The OF Blog: 2004

Thursday, December 30, 2004

One Admin's Choices for the 2005 Awards

Jake and I decided months ago when we were planning for the 2005 OF Awards that we would do two broad categories, one for the readers and one for the two OF mods that have run the OF Book Club during 2004. We thought it would be better to utilize the OF Blog for this, so our comments do not detract from the votes of the readers, which will be revealed on January 3rd. So without further ado, here are my Top 3 for most of the categories involved in the reader's part of the 2005 OF Awards. Jake hopefully will add his later.

Best Book Released in 2004:

This was a particular tough category for me, having read dozens of wonderful books released in the United States or aboard this year. But after spending a lot of time debating my picks and their order, this final order emerged. And as you'll notice, there is a tie in the third position, because I just couldn't decide which of the two I preferred most.

1. R. Scott Bakker, The Warrior-Prophet. Oftentimes, the middle book in a trilogy tends to have little life independent of what comes before (pun intended) and the concluding volume. However, I found during my reading of this book that it had a life of its own. Chronicling the happenings of a march into Holy War in the land of Earwa, The Warrior-Prophet came alive for me due to Bakker's skillful blending of action and introspection. One gets the sense that they are reading not just an exciting chronicle of a past event, but also a vivid account of the players involved. If Bakker's upcoming book, The Thousandfold Thought (due out in October 2005 in Canada), can maintain the energy and pathos present in this book, then he will have written one of the finest epic fantasy stories in recent years.

2. Gene Wolfe, Innocents Aboard. Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors, regardless of genre classification. The year 2004 saw the release of two books of his, one a collection of stories, the other the second half of a high fantasy. While loving both, I chose the collection because it highlights Wolfe's range as a writer much more than did The Wizard. Of particular note is the opening story, "The Tree is My Hat," which is a story that wears many hats of its own, including an introspective reflection on the struggles of life. It illustrates well Wolfe's sometimes frustrating talent for writing multilayered, multifaceted tales that provoke and taunt us with the hint of something lurking ever further under the surface of the story.

3. Steven Erikson, Midnight Tides. Book five of the acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen series very well may be the book that reveals to the casual readers Erikson's abilities as a writer. Containing both comic and tragic, serious sides in near-equal measures, Midnight Tides is in turns a flashback to events before those of the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and a look forward toward plot developments that should come to fruition starting with the next book, The Bonehunters, due to be released in the UK and Canada in July 2005.

3. (tie) Carlos Fuentes, Inquieta Compañía. This new collection of stories by famed Mexican author Carlos Fuentes have such a style of presence to them. From vampires to ghosts to angels, Fuentes's stories are populated by creatures common to Western imaginative myth. Yet it is how Fuentes orders these elements, how he can bend them to fit a flowing style that is beautiful to read as well as thought-provoking for hours after the stories are first read.

Best Books Read in 2004 but Released in Prior Years:

Again, this was a difficult category for me to order the books I've enjoyed most. In fact, I've changed my mind yet once again as I'm writing this very sentence. So for the most current Top 3, read below:

1. Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial. Some of the best speculative fiction is not being written in English-speaking countries, but instead in places such as Argentina, where that nation's rich cultural past has often clashed with the intermittent authoritarian regimes (Peron, the military junta of the mid-1970s). These shock waves seem to have spurred some excellent fiction, from Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares to Angélica Gorodischer.

In Kalpa Imperial (translated into English by none other than Ursula Le Guin herself), Gorodischer creates a fictitious empire and history. Throughout this beautifully written tale are subtle commentaries on how governments and citizens should interact, how people should govern their own lives. It is as if she wanted to turn a mirror (to steal a memorable description from Stendahl's The Red and the Black) on Argentine society (and by association, Western society) to reveal the beauties and warts of such a society. Whatever her intentions, Kalpa Imperial is a classic in the field, one that should be read by readers of all ages and nationalities.

1. (tie) Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph. Borges not only is one of my favorite authors, he also has been very influential with other writers that I've enjoyed, such as Gene Wolfe and Jeff VanderMeer, just to name two. Although his earlier collection, Ficciónes, receives the lion's share of attention from literary critics, I decided to stick with books I read for the first time in 2004 here. As such, choosing El Aleph is not a bad second choice. In fact, in many of its stories, in particular "The Immortals," are the equal of, if not superior to, those from Ficciónes. This collection is full of thought-provoking, reflective stories whose very simplicity belies a deep and shrewd understanding of the world around.

3. Matt Stover, Blade of Tyshalle. Stover has written some of the bloodiest, most profane fantasy/SF-hybrid books I've ever read. But entwined with this is a story that is in turns simple in its clarity and execution and complex in its characterization. This second Caine/Overland novel improves upon its predecessor's shades of gray approach toward the main character, Hari/Caine. In this tale, even the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good, if such terms can even be applicable. As the story progressed, Stover had me questioning just why I was rooting for one side and not the other. That is a hallmark of a story well worth reading, again and again.

Worst Book Released in 2004:

In choosing these books, I must add a caveat here. The books chosen are not necessarily horribly-written works (although some were), but that in relation to the other books I read in 2004, these were the ones that appealed to me the least. With that in mind, here are my choices for the worst books published in 2004.

1. David Gemmell, Ironhand's Daughter. This book, which just had its US release earlier this month, just was not a book I could enjoy. Clichéd situations, cardboard characterizations, same-old tired plot developments - all this just combined to create a book that annoyed me to no end. Easy choice here.

2. China Miéville, Iron Council. Some might wonder how I, a fan of Miéville's other works, could include his latest offering here. It's not that I found this book to be the worst pile of literary shit ever written. But sometimes, when a reader expects to see continued authorial development and the overall structure of the novel seems to be Miéville's weakest of any of his Bas-Lag novels, there is no choice but to include the book here, if only for biggest disappointment. Sadly, there was so much promise in Iron Council, but the scenes just didn't connect well, which has been the downfall of many a gifted author over the years.

3. F. Brett Cox & Andy Duncan (ed.), Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic. Again, this book is listed not because it was horribly written/told per se, but more because the supposed overall theme, that of a connection between the traditions and values of the South with those of the fantastic just failed to materialize in a cohesive fashion. So while many of the individual stories were great, the book as a whole just failed to deliver on its promise of uniquely Southern spins on the literary fantastic.

Worst Book Read in 2004 but Released in Prior Years:

As I stated above, I really did not read much in terms of speculative fiction that was outright bad, so many of my choices here will be based upon how my expectations were not met rather than upon the overall crappiness of the books listed below.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars. Yuck. What a way to ruin a great start to a trilogy. Very off-focus, with uninteresting characters, and with developments that detract from what had transpired before rather than building upon and enhancing them. Easy choice for my worst read of 2004.

2. Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium. As I said months ago when I read this book, I just found this book to be too transparent for my tastes. Too much like Justinian's reign as Eastern Roman Emperor and not enough departure from this theme. Just could not enjoy this story.

3. Kay, Lord of Emperors. Seeing that this sequel to Sailing to Sarantium did not improve upon the weak points of that earlier novel, I decided that I would just include it here in the third spot.

Best SF/F/H Movie of 2004:

I didn't watch any spec fic movies in 2004 (I tend to avoid watching movies and television as a general rule of thumb), so no nominees here.

Best New Author of 2004:

These are the authors who have published their first books within the past three years that I read for the first time in 2004.

1. R. Scott Bakker. I found Bakker's writing style to be very good and he showed improvement in his second book, The Warrior-Prophet. His intertwining of philosophical issues within a world riven to the point of a Holy War was done very well and made for a compelling read. Certainly one of my favorite authors now.

2. Susanna Clarke. Sometimes, despite the hype, a book and its author can produce an enjoyable work. This was certainly the case with Susanna Clarke's first novel, the well-publicized Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Combining elements from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope with modern sensibilities, this huge novel made for a very pleasant read.

3. Karin Lowachee. This young Canadian author has written in her first two novels, Warchild and Burndive, stories that will remind readers favorably of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game for its subject material, although Lowachee adds much in the way of child psychological issues.

