Art and Writing and Latin, Oh My!

afterBachannal

“After the Bacchanal” 9 x 12 Oil on linen

I’m prepping for an eventful summer full of painting, writing, and Latin translation!

I finished a still life (pictured above) in oils this week, hit 30k on the Fantasy novel (planning for 100k), and secured a Latin teaching position starting this fall that I’ll be prepping for.

Fiction writing is a slow business, but I have some good news to report on that front. I recently signed a contract with The Daily Science Fiction, and have a piece forthcoming this year. Every other story I’ve sent out is being held for consideration, so here I sit. Nothing to do but research for the novel and add to the word count! Wait, write another story, you say? HA!

I’m still reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, and this May I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ May 10th and May 24th stories. That magazine is one of my favorites. I envy people who can weave pretty prose.

I’m still painting, and the gallery is updated with recent works. I’m thinking about selling prints soon, and it’s turning out to be a rather complicated pursuit. This July I will be painting my first full size portrait under the tutelage of an artist who studied in Florence. I am intimidated but eager for the challenge. Excelsior!

In personal news, my children are growing like weeds. I gave them no such permission, the curs. My youngest turned 2 this month, and now I fight a trembling lip whenever I see her baby pictures. I was in a car crash yesterday, and while unhurt, I’m reminded keenly of my mortality.

It all goes by so quickly. Onward in virtue.

I’ve Figured Out Why Game Of Thrones Bothers Me

A Song of Ice and Fire is a soap opera with Dragons and Ice Zombies. I’m not trying to besmirch the soap opera (we tend to revile things women like, so while soaps aren’t my thing, that’s just a matter of taste), but George Martin’s books, like some soaps, have a tendency to revel in the baser things of life. Sometimes it hinders my enjoyment of the epic world he’s built. I feel like I’ve been entranced by a snake-charmer, and should pull free.

Why am I reading this stuff?

I’m not afraid of reading about hard truths, about the things people can do to one another. George Martin has obviously studied medieval history. Tales of war are full of violence, rape and political intrigue. Mythology, of course, is full of sex. So what’s my problem?

In the last published book (A Dance With Dragons), we are treated to Princess Asha submitting to a rape, because as it turns out, she likes it after all! The ideal woman likes it rough, right boys? (I will not be reproducing that passage here.)*

Here’s my problem: was it really necessary for me to read a rape fantasy? I’ve seen authors joke that they don’t know what “plot-relevant sex” is anyway, so readers should stop being such prudes. But I feel compelled to point out that many speculative fiction authors deal with gritty subjects, and many do it with a great deal more class than Martin does. Louis McMaster Bujold, for example, in Shards of Honor (one of my favorite books) writes about the difficulties a woman protagonist faces in a militarized society. Cordelia Naismith is captured by the enemy and threatened with rape in a very tense scene, where we see her would-be-rapist prodded toward her like an animal. Bujold does not mince words, but she also doesn’t rub the reader’s face in in. In fact, even though we are treated to images of this naked, barbaric man, Bujold’s Cordelia pities him.

I read fiction so that the world in which I live can be recast in a new light. I should have an insight into human nature. That insight does not have to be accompanied with flowers and roses, or packaged in shiny Disney animation with talking animals. Oedipus has sex with his mother. Orpheus, the idiot, looks back. (Honey, you had ONE JOB.) Psyche looks at Cupid’s face. Lot, in the Bible, is intoxicated by his daughters and raped by them.

I could go on.

My point is that the hero does not always win, and I don’t need that to be the case for a story to possess verisimilitude, to have an insight into some deep truth about human action. I am not, therefore, upset that Martin kills his heroes. His storytelling has surprised me, even delighted me at times.

And yet, I still, at the same time, think that something smells. Martin gave an interview to Time Magazine recently, and he said something that I think nailed down what it is about his fantasy that bothers me. Here is the passage:

Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?

Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.

And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.

