Friday, December 25, 2009

The White Horse King

The title of the book made me curious. What did Alfred the Great have to do with a white horse – did he ride one into battle? All I really knew of him was that he burned some cakes, so it seemed like a good idea to read about his life. Thomas Nelson was kind enough to send me a copy as part of the Book Review Bloggers program, and it was an enjoyable if not superb read.

The White Horse King by Benjamin Merkle begins in 849 AD, when the wife of the king of Wessex gave birth to their fifth son, Alfred. At the time, there was no such thing as a unified England. Instead, there were several kingdoms that didn’t always hold together in the face of a common threat – such as the Vikings who sailed their longships in to plunder.

I have to admit, this book gave me some wonderful A Song of Ice and Fire flashbacks.

Merkle goes on to describe how Alfred, despite being fifth in line from the throne, eventually became king of Wessex and took on the heavy responsibility of protecting the land from the foreign pillagers – even when they forced him to flee his seat of power and live as a wanderer in Athelney. The Vikings not only outnumbered him, but were more ruthless and lived for battle. Many of Alfred’s men, while loyal to him, had their farms and families to consider and were by no means a professional fighting force.

Alfred resorted to a a number of tactics to deal with the Vikings, from raising a standing army to reinforcing the defenses of strategic towns to building up a navy that could deal with the dragon-prowed longships. Finally, he extended generous terms to captive Viking chieftains – even persuading one of them to convert to Christianity.

Though I did enjoy the response of another Viking chieftain to what must have seemed like near-constant conversion attempts from Saxons. He received baptism from the bishop of Luna, but later that day, a message was sent to the bishop that the chieftain had died. A huge Viking funeral procession made it way into the cathedral, carrying the corpse on a bier, with clergymen and choristers in attendance. Once inside the cathedral, the dead chieftain came back to life in a hurry and his men proceeded to sack the town.

I believe he ended up being baptized at least three or four times, or until people caught on to the ruse.

There’s also a significant level of research in this book. Merkle does a good job of describing the land, its politics and the battle tactics of that time – especially the shieldwall. If there’s a flaw here, it’s in the depiction of Alfred himself. Merkle’s style is such that I always saw Alfred from a distance, rather than getting up close and personal, being in his mind.

Then again, Alfred is clearly as white as the horse of the title, while the Vikings are just as obviously the black helms of the story. Their paganism, greed, dishonesty, etc. is always contrasted with the Christianized nobility of the Saxons, so of course I couldn’t help liking them a little. Plus, their “blood eagle” method of execution is unforgettable.

So in conclusion, the book was worth reading, though it could have been deeper and more complex. Oh, and the white horse? That’s a giant chalk figure on a hill where Alfred won one of his most significant battles. And perhaps the biblical parallel of the white horse in Revelations inspired it to be chosen for the title as well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Wildest Heart

The second romance novel I read was Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love. Although the book is definitely the product of another time, it had a great deal of influence on the genre and set a Rogers standard for me. From then on, I expected exotic locales, feisty heroines, violent heroes and passionate (if not always consensual) love scenes. So I tried The Wildest Heart as well.

The heroine of this book had an unusual introduction. The book begins in colonial India in 1872, and the book starts with the wives of British officers discussing Rowena Dangerfield, the teenage granddaughter of an earl. Rowena is clearly more interested in reading and “going native” than in being a lady, and I liked that. I’ve read a lot of romances, but I have only come across three where the heroine is described as wearing glasses. This is one of the three.

Unfortunately Rowena’s grandfather dies and she’s forced to leave India to live with her mother and stepfather in England (her parents are divorced). The stepfather rapes her. I found this scene disappointing, because Rowena’s response is to thump him with her fists until she’s “half-swooning with exhaustion”. I would have thought that years of living rough in India would have made her a bit more competent in self-defence.

Rowena learns that her father now owns a ranch in New Mexico and wants her to live there. When she reaches America, though, she finds her father has died and she is now co-owner of the Shannon-Dangerfield ranch.