Most Underrated Book of 2004:

These are the books that I felt should have received more attention than what they did. High quality stuff from the smaller presses.

1. Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle. This offering by Small Beer Press deals with a man who sees dead people. He talks with them, yet is perfectly normal, or at least as normal as the situation can permit. It is a tale of a father wanting to spend time with his daughter after his divorce. It is a search for meaning and purpose in a life and town seemingly devoid of both. It is one of the best crossgenre books I've read in quite some time. A real shame that this book hasn't received the press that it so richly deserves.

2. Zoran Zivkovic, The Fourth Circle. This is the first English-language edition of Serbian author Zivkovic's works. It is also the finer of the two that I've read. In turns surrealistic, imaginative, and evocative of both Borges and Calvino, this "mystery" story is certainly worth greater readership. Available from Ministry of Whimsy Press, an imprint of Night Shade Books.

3. Jeff VanderMeer, Secret Life. VanderMeer's first collection of stories, some set in the Ambergris world of City of Saints and Madmen, others set in the Veniss Underground world, plumbs the depths of VanderMeer's imagination. This collection will serve as an excellent introduction to his style and to the imaginative worlds he's created. Secret Life is published by Golden Gryphon.

Most Fan Friendly Author:

Before partisans of other authors protest, this is based on what I've seen these authors do. I realize that there are a great many authors that interact daily with their fans and provide all sorts of useful bits of information gratis, but in the end, here are the three that I chose.

1. R. Scott Bakker. He's one of two authors that I met this year and his willingness to work with OF in providing me a review copy of The Warrior-Prophet, conducting an interview and later Q&A session, not to mention his personalized book contest held at OF, these all just underscored his desire to go the extra mile to get to know the people here.

2. Robert Salvatore. Amazing how a simple misunderstanding can turn a negative into a positive. Back in June, there was a comment in passing on another site about the Author Quickpoll Series that we had held, which I felt was unfair. This led to an open post and a response from Salvatore. From there, I gained a greater respect for the author as a person. His interview (conducted by Mike) was one of the lengthiest and most honest responses an author has given us. It is for these reasons and his overall interaction with his fans that Salvatore is included here.

3. Steven Erikson. He's done the Q&A/Interview bit with us in the past, he updates his fans regularly on the Malazan board, and he continues to write interesting books at a rapid clip. What else can one want from an author?

(tie) Neil Gaiman. Just reading his Blog is enough to put him on this list. Very devoted fanbase and his overall geniality helps matters greatly. Just seems like a guy one would want to have a drink with, whenever.

Best SFF Website (non-wotmania):

Not going to provide explanations for these choices, other than to say that I've enjoyed my time as a poster at these sites. Highly recommend others visit these sites and judge for yourselves.

1. Gaiman Board/World's End
2. Three Seas
3. SFF World
(tie) Dead Cities

Best New Series (established author):

I didn't read too many new series this year, but here are my two favorites:

1. Gene Wolfe, The Wizard-Knight. This duology, just completed, contains some of the most beautiful prose of any fantasy work released in the past two decades. Plus it contains some of Wolfe's characteristic authorial sleights-of-hand. A highly recommended book for lovers of high fantasy.

2. Dan Simmons, Ilium/Olympos. Ilium is the first of a projected duology that will end with Olympos in the summer of 2005. A tale based on interpretations of Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Proust's writings, this duology has the potential to be even better than Simmons's Hyperion Cantos.

Best New Series (new author):

Because the series listed below are by the same authors included in Best New Author category, I'm just going to list them here, noting however that I switched the order of two based on the number of works presently available.

1. R. Scott Bakker, The Prince of Nothing
2. Karin Lowachee (series of novels starting with Warchild)
3. Susanna Clarke, (trilogy begun with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)

Most Improved Author:

These are the authors that I wasn't impressed with as much at the beginning, yet by the second book of theirs that I read, I enjoyed them much more. Not limited to books read in 2004.

1. Steven Erikson
2. Neal Stephenson
3. Stephen Donaldson

Best Genre Magazine:

These are the magazines that I enjoyed reading the most.

1. Postscripts (UK)
2. Locus
3. The Third Alternative (UK)

Best Genre Publisher:

These are the publishers that I believe put out the highest percentage of high-quality speculative fiction today:

1. Small Beer Press
2. Night Shade
3. Prime

Most Anticipated Release of 2005:

These are the books I want to buy the most. Once they are available on an Amazon service, to the Pre-order page they go!

1. Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought
2. Erikson, The Bonehunters
3. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Favorite Character:

Although I probably could devote a page or more each toward explaining why each of these three are in my Top 3 list, for brevity's sake, I'm just going to limit myself to just listing them in preferential order.

1. Cnaiür
2. Itkovian
(tie) Aldarion

I guess I should note here that I thought it would be best that I didn't try to chose among the community-oriented aspects of this awards group. Too many deserving people to choose a top three, much less a top person. Thanks again to all who've participated in this year's awards nominations and voting. Hopefully, the results, when posted at OF on January 3rd, will be interesting and maybe even pleasantly surprising to all.

Have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Zoran Živković Interview

Thanks again to her for doing this for me. Zoran Zivkovic is a Serbian author of books such as The Fourth Circle and the Book/the Writer that have recently been translated into English. I consider him to be one of the better writers out there today and hopefully this interview Lotesse conducted will help convince others here to read his works.

Q. Who would you say are some of the writers that influenced you the most? After reading the Book/the Writer, I couldn't help but think of Jorge Luis Borges and his Library, so I'm just curious.

A. I would say that Luis Borges' influence is more evident in another book of mine—The Library. Many authors contributed, one way or another, in forming me as a writer. Sometimes it's rather hard, even for myself, to identify various influences, although there are many intertextual references in my fiction. I believe my entire reading experience is contained in it. Everything I have ever read, although may seem partly forgotten on the conscious level, is always very vivid and active in my subconscious—and that's where all my fiction comes from. So, I am not going to pick out specific authors and say that they influenced me the most. All of them were equally important and I am equally grateful to all of them.

Q. I read where you used to be an academic that focused on science fiction. What would you say are some of the differences between being one who reviews what others have written and writing fiction yourself, in terms of focus and preparation?

A. Although reviewing is also a responsible and creative job (or it should be, ideally), it's less demanding and ambitious than the actual literary creation. It is one thing to interpret a world and another to create it...

Q. Why speculative fiction? What made you choose to focus on that rather than some other literary field?

A. Why do you think I am a speculative fiction writer? Besides, what is "speculative fiction," after all? No, I consider myself a writer without any prefixes, because they can be either limiting or misleading. I like to define myself as "a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose writing." Nothing more, nothing less.

Q. Your books have begun recently appearing in English translation. What are some of the differences you've noticed between American publishers and editors compared to ones in Serbia?

A. There are practically no differences. Since you have read my novel The Book, you had a chance to see how difficult their lives could be...

Q. Any chance of you revisiting the characters that appear in The Fourth Circle?

A. You mean to write a sequel? Something like The Daughter of the Fourth Circle? Or, maybe, The Fifth Circle? That isn't going to happen, most definitely. The covers of my novel are firmly closed, not to be opened again. Besides, what else could I say? That story is fully told.

Q. You've done some work with Fantastic Metropolis, among others. How important do you believe online magazines such as FM and other fansites will become on the speculative fiction publishing industry?

A. Independent fansites are tremendously important in reintroducing democracy in a world dominated by the publishing industry. They are here to show that there are other values in fantasy writing beside being just another way of making profit.

Q. How do you approach writing a story? Do you have a particular ending in mind, or do you begin with an idea and just write from there? Or is it a combination?

A. I suggest you read my afterword to the limited US edition of The Fourth Circle (Night Shade Books, 2004). I have extensively explained there how I write.

Q. The Fourth Circle and the Book/the Writer are already available in the United States. When can we expect more English translations of your stories?

