Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Gender bias in fantasy characters

A couple of months ago, I highlighted a list of “the best fantasy series”. As always, such lists are personal opinions. However, a writer friend from the SFF Online Writers Workshop, Kathryn Jankowski, wrote a comment on how ” very male-protagonist oriented” the list was and offered another list to balance this.

I have to be honest here that I had not noticed how skewed the original list was when I wrote the post (but then I am an elderly while male which does not excuse me but perhaps explains the omission!). However, it set me thinking and I have kept my eye open for more on this topic.

I have just come across a blog post that explores this bias by Freda Warrington, an excellent British fantasy writer I have admired since I read her first novel, “A Blackbird in Silver” in the mid-’80s.

If you are interested in this topic, check out the rest of Sarah Ash’s blog on Women Who Write Excellent SFF under the heading of Nobody Knew She Was There.

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Which are the best fantasy series?

My daughter, Holly, who is a fellow fantasy fan, has just pointed me at Paste Magazine‘s list of “The 30 Best Fantasy Book Series of All Time”.

I am currently reading Holly’s Christmas present to me: Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy. I am on the final book and thoroughly enjoying the characterisation and each PoV’s distinctive “voice” so am pleased to see this is deservedly on the list. If you have not read it yet – it is strongly recommended.

Looking at the rest of the list, it is good to see Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea cycle” on there, as well as Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonriders of Pern” (long a personal favourite) and Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” (which I discovered and enjoyed last year) alongside the expected entries such as LOTR, Harry Potter and Discworld.

I am more ambiguous about George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” now. I really enjoyed the first three books but by the fifth never found the energy to finish it as it seemed too sprawling and, by leaving out half the parallel story lines, I missed some of the more interesting characters.

There were some series I would not have included (such as “Narnia” and “Thomas Covenant” in particular) but these lists are always about personal choices and not everyone’s taste is the same.

The really good thing about such a list is that it also showed a number of series I have thought about reading but have yet to delve into (Stephen King’s “Dark Tower”, Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn”, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”) and it is difficult to decide where to start!

Then there are those I have no sense of yet… “The Gentleman Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch caught my eye, as did “The Kingkiller Chronicle” by Patrick Rothfuss, “Malazan Book of the Fallen” by Steven Erikson and “The Night Angel Trilogy” by Brent Weeks.

Then there’s a decision as to whether I try yet another Arthurian cycle with Stephen R. Lawhead’s “The Pendragon Cycle”. I really enjoyed Arthurian works when I was much younger but felt I had overdosed on them and have not sought them out for many a year yet this series gets a good recommendation.

Help! Any advice on priorities? Any opinions on what you think are best?

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Emotional truths in the history-based novel’s characters

This article on the challenges of writing a historical novel that has characters true to their time caught my eye. While it is not directly SF or fantasy related, it has some useful insights in developing characters that reflect the culture and society in which they live. This not only applies to historical fiction but also fantasy and SF set in thee past but also is relevant whenever the story is set, be it present day, near or distant future, on Earth or out in space.

Emotional Truths and Historical Lies in the Shadow of the Great War

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Review: “Self-editing for Fiction Writers”

Late last year I made the decision to undertake a proper edit of my first novel, “Rose In Winter”, which has waited in the twilight zone between second or third draft for over a year. To help me tackle this, my family gave me two books on editing for Christmas. The first, reviewed here, is “Self-editing for Fiction Writers – How to edit yourself into print” by Renni Browne and Dave King, both professional editors.

I think it is fair to say I have learnt something useful from each chapter. These are:

    Show and Tell
    Characterisation and Exposition
    Point of View
    Dialogue Mechanics
    See How it Sounds
    Interior Monologue
    Easy Beats
    Breaking Up is Easy to Do
    Once is Usually Enough

As someone who has struggled with writing natural sounding dialogue and with finding the unique voice for the different characters, I suspect those two sections will be the most useful but the tips and all the chapter summaries have proved their value already.

Strongly recommended if you are having problems with editing!

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Novel series – what works? what doesn’t?

For relaxation, as well as fantasy and SF, I tend to devour thrillers and crime novels.  It is always a joy to stumble onto a new series and explore the world the author created for the characters over a period of time.

Recently, some series that worked for me include Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium / Dragon Tattoo” trilogy and Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series about PI Bernie Gunther and which are set in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany.  Series that haven’t worked so well for me include Jo Nesbro’s “Harry Hole” novels and Karen Rose’s “romantic thrillers” (a new sub-genre for me!).

That is not to say I disliked the latter two series nor imply I could not read them, I just found them less satisfying, particularly over a number of novels.  This started me wondering about what worked and what didn’t when an author is producing a series of novels.

Nesbro’s work suffers from the publisher’s blurb calling him the “new Larsson”.  He is not – apart from being a Scandinavian author.  His characters and setting have more in common with, say, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, police investigation of crime, rather than Larrson’s journalist-focused thrillers.  Unfortunately, with Nesbro’s world the part that really bugged me is Harry Hole, his main character.  A near-alcoholic who keeps relapsing after being on the wagon for half a novel, Hole is intensely frustrating to follow – I feel like screaming at him to “get a grip”.

I have  a different problem with Karen Rose’s novels.  Her novels do have a number of strengths. Beyond the common-or-garden serial killers that are the antagonists in the early novels, she tackles difficult subjects, such as the aftermath of gang rape, child abuse, white-slavery and under-age prostitution from the point of view (PoV) of the victims.  These are, I feel, handled well, and make her stories interesting and not run-of-the-mill.  She works effectively in Greg Iles territory. She brings in new characters to provide PoV in each novel but characters from earlier in the series pop back up and one finds out what happens to them after their (always traumatic) experiences that were the focus of a prior novel.

The problem for me is in the structure and predictability of her novels.  She has a template: there is a “hero” and a “heroine” who provide most of the PoV narrative, there is a “bad guy” who crosses their path and makes life hell until the final scene.  Just when they seem to have resolved their problems, one of other of the hero / heroine will be trapped by the bad guy.  The other heroine / hero will save them.

Rose’s novels are categorised as “romantic thrillers” so the other predictable part is both hero and heroine are singletons, doubt they can find the “love of their life” and find the chemistry of their contact with the other setting off all the bells – but there is always misunderstanding and misinterpretation seen through both PoVs so “the course of true love is never smooth”. Hmmm! The sex scenes between hero and heroine tend to be “same-y” and boring so can be skimmed to get to the next plot twist.

In different ways, both Nesbro’s and Rose’s writing is formulaic. In neither does it feel like the main characters are developing a real human beings.  The strength of both Larsson’s and Kerr’s work is in the characterisation.  Supporting this is the believability of the world they construct for these characters to interact in.  Sex, when it occurs, is appropriate to the stage the story is at and is not boring either. The characters change, neither being as frustrating as Nesbro’s Hole nor as cardboard as Rose’s, who are interchangeable between novels.