Her father’s partner, Todd Shannon, takes an instant dislike/lust to her, while his nephew Mark also seems to fall in love with her. Though there’s a blood feud between her father’s part-Apache protégé, Lucas Cord, and the Shannons, and Rowena finds herself embroiled in that. Unfortunately, here’s where the bespectacled bluestocking of the first part of the book gives way to a passive woman pushed around, sometimes literally, by men.

For someone frequently described as intelligent and composed, Rowena makes some surprisingly emotional and foolish decisions. Todd Shannon, despite being old enough to be her father, is determined to marry her, and his way of convincing her is to grab her, call her a bitch, kiss her senseless, etc. Then he’s shot, and as he lies in a pool of blood he asks tells Rowena to marry him.

“Oh, damn you, Shannon! I suppose I’ll have to now!”

I don’t understand this. If Rowena is a woman who flaunts proprieties, if she thinks for herself, why does she need to follow the convention that swearing love to a man as he lies dying is the best way to revive him?

Of course, Shannon isn’t the hero – he is, after all, old enough to be her father. The hero is Lucas Cord, who enters the novel relatively late (on page 172). I was never able to like him, mostly because he’s in an Oedipal relationship with a woman who he believed was his mother, but who had actually adopted him.

“I thought, at first, that she really was my mother. That I was her son. It was natural for me to love her then, and I did without question. And then one day she told me. I was old enough to hear the truth, she said. It must not make any difference to me, or to our relationship, for she loved me even more than she did her own sons.”

I don’t really want to read about a hero who lacks the incest taboo. Such a character can still work, but he’ll need a lot to balance that out, and I couldn’t see much to Lucas Cord beside his universal appeal to women (normal for a Rogers hero) and his relationship with his stepmother. I suppose he and Rowena have that in common, though – they both attract people who are much older than they are.

As for Rowena, she takes whatever little she can get from Lucas, including several days of lovemaking in a tiny cabin shortly after he’s been shot three times. After all the action is over, when she’s expecting his child, he tells her that he needs to be alone but she wants to stay with him.

He had argued with her, tried threatening, even tried picking a quarrel with her.

Threatening a pregnant woman, how romantic.

The style of this novel also lets it down. Most of it is from a first-person point of view – Rowena’s, meaning that she frequently describes herself or comments on her own traits. There are also frequent infodumps, long passages where characters go into detail about their history, families, the ranch, and so on. Finally, the sex scenes are not up to par with Sweet Savage Love; those were detailed (for that time) and scorching hot.

In conclusion, the intriguing potential of the novel’s start – an unconventional heroine in India – gives way to something much less so. This novel is a reprint by Sourcebooks, released November 2009, 736 pages. A long read, and it felt even longer after the beginning.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Slavery in fantasy, part II

Do slaves try to escape?

In the antebellum South, slaves knew that if they could reach northern states, they could be free. This won’t always operate in fantasy worlds, though. There may be nowhere slaves can go, if their homes are destroyed or if there’s simply no method of transportation to a safer place. I’ve read of slaves crossing the Ohio River when it froze in winter; crossing a larger body of water – or other substance – might not be an option.

And there are other ways to force people – mentally or physically – to remain in such a situation. In 1851, a doctor actually diagnosed a mental condition called drapetomania, which made slaves try to run away from their owners. Now, of course, that’s recognized as pseudoscience, but it made me think of psychic coercions that wouldn’t allow slaves to go a certain distance from whatever household they served. They couldn’t escape if they wanted to.

Or such magic could simply remove the knowledge of any other place from their minds. Even if you drew them a map of how to reach freedom, it would vanish from their short-term memories instantly. Their master’s household would be the single familiar island in a great unknown sea.

There are so many possibilities when it comes to twisting someone’s mind, and this can often come off as both subtler and more cruel than simply beating them.

What methods are used to break bonds between slaves?