A. My first book to appear in English translation was Time Gifts (2000). In 2005 two more books of mine will appear in English: Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive Press) and Impossible Stories—a "mega" collection comprising my five story-suits: Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, The Library and Steps through the Mist: a total of 29 stories. The new UK magazine "Postscripts" just brought out, in issue #2, my recent novelette Compartments, while my latest book, Four Stories till the End, will be serialized also in "Postscripts" (#4–#7). So, by the end of 2005 all my fiction will be available in English.

Q. What trends have you noticed developing in speculative fiction recently, both in Europe and the Americas?

A. There are currently many excellent young and relatively young authors who are forming the prevailing trend in the world speculative fiction (however you define it). Let me name just a few of them: Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, K.J. Bishop, Paul di Filippo, China Miéville. They are the future classics of the art of fantasy writing.

Q. What do you feel is the most powerful scene you have written? Why?

A. I have no right to answer that question. As an author, I have to be totally impartial.

Q. How would you entice people who haven't read you to do so?

A. I never entice people to read my fiction. That wouldn't be fair. I rather let them discover my humble self by chance.

Q. Did the work of translating fantasy/SF authors to Serbian language influence your writing?

A. Yes. My many years invested into translating eventually paid off as a time of learning from masters how to write.

Q. Are you somehow related to Dobroslav Bob Zivkovic?

A. No.

Q. Over the years, you were editing the SF section of 'Politikin Zabavnik'. Combined with the illustrations of Bob Zivkovic, those stories were responsible in developing my love towards fantasy. What did that work mean to you?

A. If the small seeds I planted through "Politikin Zabavnik" eventually bore some fruits, then I am the happiest man in the world.

Q. When can we expect your next book?

A. I just completed Four Stories till the End. I most definitely need some break. Remember, I am already 56...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Time for the 2005 OF Awards process to begin

It's been too long since I last updated this, so apologies in advance to those who've been wondering if I had fallen off the face of the earth. Working 50-60+ hours a week at my job combined with an impending return to college on a part-time basis has left me with little free time to read speculative fiction, much less review and discuss it.

But now that the holiday season is here, it is time again to begin the process of selecting finalists for the 2005 OF Awards. Started in 2002 as a means of allowing the regulars and visitors to Other Fantasy to weigh in with the books, authors, movies, and characters that they have enjoyed most, the OF Awards expanded even more in 2003, this time including the Admins' Choices for the Best of 2002-2003. In January 2004, we decided to narrow the focus somewhat, as well as to move the Awards forward to the beginning of the year, so we could reflect as much on the year that was as much as anything else. We also added a Community section for the first time, because it's the activities and connections that members of our website (and this is undoubtedly true for other sites as well, at least for the ones where I've visited/posted at over the past two years) that have played the most important role in the dissemination of some really good speculative fiction over the past few years.

It is with that spirit of fellowship that we once again begin the process for selecting the Best of 2004. Now "best" in this situation refers to not just the books that the OF community enjoyed the most, but also to the moments of the past year that have been special. It is an unfortunate thing that the major awards today really don't have awards for those "little things" that authors have done for their fans, at least on a year-to-year basis (Lifetime Achievement being barely adequate to cover what these authors mean to their fans). Hopefully this site's nomination process at least will provide food for thought for those readers outside the immediate OF community to consider just what merits commendation (and the occasional condemnation) for what has transpired this past year in speculative fiction.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Third Anniversary Blues

So OF turned three today. Posted a bit about it here. Amazing how far things have come in the time since then. Sadly, all things must change when they don't just end. After writing the post and reading some of the comments, I guess I better clarify a bit what I was trying to say there.

Almost since the very beginning, whether it was by design or accident, I somehow ended up being the de facto "leader" of OF. I was the annoying pest who begged for new features and cajoled others into discussing books or recommending excellent obscure works for others. It was a give-and-take situation and for a while, things flourished.

Then things expanded and I just found myself having to spend more and more time doing the not-so-fun work just to keep up a semblence of continual expansion of features and discussion. Something finally had to give and I really believe part of my recent health problems (the hypertension) is due to the stress I was under to oversee all aspects of OF during the few hours off from my two paying jobs.

When I took a couple weeks off to just rest from the tedium of searching the websites for news, articles, and other various "serious" stuff, I realized that I just didn't want to go back to doing all that. Even though I enjoyed interacting with people, I just was becoming more and more frustrated by the thought that too many were just content to sit back and let others, such as myself and Jake, do virtually all the work. I hated that feeling. No, resented would be a better word for that emotion. So I've struggled the past few days trying to decide what my future was going to be.

Since I'm heading back to school next year, at first part-time to renew my TN teaching license and later to earn a MS in Social Work/Counseling, it became crystal clear to me: just withdraw to the shadows. Oh, I'm not leaving completely or anything, but after I complete a few committments I've already made for November, I just plan on doing only a minimal supervisory role at OF. I'll probably just restrict myself to writing more regular Blog entries and maybe the occasional post, but I doubt I'll want to lead any more Book Club discussions or do the other minutiae.

Although I already aluded to this in the linked post, I realized afterwards that a more appropriate place for discussing this would be here rather than in a thread that ostensibly should be devoted to celebrating OF's past, present, and possible future. Sorry that I might have ruined the celebratory impulse there, but c'est la vie, yes?

And for those are reading this, again I just want to say thanks for opportunities I've had to get to know you all better, whether it be OF regulars, other wotmania members, or those reading this blog who know me from other sites. I really have appreciated the exchanges and have learned a lot in the process. Hopefully, the future will continue to bring more interaction and a greater understanding. So again, thanks for all the fish.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Janny Wurts Interview

Thanks again to Ryan of Andor for conducting this. Excellent work.

Dear Ryan -

Here are (belatedly!!!) the answers to your interview. My deepest apologies it has taken so long for my response.

Q: Was their any major influences in your choice of a career as a writer?

My desire to express myself in the widest possible sense - toexplore my own dreams and visions, is the primary driver to my choice to tell stories and paint. I literally read the library as a child - every sort of fiction and author, in all ranges of subject matter. Whatever caught my interest went. Therefore it is difficult to pick out which writers made the deepest impressions....the cream inevitably rises to the top. So the very best of what I read would have challenged me to reach higher and deeper.

Q: Why did you choose to write fantasy of all the genres?

Fantasy, again, allows the widest range of creativity. Any issue can be handled with the gloves off. No limit, no subject that cannot be harnessed, explored, or rearranged. Additionally, it is that very fluidity that makes the genre accessible. People can read and take whatever they value from it. The very best of fantasy can trigger more inspiration, thought, and creativity in return. I think this avenue of discovery provides the most thrilling excitement.

Q: What other hobbies and interests do you pursue that tie into your writing, or feel that influence your writing and style?

I love the outdoors. Keep horses on the property. So riding, sailing, gardening, and occasional visits to the wilderness in between excursions to my fantasy worlds fill my life with activity. I run or walk most every day, and have tons of bird feeders and little patches of garden that are oases for wildlife, which is in abundance in the backyard.

Q: How would you describe to someone who has never read your works what The Wars of Light and Shadow are all about? And any other books you have written.

Well, that is a lengthy question, since each book as its own thrust and direction. My first novel was written as a court intrigue, with the centerline drive to pack as much suspence into each chapter as I could. Therefore, the book reads at lightspeed, with each chapter a cliff hanger. One reader even complained that they began the book in the tub, and couldn't find any stopping point! They climbed out wet and shriveled four hours later. At least Sorcerer's Legacy was a short book!

The Cycle of Fire trilogy was a coming of age fantasy about three children, and entails them taking responsibility, or not, for their choices.

Master of Whitestorm explored the psyche of a mercenary and his inner drives, more episodic in nature. As one reads the events of his life in sequence, it becomes apparent that his inward drives do not match his outward appearances. His true nature threatens to become his nemesis.

The Empire series with Raymond Feist involved a woman fighting for her family name and the survival of her children overturning her entire culture.

Wars of Light and Shadows is an in depth exploration of compassionate understanding involving many layers and depths - done with enough scope that a reader will see a different reflection, depending on their angle of view. And that angle will change and shift, as perspectives grow, insights are unveiled, or the reader themself changes what they value or suppose upon the outcome.