Understanding Tolkien requires an understanding of Christianity. This does not mean possessing a fundamentalist view of sex or an inability to cope with gritty, ugly things. (Lot in the Bible, remember.) It requires a different understanding of death. To die for one’s friends is worthy of reward. That is why Gandalf comes back more powerful than before. That’s why it’s not a cheat.

In Martin’s view, Ned Stark is a probably fool. In my Christian view, he is a martyr. If Ned Stark’s death isn’t any different than Joffrey’s, then what the hell is the point? Am I really supposed to believe that they both end up in the same place?

Martin’s books like to show readers how hard it is to be a hero. That being good might not come with material rewards or power. In that respect, I understand the project.

But I’m afraid that we’re not going to get the eucatastrophe, the good that comes from the bad, that Tolkien so effectively delivered in his own stories. I don’t think readers will get that from Martin’s mind. Maybe it’s not fair to accuse Martin of not being Tolkien, but it helps me see why I have major problems with his his narrative decisions.

 I’m too Catholic.

*Theon Greyjoy’s sister, as she’s named in the books.

Six SF/F Women Authors to Read This Summer

I’ve read some great stuff recently and thought I’d share my recommendations for those of you looking to find good reads this summer!

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Uprooted, Naomi Novik

Clear your schedule before reading this exciting, heartwarming, and utterly compelling fantasy: you will not put the book down until you have reached the last page.

I found myself transfixed and beguiled; I eschewed all personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (even ignoring the demands of my children) in order to see what would happen next. Novik’s writing style is easy and light without sacrificing gravity. Most fantasy novels that I’ve read bog me down with world-building: such-and-such a political structure is explained, a magic system’s rules listed like it’s a cookbook, long journeys where characters do nothing but eat and sleep and describe forests or sing songs that, quite frankly, I just skim over. Uprooted demands attention with every paragraph, the world and its rules fit the characters like comfortable sweaters, inviting the reader to become the story’s confidant. It is a tale that is at the same time grim and dark and seeped in magic of the old world, yet light and amusing and full of vivacious characters that resonate.

We follow the heroine Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-kah), a peasant girl who lives in a valley haunted by a treacherous power called the Wood. The valley is watched over by a wizard called the Dragon who resides in a tower cut off from the people. Every ten years he takes a girl from the valley to his tower, for an unknown purpose. The girl is always allowed to leave, but she never returns to her home. The story begins here, when the Dragon comes to choose the next girl, and all of the parents huddle in trepidation, hoping it won’t be one of their daughters.

 

shardsShards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

A solid, clean, sci-fi adventure filled with intrigue, romance, and engaging planetary exploration. That sounds like a typical sci-fi plot, with all of the right ingredients, but the book doesn’t feel like that when you’re reading it. Bujold manages to write engaging dialogue that is informative and weighty without being obviously expository. There are little pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, things like, “The inept need rules for their own protection,” or, “Leadership is power over imagination,” to mention a few great quotable lines that struck me.

The main character is Cordelia Naismith, a captain of a survey ship (basically: science officers) exploring a newly discovered planet. She ends up marooned with an injured enemy crewman, a commander left for dead by a traitorous political rival. The two have to work together, and end up in love.

 

doomsdayDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

This book is intelligent and engaging, a story about history, disease, and eucatastrophe. Time travel plots, in my experience, are either maudlin romances or cautionary tales that end in the utter destruction of the character or civil structure they inhabit. While Willis gives the reader catastrophe after catastrophe, it all comes together for a perfect ending that pulled on my heartstrings.

Willis gives us two time periods to follow and the two stories collide perfectly at the end, making the book very exciting and addicting. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, but the concept is very well thought out and executed: Kivrin is a history student in the year 2054 who wants to get permission to go back in time to observe the 1300s while disguised as a local. Every precaution has been taken, but once she steps through, the people she leaves behind in the future come down with a terrible influenza epidemic. Did Kivrin let something through? Until they know, the academics shut down the time machine, trapping her. And that’s just the beginning.