In Karne, one of the lands in my manuscript Dracolytes, prisoners of war are always split up, dispersed throughout the land and renamed. The removal of one’s cultural and personal identity is a powerful method of control. One of the most vivid moments in The Handmaid's Tale, for me, wasn’t the Ceremony. It was when the protagonist, expecting to meet Ofglen, a woman she knows for their regular shopping trip, sees a stranger instead.

“I am Ofglen,” the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen.

A fantasy could take this even further. If slaves came from different races – some of which might resemble the owners’ species a bit too closely for comfort – perhaps their facial appearances are altered by magic so they all look alike, and strikingly different from their owners. Magic could also take away their memories of families. Or for an even more effective touch, make them believe that their families sold them away.

If slaves have any kind of special abilities, how are these used or controlled?

Innate magical abilities or skills complicate matters. In the world of Nux Varas, in my story Redemption, the Variants all have such skills. So in prison camps, other Variants of other (favored) races are placed in supervisory positions over prisoners. Not only do those other Variants have abilities just as deadly, it’s also a way to ensure that the Variants as a whole aren’t likely to unite.

Magical constraints could also be used to prevent slaves from using any particular abilities – or to ensure that slaves could only employ such abilities when their owners are willing. And the possibilities are endless. Imagine someone taking away some fundamental part of you, like your creativity or imagination and placing it into a small solid form, like a fly in a drop of amber. I wonder how far I might go to periodically get that part of myself back.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do I have a stalker?

I just got a call from Kevin W. Reardon, the writer I mentioned in my last post. He asked me not to make his contact information public, perhaps so that people won't call him at his private residence the way he just called me.

Mr Reardon began by saying that the incident to which I referred was blown out of proportion by a group of friends of the editor who reviewed his story. It took a little time to get him down to a "just the facts" approach - he brought in quite a few irrelevancies - but he eventually did confirm that

1. the editor in question had given his story a dismissive review.
2. he had subsequently suggested the editor jump from his window.

Which was basically the gist of my post. He said he had meant the suicide suggestion sarcastically, but for some reason other people had either taken it seriously or hadn't felt that since it was sarcasm, he had carte blanche to say it.

He did deny that he had made death threats to the editor, so I said I would include that in my follow-up post.

Mr Reardon said he would prefer it if I removed his name from my blog entirely. I said that wouldn't be happening (especially not after he tracked down my phone number and called me at home). It's not as though I singled him out - he's sharing that spot with two, maybe even three, writers who are a great deal more notorious.

I was rather hoping he would suggest I jump from my window, because I live in a basement apartment, but he didn't. So I closed by asking him never to call me again, and that, we shall hope, is that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Five ways not to respond...

…to rejection or reviewers.

1. Suggest that the reviewer kill himself.

In a one-sentence mention of a story by Kevin W. Reardon, an editor said that the story’s weak beginning didn’t work for him.

On his personal LiveJournal account, the editor had divulged that he was feeling depressed. Someone calling himself Cole replied,

You mentioned, in one of your posts, that you live in an apartment with windows. Is it a high floor? If it is, you should go now to the window …take your cat in your arms and jump… You can make this sense of emptiness end. The pain can be over.

Three guesses as to who Cole is?

Apparently “Cole” moved on to making death threats, but poetic justice soon commenced. If you Google the writer’s name, webpages about this debacle take up most of the first page of results. The review did nothing to his career, but his own response (and the subsequent reaction) torpedoed it. As one blogger put it, “This is the only writing you'll ever be remembered for.”

2. Brag about how many publishers want the book.

Not only is this tacky, but a lack of knowledge of the industry can make this technique backfire. Lynn Price at Behler Publications rejected a submission, so the writer replied to let her know how many publishers wanted the manuscript.

Wanted it badly.

So badly that 17 publishers responded in three days. And four of those publishers, despite having received only queries from an unpublished writer, asked that writer not to contact anyone else. Not going to happen, on either count.