To Ride Hell's Chasm is a tale of a kingdom set into peril that examines the moral stance of the warrior - and the conflict that arises between duty to society and duty to self. This one spans the gamut, opening as a mystery and court intrigue, and opening into a full scale, hard edged action adventure. About the most sheer fun I've had writing a novel, start to finish!

Q: Could you tell us about your published material and how you would rank these internally?

There is really no ranking involved. Each story was driven by a different core idea. Obviously the Wars of Light and Shadow has the most invested in it. For my take, each book was written direct from the heart. It had my whole attention for the span it required, and the one in front of me is always the one of primary importance.

Q: You have described the Wars of Light and Shadow as your life's work before. Do you have any plans after it has finished?

Yes! There's a file box stuffed with ideas in full outline, and several "story notes" files on my hard drive. Plenty of material there, it's a matter of what will catch my eye, my mind, my heart, in the moment as it arrives.

Q: Have you ever been approached by any game or motion picture production companies regarding The Wars of Light and Shadow? If not, would it appeal to you?

Not so far - the idea of a motion picture of any idea would be an outright thrill. I think that Hell's Chasm is best suited to the stunning action sequences and special effects available today, and it's straight shot story line and great supporting character roles would lend themselves to a film format. James Cameron is my dream director for that project.

I don't know who could encompass the depth and scope of Wars of Light and Shadows on film. To capture the essence of its ideas would be a monumental undertaking, to say the least! Creatively, the possibilities are endless, and we just don't know what the entertainment industry will do in the future. Who would have imagined the scope and caliber of what film is doing today, even ten years ago! Film is getting more and more like visioning -- more and more, captures the flavor of painted imagery, except that it moves and speaks. I think these times are tremendously exciting, for the advances happening, it seems, daily.

Q: Have you ever found out anything about your stolen artwork?

Not so far, though I expect we will. Too many fans are aware of our work, and the website is global. Hard as it is to hide information, I imagine the works will turn up one day.

Q: While on the subject of art, what stage of writing the book do you draw the cover art? I've noticed that the UK and US releases of Perilís Gate had different covers, do you
generally draw different covers for different countries?

The cover art is usually done long in advance of the release date - six to nine months, to allow for the image to be included in the catalog and available to distribution. Ideally, this part happens when I am finished the draft of a manuscript, even if before I've done final polishing and turn-in. Sometimes I've had to stop writing to create the art - always a tough moment, putting down the pen of an in progress work and shifting over into drawing mode. The areas of creativity take two entirely different modes of thought. Therefore, except for playing with the odd pencil drawing or two in a sketchbook I keep, I usually do one or the other exclusively. Whichever deadline is foremost gets the heat.

With regard to the different treatments, HarperCollins in Great Britain prefers landscape, and now, graphic based covers. The US books flourish best with portraits. I don't mind what sort of art treatment a book gets - just so it reflects the mood and flavor of the story. I've done all three approaches.

Q: About how long does it take you to paint what will become
cover art?

Cover paintings take approximately one month to six weeks, depending on size, complexity, and subject matter. This means working every day, from the starting sketches, to the finished oil painting.

Q: Do you, or will you ever do the cover art for books other
then those you write? If you have what titles does your artwork grace?

I got my professional status as an illustrator by painting book covers for wargames and the New York book market. In the eighties, there were numerous titles with my work on them - a string of authors from Lynn Abbey, James Blish, Gary Gygax, Joel Rosenberg, even Norman Spinrad....sf as well as fantasy. I did a few gaming covers for works based on the novels of Carolyn Cherryh. There was a set of trading cards produced that encorporated many of these images. Sometimes a set crops up on e bay, or in a shop that caters to comic collectors.

Q: Are you wary when creating artwork for covers, of influencing the readers opinion to much before they have a chance to form their own ideas/visualisations of the characters inside? Or do you prefer to establish an image straight away?

Due to the constraints of commercial publishing, and the fact that illustrators may or may not take to the heart of an idea - it's hit or miss, in the time they may have to produce a painting - I've always felt that having my own work on the cover gave the potential reader the most accurate shot. Mood, characters, settings, and the emphasis would have my spin on them - a risk, in some ways, since a reader will bring their own spin to what they value and grant attention to in any work of fiction. Though rightfully some readers may prefer their own imaginative take, the one guaranteed advantage to setting my work on the cover - the artist will have their whole attention and full heart brought to bear upon the finished image. The reward of that honesty outweighs the advantages, in my take. The work will outlast me, and there is all the time in the world for another set of visions to springboard off mine, at any given time in the future. The only time you'll get to see through my window, is through my eyes, and that must be accomplished now!

Q: Do you enjoy politics? And if or if not do you allow your
views on the subject to permeate your writing? Or do you take precautions to keep a strict line between your personal views and your writing?

It must be said that I imagine and create first for my own joy. What has meaning for me naturally colors my pen and brush. But ultimately, when another reads or views an image - they make it their own. Since each of us is unique as a human being, with different values and beliefs, the ground will not be the same. Some common threads might share resonance, but I prefer to leave readers free to experience their own values. The imagination made manifest is a springboard for them to express how they feel about any given character or situation. So I feel my personal values have meaning to me, but need not be shared in common with any other voyager through the pages. Each who experiences is free to create their own story out of the words and pictures. And the more the merrier! That is the dance that creativity and individual viewpoint seek to create.

Q: Do you feel it is important to apply less traditional fantasy elements to a story such as politics and intrigue?

Well, politics and intrigues grow up wherever there are groups of humans, striving to achieve the goals they set for themselves. I never liked an orchestra with one instrument, nor a piano that only plays one note at a time. A story that is a full tapestry is the playground I revel in. This does not diminsh any other approach - there are as many reasons for reading as there are literate humans. I like the richness of complexity, as my cup of tea. Traditional or not has very little to do with the excercise of personal taste.

Q: What author(s) do you read? Has any had a profound influence on your style as a writer?

I mentioned previously that I read the library. Now that I spend so much time writing, my reading time is less, so I am more selective. I prefer, naturally, a book with a broad tapestry - and a balance of values, being neither all lightness and air, nor the dark gritty stuff - when I paint, Don and I generally run a book on tape as background, and those titles run the gamut, from mainstream to genre to nonfiction.

Q: Before continuing onto some more plot orientated questions, what tips or advice would you give an aspiring writer or author?

Sing your own song. You are the only one who can do so. Don't let anyone's outside opinion swerve you from taking your own course. The beauty of who you are inside is the most precious thing in the universe and that has to come before anything. Creativity is among the most powerful human virtues, not to be squandered or steered to any other course than the one you see in your heart. Be honest there. Be true to yourself first. Next, practice. Writing in words is a complex craft, involving may layers of perception and skill and awareness. Not to mention, each word is a precision symbol - and no two mean exactly the same thing, despite what you may have been told. It takes YEARS of applied practice to learn to write - because you must think in layers. Talent has nothing to do with the process. Begin where you are, begin shaping an idea, and as you go, you will literally grown the neuronal pathways in your brain to handled the perception involved. This takes TIME, not talent. DESIRE, not genius. You have to learn your craft, and then develop your brain - grow into the task, quite literally. For learning craft, read, and get Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. This is the only book that can teach the CRAFT at nuts and bolts level. Then write, write, write, and read read read. Reading builds your vocabulary, so don't only grab pop culture paperbacks. Use your library, and read titles from times before televison and movies and internet, when people had more developed access to language.

Last - don't create and destroy in the same moment. If you are drafting, you are creating, therefore, you MUST shut off the critic that says, fix, change, or "that's no good." You draft utterly without censuring, freewheeling along until you see FIRMLY where your idea is going. THEN, when you have a developed compass, you go in and "destroy" - refine and edit to bring out the clarity of your material.

There are extensive notes on my website, under Tips for Writers and Artists ( and further information on handling rejection set down in some of the interview links posted in the Bulletins section.

The next few questions will be over works other than the Wars of Light and Shadow, none of which I have read myself so this section is completely everyone elses.

