.
Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this wapred monstrosity?
Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this warped monstrosity?

To find out what happens next, download Guns and Guano as a free ebook via Amazon and Smashwords.

Merry Christmas!

At last, the holidays are here. I’m taking two weeks off from writing and blogging to rest my brain. There may be occasional posts here if inspiration strikes, but other than that I’ll be back in January. Have a great couple of weeks, whatever and however you’re celebrating. And from me, merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

My cultural highlights of 2014

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:

Reading

I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.

Viewing

Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3EBR1hlbI&w=560&h=315]

 

Listening

Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwV5LfxFMxU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK8mJJJvaes?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!

Gaming

As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

Knights of Badassdom – my life, only better

Sometimes a film comes along that, whatever its merits, so perfectly captures something about your own life that you love it. Maybe it portrays your job, or your family, or that awkward relationship you were in when you were young. I just found one of those films.

Knights of Badassdom is a comedy/horror/action/fantasy film about a group of live roleplay (LRP) gamers whose imaginary fantasy world gets invaded by a real and terrifying monster (if you aren’t familiar with LRP, there’s a good explanation here). As someone who’s spent years dressing up and running around hitting people with fake swords, and a Peter Dinklage fan, I was bound to watch this sooner or later. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Lets be clear – this is a film about geeks that laughs at the geeks. But that’s in the nature of comedy films – the characters are going to spend a lot of time looking foolish. What won me over, and convinced me that the film’s heart was in the right place, was the portrayal of LRP. The game we’re shown has the exact combination of naffness and awesomeness that has been the heart of most of my LRP experiences, and is why I love the hobby. There are cool costumes, but there are also t-shirts under armour, missing props, and coke cans weighing down the corners of the magical map. There are heroic speeches, and others that fall flat. There’s action and drama interspersed with pratting around. The conversations see in-game dialogue interspersed with out of character jokes. People’s real lives and their game lives intersect in messy ways. There’s even a jokey in-game name for the car park, in the same way that many people I know refer to a particular supermarket near a LRP site as Asgard.

I should be clear – not all LRP is like this. Go to a Profound Decisions event and you’ll see something far classier than in Knights of Badassdom. But that doesn’t detract from the joy I’ve taken over the years in those slightly naff games, where the out of character jokes were as integral to the fun as my sense of immersion in an imaginary world.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyougFDZ7zU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

And the characters – they aren’t a perfect cross section of LRPers by any means, but they are a familiar bunch. There’s the guy who’s just there to hang out with his mates, and who’s really more interested in music and his love life than the game. There’s his buddy who spends the whole time high, drugs fuelling his intense and somewhat insane roleplay. There’s the one who’s more interested in the rules and experience points than acting out a role. The event runner who can see amazing and varied worlds in a bunch of nondescript clearings, and whose enthusiasm drags his friends along for the ride. The character who’s all about the fighting. The actor who’s there to play a role. Even the intolerant outsiders who mock the LRPers while indulging in their own obsessive and equally silly hobby.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s that women are under-represented in the speaking roles. But while the gender balance in the hobby is getting a lot better, there are still games where the cliché holds, with a bunch of blokes and very few women. And the film-makers balanced this up at least a little with the extras. On wider issues of representation, the presence of a dwarf, a character in a wheelchair and a couple experimenting with polyamory, all without comment or judgement from the other characters or the film’s plot, struck me as relatively enlightened by Hollywood standards, and representative of the accepting environment that LRP fosters.

I have no idea how LRPers in general have reacted to this film, whether it’s with excitement at being represented or horror at the way we’re represented. But for me, it was almost perfect. Even the slight naffness of the final act’s villain and conclusion, though not part of the LRP, felt fitting for a film set within the hobby. It would be hard to better capture what this hobby has always felt like to me, why I love it, and why for many years I felt embarrassed about it. Because LRP, like this film, is often a bit naff but almost always a lot of fun, and far better if you don’t take it seriously. Kind of like life, I guess.

Who’s the Hero?

Sometimes picking the protagonist for a story is easy. Your whole idea is built around a particular character, so you just go ahead and write them. Sometimes though it’s harder. You have an idea you want to explore, or a world, or you have part of what you want the character to be like, but not the whole package. So how do you pick the person at the centre of your story?

Mary Robinette Kowal offered some great guidance on this in an episode of Writing Excuses, my favourite source of writing guidance. She said that she thinks about the setting she’s created and who can be most hurt by the things that are different about it, then uses that as the starting point for the protagonist. It means that there’s instantly something at stake for the character and a sense of conflict inherent to the situation, ready to drive a story.

I was thinking about this as I read Glamour in Glass, the second book in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. You might think that in a magical Regency era there are more vulnerable characters than an upper class lady like Jane, the protagonist. But the setting isn’t just Regency England – it’s the upper class society of Regency England, and specifically the world of people using glamour magic within that. Once you view that as the setting, she’s the perfect choice. Her family’s well being and standing in their community is very dependent on who Jane and her sister marry, and Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and manipulations of others. And the exhausting price of using glamour sometimes puts her health at risk.

In the second book there’s even more at stake. Jane is a foreigner in a country in turmoil, someone seen as an enemy by the army threatening to descend on Belgium. Her husband is entangled in local events in ways she doesn’t know about, and not being trusted with information for essentially sexist reasons puts her at risk. The nature of glamour means that pregnant women cannot use this magic without risking the unborn child, meaning that she is heading towards a choice between losing the craft that gives her happiness and losing the chance to have a family. From this beginning the stakes are raised in a way that builds around Jane’s character, and eventually forces heartbreaking choices on her.