The writer ends with a suggestion that the book might go to auction ("Opening bid is PublishAmerica, with $1" -- Marian), plus a dire warning to Lynn.

3. Write a long denunciation on Amazon.

Anne Rice reacted to fans’ dissatisfaction on Amazon with a response that was as succinct as it was modest. And it’s probably not a good idea to say proudly that you now have the “status” of being unedited, but follow it up with the comment,

But I leave it to readers to discover how this complex and intricate novel establishes itself within a unique, if not unrivalled series of book.

4. Tweet the reviewer’s contact information.

Alice Hoffman reacted to a negative review with 27 tweets that referred to the reviewer as an “idiot” and a “moron”, trashed the newspaper that printed the review and even insulted the city in which the newspaper is distributed. I was waiting for the circle to expand even further – the country in which the reviewer holds citizenship, the species to which the reviewer belongs, etc.

That would have been bad enough, but she then posted the reviewer’s phone number and encouraged fans to harass the reviewer.

I didn’t know who Alice Hoffman was before Twittergate. Nearly six months after it, I don’t remember the titles of any of her books… but I recall what she did on Twitter. There is such a thing as bad publicity.

5. Threaten them with witchcraft.

Slander can cause a major lawsuit from the author and the publisher mentioned, because I will make sure they know about this and dear Jane will have nightmares in 10 fold. Yes, I'm Wicca.

At least, I think that’s a warning that the Dark Arts will soon be used in vengeance. It’s difficult to tell with writing of that, er, standard.

The Jane of the quote owns the Dear Author website, which exposed Lanaia Lee’s plagiarism of a book by David Gemmell. Lee’s agent (and I use the term loosely) then posted in defense of her client, and managed to make things even worse with her barely-coherent hints of retribution.

I haven't made an offical threat yet, just words for now.

No doubt she’ll cast a Crucio or two when she finds her wand.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Slavery in fantasy

Slavery can be a very interesting starting point for a story, mostly because it has so many different permutations.

This article describes various forms of slavery – in other words, concepts other than the usual “chattel slavery” that first came to mind for me. Slavery doesn’t have to be something out of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic – it can take different forms.

There can also be different customs involving slavery. When I first read Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome, I was surprised to learn that there was actually a day in the Roman calendar when slaves could pretend to show disrespect to their masters, or have a banquet with the masters waiting on them. A few other thoughts, prompted by the article…

How are slaves distinguished from free people?

In the antebellum South, that was easy : slaves had dark skin. What about in fantasy worlds, though?

Appearance still works. I have an idea for a future novel where the slaves are humans and the masters are sentient wolves. In Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Slave and The Free, the slaves are all female and the masters are male. Not only is this an easy method of differentiation, it ensures there’s no chance of the one passing as the other, which lighter-skinned people might have done in the South.

If slaves look the same as masters, they can still be set apart by having their appearance permanently altered – through tattoos or branding, for instance. In Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, a character shows an unbreakable ring that has been inserted into her ankle so that it encircles the Achilles tendon. The only way for her to remove the ring is to cut the tendon – and be lame. And children conceived through the “sexact”, in George Lucas’s THX 1138, are branded with an S on their faces.

Are slaves happy with their lot?

This can be a hot-button issue. The article I read advised writers not to make slaves happy to serve their masters, but I think that depends.

One criticism of Gone with the Wind is that the O’Hara slaves seem to want nothing more than to work for and look after their masters. There’s even a scene where Scarlett meets one of their (former) slaves, who tells her that he’s had enough of freedom and is not comfortable with Northern people expecting him to sit at the same table with them. When she tells him what to do and where to go, he’s relieved.

Is that offensive? Yes. Does it show Mitchell’s idealization of the South’s customs? Yes. Does it reflect a prevailing attitude in the 1930’s, rather than a politically correct modern-day view? Yes.

But what I’m most curious about is whether it’s inaccurate regarding slaves. Would some of them have been content to take orders and do what they were told, rather than seeking freedom?