Q: Regarding your collaboration with Raymond E. Feist, I have not read those books personally but a few fans have, and considering your experience would you ever consider collaborating with another author on a new piece of work? And secondly how did you find the experience?

It was pure collaboration, start to finish. We started with a seed idea Ray had, that was but an opening scene, and the ending scene of Servant - no middle!A barely sketched out setting! All wide open, set on the stage of Tsurannuani's politics. We sat down, created the outlined sequence of events for what became Daughter and Servant in about 4 hours. Then we each grabbed bits we were most interested in, and drafted the first take. Then we exchanged scenes - exchanged them again, stitched into sequence. There is no area where we did not overwrite one another, and thread ideas into continuity - you can't tell who drafted what, anymore. When we'd completed Servant, it was inevitable, given Mara's position, that she would not clash with the ultimate powers in her world. So Mistress was born, and the integration of concepts was just as seamless.

Whenever we had differences, we always came up with a third possibility that was better. One of the alchemical benefits of two minds!

Q: Feist has said (Jimmy the Hand, Afterword), that there are places in the Empire books, where he can't tell you who wrote what. Do you feel the same way?


Q: Who was your favourite character from the Empire series and why?

I think Arakasi, for the reason that his growth was so totally unexpected. Though I should add, with such a vast cast, that choice is not a simple one! Other characters jump in and say "me! Me!" ME!"

One last set of questions and we're onto the Wars of Light and

Q: Will you do more Kelewan stuff?

None planned as of this moment, though past question the readers would like it.

Q: The The Cycle of Fire trilogy ends with a bigger conflict looming ahead. Do you plan on writing further books in the The Cycle of Fire trilogy, sequels and/or prequels?

There is a sequel in full outline in my files. It's quite possible I may draft it in full someday.

Q: Although the cover of Hell's Chasm refers to it as an epic stand alone volume, do you have plans to return to the character of Mykkael in other books? Im asking this because there seems to be a tremendous amount of back story to him, what with his barqui'ino training, rescue of the Efandi princess from Rathtet, his mercenary years, his childhood, and numerous other aspects about him. I would love to know more about him.

I have no plan on the ground to write more about Mykkael - though many readers want his backstory, I feel the man he is in the story is the product of that - and the events are all known outcomes. The untold story is the future one, in my opinion, but unless I have something NEW to say about that character, I feel the existing story adequately does the job.

One thing I have never done is repeat the same ground in the same orientation! Since the mystery of the unknown is what pulls me forward, it's not likely I'll do this. I can't write when I'm bored, and repeating material or ideas from the old angles is worse than gnoshing at old chewing gum!!! The sweetness is in the original journey.

Now onto the subject of the Wars of Light and Shadow.

Firstly I'd like to say once more what a great series the Wars of Light and Shadow is, and thank you for your time in doing this. I for one am thankful as I am sure most at the Other Fantasy section are.

Q: Four heirs went to Dascen Elur, three of the five bloodlines are represented. We know the Havish bloodline was hidden on Athera. Lysaer and Arithon represent three of them. What happened to the fifth?

The fifth died off, a story in itself that I may tell some day. There are more clues available in the FAQ section of my website.

Q: Why didn't Sethvir sense what happened to Cildais when he went
to find the Paravians? Or is this a built in ëflawí in his Earth sense, or can the Paravians choose to circumnavigate it at choice?

This is one of the major mysteries extant in this story, and the volumes to come will answer it quite, quite thoroughly. No spoilers here!

Q: Why do the Fellowship Sorcerors allow the Koriathain to continually meddle in their affairs? Why not explain some of their actions, rather than just ignoring the potentially dangerous women?

The Law of the Major Balance honors freedom of choice, and free will. The Fellowship honor that - with one sticky caveat: where the mandate of the dragons drives them, where Paravian survival is in question, they must act. This is a complexity that unveils slowly in the course of the series, and the heart of the paradox that drives the Fellowships motivations. They will allow the Koriathain free will, but up to a point, they cannot. One of the driving axis of their motivation, and one that will unfold in fullest complexity as the story reaches completion.

Q: Some have said the series has grown beyond your original intentions? Is this true? If so does it bother you?

The story has never departed from the original map I set for it, is quite on track with regard to the ideas and their development. It does not sprawl, but deepens with each subsequent volume. It has a distinct destination. Readers may find frustration because they can never "see" where my plots are going.

However, though this series is told in many volumes, none have been created to "extend" what must be said....all take the path predetermined over the course of 30 years of planning. When the series is fully finished, and the complete tapestry in view, it will be quite apparent that every single thing evolved to its correct ending. I can't apologize for the time, or the care, put into making the words take the tale to that point.

All of my other works have "endings" - all loose ends tie up. I will promise no less with this bigger tapestry - it's just - bigger.

Q: Some people have been put off by Curse of the Mistwraith because the prologue gives the impression that there will be 500 years of strife with the hero seeming to 'fail' at the end. I take it that there is more than meets the eye to that prologue? Do you regret having it in the book if it has put people off?

If the prologue puts people off, then it's because they have some sort of preconceived IDEA of their own that makes them turn off. Because as any of my readers will tell you, I always develop and finish a story - and never ever in the predictable fashion! Therefore, any predetermined 'idea' about what you expect from the prologue is not at all likely to have substance. I "put off" person, at this stage, never let themselves enter the stage, never let the story have any chance to touch them. They just settled for what they "thought." And in a free will universe, nobody has to look through a window they "think" might be something they won't enjoy.

Q: The Wise Sage quotes given by Arithon in the trial scene at the beginning of The Curse of the Mistwraith were amazing. Where did the inspiration for these come from? Yourself, or were you inspired by an external source?

My goodness, wise sage quotes happen everywhere there are experienced humans with two bits worth of accumulated wisdom! I can't recall the quotes as stand outs, far less what may have inspired them....if you look at any old wives' saying, or old man's take on life, such pearls abound...and even, if you are a library hound, compiled books of such
things created for speech writers. Yes, I read those too, someplace in the ravenous course of my reading!

Q: What was your inspiration for the Fellowship of Seven? And or how did they come to be?

Inspiration doesn't ever happen as a full blown idea. It begins as a seed. I created the Fellowship as they are, initially, out of Angst. One, too many fantasy books had very very powerful wizards who just mouthed Power and Wisdom but never DID a darn thing. I wanted power that COULD do anything. Had NO LIMIT. Choice alone restrained....a power so fierce in its majesty that it held no bounds - contained by will alone.

Second, I got sick of the stereotypical "one old man wizard" character that could almost be traded off, book to book, as a bare, undifferentiated archetype. I felt, as a lark, if I had SEVEN of these guys, they'd HAVE to be different characters or I could not keep them
straight! So, initially, I said OK, Seven characters. Run with it. And see where THEY lead.

And lead they did! Right off, two decided they were to be discorporate ghosts! And no less powerful for that little caveat!!

Q: What was your inspiration for the Koriathain?

A concept, endemic to our human situation - that "humans" and their survival mean more, and are "paramount" - that the 'greater good' of humanity supercedes all else. The very narrowness of this idea spoke of an old, rigid order of thought. "Institutionalized" service to human culture and well being that devolved until the institution now exists solely to perpetuate itself. Most institutions are founded for worthy causes - but to stay cohesive, sooner or later the cause becomes adulterated into a political animal that serves itself.

Q: On the surface I've noticed a few similarities in Verrain's thoughts that paint his past similar at least on the surface to Dakar's. Is this intentional, or is their more then meets the eye with apprentices to Fellowship sorcerers?

Verrain's background and Dakar's are not one whit the same, although they both liked to party! Verrain did his with an elegant, aristocratic slant. Dakar, though binge rolling in the gutter! Verrain's history is one of the neater threads in the backstory that, one day, I may do a pastiche would intrigue me very much to be able to snatch time to write out, just to play with the richness and vintage flavor of Athera's past.