Like any advice, this way of picking a protagonist isn’t an absolute. When I wrote ‘Sunflowers in the Snow‘, last Friday’s story on this blog, I didn’t pick the people most hurt by the events I was portraying – the cloned Neanderthal community being excluded from human society. This was partly because I didn’t feel I had time within a very short story to build up their unique perspective. But it was also because a story needs a character who can have a transformative arc, and the Neanderthals were already in the place emotionally where I wanted the story to end. So I took someone who appears to be in a position of privilege, but whose values, power and principles are about to be put into conflict, and used him. It was someone who was being badly hurt by the situation, but not the most hurt.

And there are cases where I ignore this entirely. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the adventurer heroes of my Epiphany Club stories, definitely don’t start out from a place of peril. Similarly the stars of this coming Friday’s flash story were chosen out of necessity for that plot, not an approach I’d take for a longer work. As Terry Pratchett wrote, rules are there so that we think before we break them.

Have a think about your favourite protagonists. Are they inherently vulnerable or at odds with the world they live in? How so? And if you’re a writer, how do you pick your central characters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to see some other examples of how I put this into practice, please consider buying one of my ebook anthologies.

When an author’s not an author

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

In response to my post yesterday on my current collaborative writing experience, Brittany Zelkovich, who blogs under the fantastic title of I Emerged In London Rain, asked about whether I’ll be able to tell you guys about the book when it comes out. The short answer is no, but the long answer opens up some issues that interest me.

I’ve written before about the joys of working collaboratively and why I consider all writing to be collaborative. But the way that we view books, especially fiction, is that we expect them to be the work of a single author. Even in cases where this is demonstrably not true – there are several prominent fiction writers who work with collaborators but publish under only one name – it’s the way the book is usually marketed.

This obviously ties into the myth of the lone artist, creating from the magical art-space of their brain through magic and inspiration and pixie dust, but it’s also a matter of expectations. People expect to be reading a book by a particular, singular author, not a team, company or brand.

Like any books, the ones I’m writing with this great team are a business project as well as an artistic act. You can’t publish a book and not have business come into it. So to ensure the smooth running of the business side, the guy running the show has decided to just stick a single name down as the author and not to let people know that these books were actually created by a team in a fairly unusual process. I’m fine with that – at the end of the day I’m getting paid to write science fiction and that’s cool. But it’s interesting to think that how readers will react, or at least perceptions of how readers will react, are shaping this.

So I’m really curious to know, those of you reading this, do you read books by collaborative story writing teams? Has it ever made a difference to whether you bought or read a book? Do think it would be likely to? Do you have any other thoughts on the subject? Please share your opinions in the comments – they could be really useful for me and the people I’m working with.

 

Feathers – new story out now

Hal stood on the track out of Olbry, feeling the wind whip off the moor, watching a dark shape soar on rotten wings. He heard the cawing of the raum crow and the whimpering of his son from their hut. The cawing filled him with anger, but the other sound ripped his heart…

I have a new story out today in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, an ezine that’s free to read and does what it says on the tin – plenty of heroic fantasy. My story, ‘Feathers’, is about a longbowman who, after years of war, finds himself facing a different sort of danger – a curse that is plaguing his home and that threatens to kill his son.

IMG_0670[1]Like so many of my stories, ‘Feathers’ was inspired by people and events from history. Longbowmen played a huge role in English military successes in the later middle ages, and archers in general have played an important part in warfare and hunting down the centuries, yet they don’t seem to feature all that much in fantasy fiction. I wanted to find a way to make their particular skills central to a fantasy story.

I’ve actually learnt more about longbows since writing this story, thanks to the folks I met at a historical reenactment fair. It turns out that, while the best longbows are crafted to the right height and draw length for a specific archer, they were often mass produced for armies and the archers then had to adapt to what they were given. It wasn’t uncommon for bows to snap in battle, given the strain of repeated use and the less careful crafting that went into producing hundreds in a short space of time. Imagine being that guy – an armoured knight’s barrelling down towards you, you draw the bow ready to take him out, there’s a snap and suddenly you’re trying to fight him with two ends of broken stick. Definitely a scene I’ll squeeze into a story at some point.

So go check out ‘Feathers‘ at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and if you enjoy it there’s also a coupon code at the end of the story to buy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus for only 99c.

And of course let me know what you think of the story in the comments below, and if you enjoy it then please tell other people about it.

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NaNoWriMo update:

I’m slightly ahead of where I need to be, with 3601 words written in the first two days. My main characters now have names, and the first chapter has turned out to be longer than expected, meaning I won’t have to plan chapter two until tomorrow. So far so good.

How are you guys getting on?

Writing With Your Body

Among the many ideas I like to poke holes in is the concept that our bodies and minds are somehow separate things. Our bodies are absolutely fundamental to the way our thinking works, and can be a great source of writing energy and inspiration. Yesterday I had the honour of rambling on this subject over on Felip Adan Lerma’s blog. Here’s the beginning of that post:

Writing with your body

Sancho McCann

Thinking, and therefore writing, is about more than just our brains. Those squishy masses of grey cells and synapses sit within our bodies and are inextricably entangled with them. Despite the dualistic thinking that we sometimes slip into, the mind and body are not separate.

For writers this has two main implications. One is that you really need to take care of your body. But the more exciting implication is that you can use your body to help you to think and write better…

 

To read more, including some practical ideas for moving your body around and so sharpening your writing, head on over and read Guest Post : Andrew Knighton – Writing With Your Body.

And tomorrow the roles are reversed, as Felipe Adan brings his own thoughts on writing to this blog, celebrating the joys of short form writing.

 

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out my new story collection, Riding the Mainspring, available on all your different Amazons, including Amazon.com for the Americans, Amazon.co.uk for us Brits, and of course the much-neglected Canadian Amazon (there you go Sue – this time I included Canada!).

 

Exercise photo by Sancho McCann via Flickrcreative commons.