I think the answer is yes too, though for different reasons. Slaves in ancient Rome, for instance, would have been treated relatively well; they would be attached to the household they served and would have no reason to escape. Even in the Deep South, there would have been some slaves who felt their lot in life was not so bad.

In Roots, Bell is afraid of the consequences of running away and being caught, but she is also in a position of some authority compared to other slaves. As the master’s cook, she not only has access to better food and living conditions, she can subtly influence the master. As a result, she’s much more content than some of the “field hands”. The weeping slaves around Eva’s bedside in Uncle Tom's Cabin comes off as over-the-top to me, but certain slaves accepting their position in life isn’t unrealistic, especially if they genuinely believe that this is where they are supposed to be.

They could feel their slavery was God-ordained, or they could have a Panglossian view that “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.

More on this topic later…

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stock images and cover art

Many book covers these days incorporate stock images. Some cover art departments use such photos but add different elements to make the cover as creative (and easy to read) as possible.

Some of them... don't.

Good use of stock image

Here's the original photo.

And here's what the publisher, Hyperion, did with it.

This took second place in the Contemporary category of an annual contest of romance novel covers (I remember because I voted for it).

Now, what's the worst that could happen with stock images?

Poor use of stock image

Yes, that's right. The same photograph was used for three different books (by three different authors, none of whom I'll bet are aware of this). Minimal changes, and a couple of the titles are partly obscured by the clouds. It's courtesy of the infamous PublishAmerica... and by no means the only cover PA reused again and again and again.

Some stock images are non-exclusive, so elements from one book cover may be present in another's. But each cover should have something to set it apart as well - and not just the minimal effort of adding the title and author's name to a photograph.

Even if the writer is happy with that, imagine such a book next to all the others in a bookstore. Is it eye-catching, in a good way? Does it pass the ten foot test? If it's going to be the first in a trilogy, will it share certain aspects with the sequels - for instance, having the same border to show that they're in the same series? (And that's just the little I've picked up about cover art from people who know far more.)

Books are still judged by their covers, just as prospective employees are judged by their appearances. And such first impressions matter.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cooking in fantasy worlds

When I was a kid in Sri Lanka, my grandmother used to cook on a fireplace made of three bricks.

The fireplace was at waist level, on a stone slab, and I would look up to see soot stains on the walls. The kitchen was dim apart from a ray of sunlight that would slant down at an angle over the fireplace, and in that light the smoke was visible, thick as cotton wads. Under the stone slab my grandmother kept fuel, such as broken coconut shells. And close at hand was a glass jar half full of crushed sea salt and water (the equivalent of a salt shaker).

She eventually upgraded to a real stove, and the gap in the roof that let in the sunbeam was filled in. I didn’t mind the real stove, but I missed the sunbeam. Remembering that made me think of cooking in fantasy novels, so I wrote a little about that.


Cooking food the old-fashioned way takes time – time to either hunt or gather the food, prepare it, obtain fuel, build up a fire and cook the food. Even if some of those steps can be eliminated – for instance, carrying dried meat or lighting a fire with magic – food preparation is a long and possibly laborious process.

As a result, characters on the run aren’t likely to have a hot, satisfying meal (partly because a fire might also give away their position). One reason the Fellowship of the Ring may have valued no-cook lembas. In the absence of such food, though, the characters may resort to incomplete cooking – or none at all – which leads to the problem of


Are the characters aware that meat needs to be thoroughly cooked to ensure it’s safe to eat? I once read a novel, People of the Lakes, where the heroine, forced to cook a meal for her captors, deliberately included a segment of tripe in which she had seen part of a tapeworm. Yet another heroine (in a different book) poisoned a gang of rapists with jimsonweed.

In some societies, food may also be eaten raw – which is safe when the meat isn’t contaminated, but extremely dangerous when it is. Arno Karlen’s Man and Microbes tells of a village in the Philippines where people ate what was called “jumping salad” – live shrimp seasoned with vinegar, garlic and chili peppers. People used the rivers and lagoons as laundries and latrines as well, though. You can probably guess what happened next.