Q: Of all the characters, the one most noticeably to change throughout the series is Dakar. At first I found him amusing, but his transformation has been heart touching. It is abundantly clear in Ships of Merior and Warhost of Vastmark (I have the paperbacks of the first three books, or four depending if you'd consider Ships as two.) Did Asandir have any hint this would happen to Dakar? Is this one of the reasons he set Arithon to watch over Dakar no matter how it is supposed to be the other way around?

Asandir well know what he was about, in setting those two characters into a locked fate. You will see the scope of his vision come to fruition in Stormed Fortress, next to write.

Q: Regarding the brothers s'Brydion, and the s'Brydion family in general, since they survived the uprising, why have they not sought to restore clan rule to Melhalla?

Because clan rule in Melhalla is very much alive and well! It lies in the hands of the Caithdein of the realm, at this time resident in Atwood. The s'Brydion title is subordinate to her, as mentioned in Ships of Merior, straight out (scene of Arithon's encounter with Lord Erlien s'Taleyn) You will encounter the Lady very soon now - her introductory scenes are already written and set!

Q: Could you clarify Luhaine's interference with Elairaís bond to the Skyron Aquamarine? I understand he interfered somewhat at her consent, but how far did that intervention go? Would the Fellowship interfere further if Arithon, or Elaira were to ask?

The intervention went full course - as far as the longevity binding went. The reason for Luhaine's action was stated in the text....her bond with the Skyron is intact, as must be, since her full consent was given to the Koriani Prime Matriarch, and so recorded.

Anyone may ask a Fellowship Sorcerer. Asking does not mean the Fellowship will respond. Again, this paradox will keep unveiling as the series moves - until you will understand all that it entails. The precepts that can bind free are an unwinding thread through the series. You will have a far better view as you go along - each with more depth and intricacy.

Q: Could you clarify the limitations of Traithe's crippling? What is he capable of, or not capable of? I understand he is not without power, but the lines of what can and cannot be done by him seem rather blurry?

Not blurry one bit. He has "sheared off" bits of himself. They are not accessible, being "cut off" to halt an invasion of free wraiths. His path, and what a healing might entail, will unfold in due time.

In my paradigm for Athera, whole power requires no "place holders" or "symbols" of intent. Broken power must bridge the "gaps" - and there you have the reason why Traithe employs the methodology he uses to access what powers he can, in his current sundered state.

Q: More and more appearances seem to be made by the Paravians as the series goes on, is this due to their readiness to return to the continent? Or is their some other reasoning?

No comment I can possible give will not spoil future story! Some other reasoning will have to do, for now....the question will also be most fully answered, all in its own due time. Believe me, I am excited to get those words down onto the page! They happen, however, one at a time! So I have to wait to show you.

Q: In Peril's Gate I greatly enjoyed the scenes with Davien, he's proven to be one of the most interesting characters I've read about in a long time. Curiosity killed the cat, but I find that I can't seem to get enough of him. Will Davien be a major part in the upcoming books as is implied in the end of Peril's Gate?

Oh brother, you are not kidding! He is a major player in this series - in more ways than you can possibly see! Traitor's Knot will absolutely start developing his part with a vengeance. He could not come in sooner - the "staging" for understanding (or Starting To!!) what he is about had to be very very solidly in place, first. Now his time is come.

Q: Davien figured out how to regain a mortal body, could he, or would he for that matter show Khardamon and Luhaine the method for this? Would the two discorporate sorcerers regain a human body if they knew how? As their current work seems to be taking them into space and what not quite a bit.

Luhaine or Kharadmon could achieve this, themselves, IF they set intent to pursue the means. Each sorcerer has their own area of expertise. Davien's orientation is far more suited to this sort of manifestation. The accomplishment, for him, should be considered a major labor. For Kharadmon and Luhaine, it is not likely to be worth the expenditure of
time. Their driving orientation is not a bit the same.


OK Ryan - here's the lot! I carbonned my website master so that the e mail didn't get lost (there were a lot of questions!) Also, eventually, if you don't mind, I'd like to preserve the material in the FAQ section of my website so that all fans can benefit. This will not happen right away - so that your site has uniqueness at the outset.

Thanks for bearing with me! And for being such an enthusiast of Athera.

Best as ever - Janny Wurts

Thursday, October 07, 2004


This blog receives hundreds of books each year from publishers across the United States, as well as from British and Canadian publishers. Most of them I do not bother to read. Some I cannot read, since my puppy has shredded the packages in which the books arrive before I can pick them up off of the front porch. Others I do end up reading, but I rarely say more than a sentence or two in a reading journal-like entry. Only a dozen or two books per year out of the hundreds I receive from publishers each year are reviewed in full. Some of those receive positive marks, because I found the stories to be excellent. Others receive mixed or negative comments, because I found structural weaknesses in that book's characterization, prose, and/or plot. In each case, the opinions expressed are mine and not words placed into my mouth by an author, publicist, or any other representative of a publishing firm.

Now that you know this, understand that this disclaimer applies to all reviews, whether or not I actually bought or received the book as a review copy. After all, I cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars shipping the books (read or unread) back to the publishers, thus this disclaimer. Thank you and drive through.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Just How Universal is Speculative Fiction?

For almost as long as I have been a reader, I've enjoyed stories that speculated about what was around the corner or lurking within the innermost recesses of our shared imaginations/nightmares. One of the first books I remember reading was Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and from then on I was hooked. As a young boy growing up, I read graphic novel adaptations of classics such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Three Muskateers, and many other stories of the adventurous and/or fantastic from all corners of the globe.

It wasn't until I was twelve, however, that I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, but strangely enough, while I enjoyed his story greatly, I was not inclined to read similar-styled books for another ten years. Instead, I wanted to read imaginative works that explored the human condition and psyche in various ways. I became enamoured with stories such as Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Zola's Germinal and Nana. Even within these psychological/naturalist stories, I sensed a glimpse of the speculative, of the queries for something more than what was at hand.

When I finally did start to read genre fantasy/science fiction late during my grad school days, I read these works as just one more way of addressing human longings rather than as merely escapist pulp fiction or as imitators of a prior masterpiece. However, I couldn't help but notice one other thing lately as I've browsed the various online fantasy/SF communities: the lack of transcultural fantastic literature being discussed.

As some know, I'm drawn to the ways in which various cultures have interacted and repulsed each other over the centuries. It seems strange to me, having read great works of imagination from cultural groups on each of the six permanently inhabited continents that when discussing works of Fantasy or Sci-Fi, almost all of the dialogue concentrates on a very small handful of nations. While I understand that the United States is the publishing capital of the world and that American cultural mores tend to sway global tastes (much to the chagrin of many), it does seem strange that there is very little talk of speculative fiction from places outside North America, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia.

I've had to do quite some digging to find available works from other traditions. One such work, available in English translation, is the collection entitled Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. Reading these stories, which span a period at least as long as the genesis and heyday of Anglo-American SF, gave a different perspective on the interaction of people with tekne. For fantasy, I read in the original Spanish the works of the Argentine greats, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and sometime Buenos Aires resident Horacio Quiroga. There's something amazing in these stories, something that makes their relative obscurity in North America all the more saddening, considering American willingness to read and enjoy works by Dumas, Hugo, and Cervantes, just to name a few.

I guess after this rather rambling essay that I better address the readers with a question of my own: What works of literature do you read or know about that aren't from the Anglo-American heritage that you believe would make for excellent additions to a master list of great speculative work? Listed below are some of my recommendations:

Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad/One Hundred Years of Solitude
Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes
Adolfo Bioy Casares, la invención de morel/The Invention of Morel
Alejo Carpentier, los pasos perdidos/The Lost Steps
Horacio Quiroga, Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte/The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories
Oliverio Girondo, The Scarecrow and Other Anomalies (bilingual edition)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince
Shlomo DuNour, Adiel
Italo Calvino, If on winter's night a traveller
Alberto Fuguet, Mala onda/Bad Vibes

Hopefully, there will be some reader comments suggesting more, as any recognition given to deserving works is a very good thing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Don't Believe the Hype

Hyberbole seems to be a part of our everyday lives. From listening to television or radio ads proclaiming Product X to be the "next big thing" to promoters trying to establish a certain artist as being the créme de la créme, we are constantly being bombarded with a constant stream of talk and information urging us to consider a certain product. This is also very true for genre fiction and the choices a prospective book buyer has to make.