 

broken-starsThese Broken Stars, Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I didn’t expect to like this book so much, but it’s a very well done character story, written for a teen audience, and I thought it was very nice. The setup is pretty predictable: a cynical war hero and the daughter of the richest man alive end up marooned on a planet after their spaceliner crashes. (And yea, the ship is named ‘The Icarus’ … what were they expecting?) They of course end up together, but the writing style is very engaging and light, unpacking a myriad of issues that can be discussed with younger readers that might be new to Sci-fi. The issues cover class and race, the consequences of colonization and industrialization, to name a few. If I was still writing high school level curriculum I’d be able to come up with great essay and discussion topics.

As for adults, they’ll just enjoy it, even if it’s a bit predictable at times.

 

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong (Short Story)

This was a short story published in Nightmare magazine, so if horror/SF mashups aren’t your cup of tea, you won’t like it. I think what struck me most about Wong’s style is how perfectly she captured the visceral sense of hunger and the sort of stomach-rolling descriptions of a character chewing, vomiting, or savoring a bite. The main character feeds on bad thoughts, so the worse the individual, the more pleasurable the meal. Check it out if you have the inclination!

If you have a woman SF/F writer you’d like to suggest, let me know in the comments!

Parody of Typical YA SF&F Hero

Georg im Kampf mit dem Drachen, Detail- Public Domain

Georg im Kampf mit dem Drachen, Detail- Public Domain

Nobody understands the real me, the me I keep deep inside underneath the rip roaring abs you could break a wood plank off of. No, what they don’t see is that I keep the poetry from spilling out whenever I see something as simple as a single white rose. I bury that as far as it will go and make sure that any girl who looks my way gets a hard glare and a sneer from underneath my unusually long and tawny hair, side-swept to hide the thin scar just under my left eye.

It’s there because my sapphire eyes will shed no tears, and I need it to feel alive.

I’m standing on the edge of the cliff over the ocean, facing the dark clouds that roll towards me that hearken the impending storm. The dragon is coming, and the ancient curse my double-crossing uncle put on me demands that I stand here and protect the village. I am not one for fate: to hell with it, and with the village. I’m doing it for her, for Leanna Rosita Spooner, a girl whose beauty comes from not knowing she is beautiful. She is behind me clutching her elbows in terror as her eyes comprehend the gravity of the forthcoming battle.

I raise my sword above my head, my red cape flying behind me.

“Come beast!” I cry, “Come and prepare to die!”

I hear the voice of the fair Leanna behind me, a voice of protest as she cries with longing for me to desist.

“No, brave Xylon do not die for me!”

“I must,” I reply huskily, the wind whipping through my hair as I turn to face her. “For love of you, my dearest, loveliest Leanna: I will die.”

She lunges at me and I stay her, like taming a wild mare. She calms and looks at me longingly, and I cup her face with my hands, sword sheathed while my manhood becomes unsheathed.

“Your hands, so soft and free of callouses,” she says, “and so bereaved of sweat. Do you not fear this? This horrible thing you face?”

“I fear nothing,” I say, pushing her aside.

The dragon is here, and a cloud of fire engulfs me.I fall to the ground, my breath leaving my body and the skin flying away from my face as it turns to ash. One more look upon Leanna, just one more look.

“Screw this,” says the dragon. “I was just playing anyway.”

He flies way, and we are suddenly left to actually see each other in another context.

“Prom is next week,” she says shyly. “Want to go?”

“Maybe,” I answer. “I’ll see if someone else asks me.”

My horrible flesh scars become very exotic looking tattoos on the side of my face. Living with a curse is rough.

Too snarky? I’m trying to read more SF&F and took a detour into SF&F YA books to see what’s selling since I’m writing a book for a YA audience. Oh man, guys: we need to do better. Insecure girls? Or worse, girls who are like amazons normal girls can’t relate to? Abusive boys whose faults are tossed aside because they’re hot? Teenage morality is mired in a hotbed of issues that literature can and should explore, but I’m having trouble finding good SF&F written for this age group. Taking reading suggestions!