Availability of food

This will depend on the terrain, the climate and the time of the year. And in a poor society, there just won’t be much variety food-wise. It’s not fun to have the heroes eating salt beef for the third night in a row, but they may not have a lot of choice in this regard.

And even if food is available year-round (e.g. dried or long-lasting), it may not necessarily be in such a condition that the characters can dive in right away. Rice and flour, for instance, may need sifting to remove small stones, husks, insects, etc.

Methods of food preparation

My grandmother used to crush spices with a stone cylinder (like a rolling pin) rolled across a small oblong of stone. She made coconut sambol this way, and said that that method brought out the flavors much better than simply mixing by hand.

Likewise, a fantasy world could have very different ways of preparing food. In Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, the reptilian Yilane don’t use fire, so they mix meat with enzymes to soften it. As well as predigestion, food can be baked in pits, roasted in hot sand, steamed within bamboo cylinders, and so on. A good source of such ideas is Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which describes really old-fashioned cooking in great detail.

Another novel along these lines is Bettina Krahn’s The Marriage Test, where the heroine is a skilled cook who ends up working for a baron. The author has done her research on mouthwatering medieval recipes, and it shows in the book.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Characters with mental disabilities

I’ve been thinking about characters with mental disabilities. They’re underused in fantasy, which is probably for the best in some of the sub-genres. Medieval worlds are not among the most enlightened places, and people with disabilities are likely to have been marginalized, either kept on the outskirts of society or in the attic, literally. And in the darker and grittier playgrounds of fantasy, they probably wouldn’t last long.

On the other hand, this means stories with such characters would stand out from the crowd. And they might certainly be foils to the often overpowered heroes and heroines of fantasy. So here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

The cuteness factor

This is where the person with a mental disability is either sweet or childishly funny or both, with no real characterization beyond that. Not to say that this can’t be done well. Thomas, the younger brother of the heroine in Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place, is on the cute side of the spectrum, though at worst such a character might come off like the hostage in Gigli than like Forrest Gump.

I’d like to see such characters depicted with serious negative traits, though that can be a tricky prospect. It’s one thing to give an ordinary person a fatal flaw. It’s another to do this to a character with autism; you run the risk of readers connecting the two and believing that this does autistic people no favors.

Mental disability = secret power

A lot of stories have characters with physical handicaps who discover that they have hidden abilities or knowledge. It’s a perennial favorite of readers – it balances the scales in what can be an unfair world and can produce wonderful characters as well. I haven’t come across as many mentally disabled characters with secret powers, though Koontz has written a few.

The only thing I’d be careful about is giving a mostly flawless character a special ability on top of everything else. It worked in The Bad Place because Thomas’s use of his ability made the antagonist aware of him and his whereabouts. And no matter what Thomas could do, the antagonist was far more powerful.

Be aware of the realities

Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is told from the first-person perspective of a boy with severe Asperger’s syndrome, but the book has also come under a lot of criticism. Partly because the main character’s Asperger’s syndrome is so extreme (possibly exaggerated for effect) that he comes off as an autistic-savant instead.

Still, people who speak or behave in ways that are extremely out of the mainstream are likely to be ostracised in some way by society. The same thing applies to characters with mental disabilities.

Surprising readers

Because readers expect certain things and certain roles from those with mental disabilities, they can be used in surprising ways.

One of my favorite romances is Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess. The heroine has to deal with a love triangle while Jesse, a man with mild mental retardation, helps her manage her farm. Her two determined suitors are good men in their own ways… but the one who’s right for her is Jesse.

Likewise, two of Agatha Christie’s many murderers are a seriously disturbed child and a senile old man, neither of whom I would ever have suspected. Of course, once the detective explained everything, it was clear that the evidence pointed to them – but because of their ages and mental states, they pass neatly under the readers’ radar.