As an administrator and book reviewer, I'm often stuck in a quandry. Being someone who is by nature very distant toward bandwagon approaches toward product promotion, I yet am faced with the situation of either giving the Caesarian thumbs up or down to a book. I'm expected to glean through the chaff of recent book releases and pick out books that I think are true gems of imagination and storytelling, just so others can read my words and consider whether or not they too would want to purchase and read the books I just finished and enjoyed.

But there are many pitfalls along the way. As a reader pointed out recently on the OF Messageboard, sometimes we reviewers can give off the odor of being hype machines, people who are just out to promote a specific author or genre style at the expense of a detailed critical look at the story we just read. There is some truth to that, as there are certain authors that I happen to just enjoy more than others and so I make a variety of pitches to encourage others to read them. But I do try to refrain from saying such things as, "This is the greatest series of all time!" or "Wow! This story has changed my perceptions on everything! So cool!"

Another risk of hype is that of perceived insincerity. For example, I had been planning on buying Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for over six months now, ever since I read about how impressed Neil Gaiman was with the story. Now many of you know that Gaiman has a controversial quote on the back cover of Clarke's book, which says that he considers it to be the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the past seventy years. Unfortunately, this quote has caused quite a few indignant squawks from fantasy fans, from those who consider Tolkien to be the Man to others who happen to champion works by other outstanding English writers. Not many bothered to check with Gaiman to see what he meant by the quote. John Clute, in his review of Clarke's book, did so and Gaiman's reasoning was a bit more understandable. While I had no problems with what Gaiman had said (mostly because I tend to read his Journal on a regular basis), I can understand how such quotes can backfire in an environment where genre readers are inudated with proclamations that such-and-such is the best thing going since Tolkien/Herbert/Asimov/etc.

So should we believe the hype? It depends upon the reader and the situation. I, for one, use the hype as one measure of weighing whether or not I should consider reading a story. But I also like to search the web for various reviews, if possible, or to thumb through the book or read online excerpts before deciding. But there's always a caveat emptor, because what I believe should be touted as an excellent piece of work is not necessarily what others would enjoy. Maybe this explains why Adolfo Bioy Cesares languishes in relative obscurity. But what should a reviewer do to counter the accusations of overhyping? I guess the simple solution is just to be as consistent as possible in praising works. Sometimes, trust in a reviewer's ability to discern the good from the bad is a valuable counterweight to misleading hype. Sometimes. This is a market-driven society and even our books are subject to its whims and fancies. But judging a book based on the shifting winds of mass cultural taste is a dangerous proposition. Only time and shared memories can tell whether or not a book was truly worthy of the hype it had or had not received when it was first published. Bulwer-Lytton or Stendhal: the choice will be up to us readers, not to the promoters, into which of these two broad categories the hyped books will fall a generation or two from now.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Just a quick updatish sort of thing

I thought I'd just post this little personal bit (although this blog most certainly will not revolve around my personal life) in response to some who were wondering about the state of my health. I had made some comment about a week or two ago stating that I was uncertain about my health situation. I guess here will be the place to address that, as well as to let people know when more regular entries will be posted.

Back on September 5th, I felt very faint at work. I work in a residential treatment center for boys with severe emotional/behaviorial issues. Sometimes, we have to use passive restrain techniques to make sure these boys don't harm themselves, us, or the property. I was called upon to restrain a very aggressive boy, one that had already blown up beyond normal verbal redirections. As I was trying to hold him and get him to calm down, my heart rate and breathing shot up and I felt very dizzy and dropped to a knee. I went to the nurse's station at work and my pulse rate was close to 150 beats a minute (over two times my normal rate) and my blood oxidation was very low.

I scheduled a series of tests and learned the week after (on Sept. 14th) that I had bad blood pressure. More tests are scheduled for the heart and lungs, but I was put on blood pressure meds and ordered to four weeks of light duty at work. I had a reaction to those meds and for the next four days, I was suddenly sleepy at odd times. That has since cleared up and my blood pressure is back in the normal range, plus my breathing and pulse have stabilized to around normal levels. Still have a round of tests next month to determine what caused it, but after a blood test revealed that my cholesterol was normal and that I didn't have diabetes, anemia, or rheumatic arthritis, it's looking more and more like I just have a chronic case of exertional asthma. At least I hope it's that and not the doctor's earlier fear that it could be pulmonary hypertension, which is deadly within 10 years of diagnosis.

But I've been feeling much better the past few days, as I've been taking it easy from most computer-related management issues. Thus no blog and thus my relative absence from the various messageboards (minus the odd, quick post here and there). However, I do plan on writing a new entry sometime either Monday or Tuesday which will deal with my thoughts on hyperbole and certain bestsellers. After that, I'd like to aim for 1-2 entries a week, again, health providing.

Thanks again for those who expressed concern. I am doing well and am looking forward to writing more discussion-worthy posts in the very near future.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Placing Fantasy within the larger Story

But suppose the world is in fact now coming to an end, the world of Meaning we have always lived in. And suppose that the Powers who must make from it a new one - one that will be just like the old one in most but not all respects - are mulling just now over what sort the new world might be, and what garb they themselves might appear in too. If that's the case, then that old multilayered earth and its shape-shifting travellers would have to be among the worlds from which they could choose - mutatis mutandis, the same but never exactly the same, take a little out of the waist and plump the shoulders. More likely not, though; more likely they'll choose something entirely different this time, something in a fierce hound's-tooth maybe, or a moiré taffeta, eye-fooling, iridescent: can't you see them (I can) moving amid the racks and counters fingering the goods, unable to decide, all possibilities laid out before them once again before they make their choice, thereafter to pretend (once again) that everything has always been this way, that they themselves have all along had these aspects and not others, rank on rank, the army of unalterable Law?

And who is that littlest one among them, wide-eyed, just awakened and believing he has never made this choice before? You know, don't you?

John Crowley, Dæmonomania

Imagine a world just like our own. A place of conflict, beauty, sadness, and success. A realm where meaning was more than just the expression of scientific concepts. A condition in which beliefs were not bound up in what was provable or disprovable. A time and space so similar to our own and yet so utterly alien. Let's call this world our past.

Gazing back on our past, we might feel as Pierre Menard did when he set out to recreate Don Quixote bit by painstaking bit. The sunrises might appear to be the same, the blooming flowers might still exude the same scents, or people might still have hopes and fears, but the meanings of these have changed even as the structures have stayed virtually the same.

There is a gulf that divides us from our past interpretations of the world and its realities. A wall of perception that is so high and so thick as to make earlier conceptions of our world to be almost incomprehensible. It might be a world of beauty or a realm of horror, but whatever "it" is, "it" is not what most would call real. There is something that lies between this conception of a world and our own selves. Sometimes, the very attempt to define this something creates an even larger rift, causing this fleeting apparition to fade into the mists of our collective subconscious.


This is the very rough beginning to a paper I've been working on for almost two months now, after being challenged in a discussion over at SFF World to elaborate my stance on the value that fantasy in general and epic fantasy in particular can and should have in describing our historical (and pre-historical) interactions with the world around us in a way that provides some sense of context and meaning in a world that often feels bereft of both.

While I'm nowhere near finished with this paper (it might take me a few more months at the current rate, due to some personal issues with work and my health), I thought many here might be interested in reading this, as well as digesting some of the ideas I plan on developing over the course of this paper. For one thing, I tend to view Fantasy (and it's sometimes-estranged sibling, Science Fiction) as part of a deeper dialogue that individuals and societies have had with themselves over the millenia. While the media of communication might have changed quite drastically from the days of bards reciting Gilgamesh or The Iliad, I do believe that there are certain key elements contained within these ancient epic texts that have been repeated in stories over time and space in the intervening millenia.

Now some might argue that while there are certainly some key surface similarities between the ancient stories and modern texts, the old stories just cannot be fantasies in the modern sense due to the conditions under which those tales were created. There is some truth to that, but one could counter by noting that there might be something in the intervening centuries that has led to an artifical division. The Crowley quote and the reference to Jorge Luis Borges's famous short story, "Pierre Menard," are included to highlight this sense of almost-the-same but not quite.

Among other topics I think might be important in placing Fantasy with the larger Story (or Historia, seeing as I'm very biased in my belief that all literature and other artifacts of human existence ought to be included under the larger umbrella of History, or the Story of human life) would include a look at Marxist interpretations of history, discontinuities, the dichotomy between patrician and plebeian cultures, as well as the rise of mass culture and how that has influenced the ways in which we interact with each other and with our own selves.

Hopefully, this will make for an interesting paper. Just thought I'd give a tease for those who might have some curiosity as to what I've been working on these past few weeks.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Awards, Schwards: Should We Even Care?

Sorry for the delay, but I've had to work a lot of overtime. C'est la vie.

The Hugos have come and gone. The Nebulas are a fading memory. While we still have the World Fantasy Award, the major award season is drawing to a close. What do we make of the results?

Judging by the commentaries I've seen at OF and elsewhere, it seems as though the Hugos were a mixture of the ho-hum and the outraged. The usual suspects won, which in turn sparked the usual comments of "Oh, she/he always wins! I wish they'd pick another sometime!" or "Who the hell are these guys?" Sour grapes? Maybe, but I suspect there's more to the story than what we're seeing at first glance.

The Hugos, Nebulas, and World Fantasy Awards are decided in three distinct fashions. The Hugos by fan votes of those at the WorldCon or those who pay a fee (I believe it's around $40) to vote, the Nebulas by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the World Fantasy Awards by a panel of judges appointed months in advance to read through a nominated list of contenders. Yet while these methods on the surface should guarantee that different voices and approaches should be heard, this is often not the case.

Let's start with the Hugos. Needless to say, the way the voting is established is going to exclude Joe Schmo from the process. You have to be an active fan, willing to pay the big bucks to travel to the various WorldCons (this year's was held in Boston) or to pay a hefty $40 to mail in your vote. These people are not your typical spec fic fan. From what I can tell, there's much more of a bias toward science fiction and away from fantasy. If I remember correctly, there even was a debate once as to whether or not fantasy should even be considered at all. So there's already a sizable percentage of yearly work that's almost certainly going to be excluded. Also, and this is just an educated guess on my part, but many of the ones who attended this year's convention have been regulars at other conventions, especially those within the United States. This leads to a rather stable body of voters, many of whom might have developed certain attachments to certain authors or styles of work. Not familar with Lois Bujold's work that much (other than a few excerpts I read for two of her stories that were up for past Nebulas - both of which left me distinctly unimpressed), but from what I've heard from others, it seems as though she won as much on her Name as on the story of the book (Paladin of Souls). The same might be said for Neil Gaiman's latest winner, even though I am much more familiar with his work and have liked most of his stories.

The Nebulas present a different challenge. Authors are being asked to nominate and vote for other authors. While some might presume that it'd take an author to know an author, apparently the process is not as clear-cut as that. Sometimes, the author voters are only familiar with only a few authors and they might nominate as much out of a sense of loyalty (or out of hopes that they too will be nominated later as a reward, although this is probably too conspiracy theory-like to consider seriously) as out of high regard for the story at hand. Like the Hugos, the Nebula voting pool numbers in the low hundreds, from which a top novel, novella, novellette, and short story (among other awards) are chosen.

The World Fantasy Awards are decided by a panel of judges (authors and/or respected critics within the industry), who must meet and vote among themselves which book is to be deemed most worthy of first prize. The problem with this method is that often the judges have different standards of excellence and often must compromise with the others in order to develop a final ranking of books.

So each of these systems have their shortcomings, many of which stem from the paucity of voters as much as from other factors. What can be done, if these are the natures of the award beasts? On the surface, probably not much. Maybe awards given by magazines such as Locus should be given equal consideration, seeing as there's a larger number of voters (in the thousands, I believe) and the voting pool extends beyond the subscribers to the magazine to those who visit the online site and cast a vote there within the deadline. Maybe there should be new categories for the Hugos and Nebulas, such as Best Fantasy Novel and Best Science Fiction Novel, although the case can and will be made that defining which is which might be an exercise in futility.

But until someone reinvents the wheel and develops a new system, the readers are often left wondering what's the fuss.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Some Problems I See With Reviews

The recent entry regarding Fan Love has generated plenty of discussion, with some of us raising the issue of how one goes about evaluating an author's work. I thought I'd take a few minutes and expound upon the position I took in that discussion.

Book reviews are by their very nature a difficult beast to tame, much less master. In addition to the almost countless personal differences between authors, there are just as many idiosyncracies that reviewers reveal in their commentaries on the books they have read. Some might employ a direct comparison model, examining one book based on another author's work. That approach can work for those familiar with both, but the possibility of reader confusion is greater, especially if that reader is not very well-read on the other author being compared in the review.

Other reviewers tend to focus on the book itself, but without providing much in terms of a frame of reference. One review that bothered me recently was Michael Dirda's review of China Miéville's Iron Council. In his review, I found a few flaws that rendered this review very unhelpful for me. Now I had already read the book by this time, but what I observed not only failed to persuade me to consider the book from his vantage point, but it also made me wonder if he detected any weaknesses at all in the story.

First, I noticed that he uses almost hyberbolic language to describe the author. Adjectives such as "dazzling," coupled with non-contextual comparisons to Nabokov and Alexander Theroux made this occasional critic wonder if Dirda was writing a press release or a balanced review of the book. Sometimes, a little more pedestrian language can go a long way with certain readers trying to decide whether or not a book is right for them.

Secondly, Dirda jumps back and forth from discussing the book and the author, giving the review an uneven feel to it. Is his purpose to discuss the merits of the book or to convince others that Miéville is a cool author? One or the other would be very valid approaches to take, but I was left feeling that his combination of the two weakened his case.

Another thing that bothered me about his review and this is a common complaint I have (and one that I myself have been guilty of in the past) is that of too much plot exposition. While Dirda is not nearly as bad as other reviewers in repeating a book blurb (Harriet Klausner being infamous for doing this), there are still too many comments that resemble a plot synopsis rather than a critique of a book's merits and weaknesses.

But the thing that bothered me most was that Dirda did not seem to address any possible weaknesses in the work. A reader who had read only Dirda's review might be misled into believing that Miéville was a practically flawless writer who wrote universally praised stories. Now I'm not implying that I think Miéville is a bad writer (I happen to enjoy his scenes more than I am frustrated by his buildup to them), but sometimes a brief examination of the problems that many have had with his earlier works would have made a positive review of Iron Council all that much more compelling in comparison.

To be fair to Dirda, however, it is very difficult to write a review that is going to meet most reader expectations. It might be that he expected those reading his review to be unfamilar with China Miéville and that he believed that he needed to introduce the author. However, one could then argue that most neophytes would be better served reading his earlier Bas-Lag novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar) first, but that is beside the point. Sometimes readers want to be sold on the author before committing to buying the book.

Another problem reviewers face is that of reader expectations. Do they expect to be wowed by the review, or do they want just to know the gist of the plot? Or would they rather know more about how the author constructs his/her sentences and characters and not to have the main focus of the review be on plot exposition? Very difficult set of questions to answer indeed.

So what do reviewers do about it? The answers are as numerous as the number of those reviewing. Some might be unapologetic for coming across as cheerleaders (or for being catty), while others might strive painstakingly for a pros/cons approach to a book. There is no "correct" answer, although it can be argued that for those such as myself, reviewers in general should try to focus more on balancing book description with an analysis of what works and what does not work.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

This is highly illogical

Sometimes, one must accept that life truly is highly illogical. Maybe this explains our love for all things tribble, not to mention pondering the deep connections between a fantasy author's beard and his style of fantasy. But then again, where else but in the madcap world of fantasy/SF fandom can we embrace our Inner Elvis getting in touch with his Imperial Stormtrooper?

Yes, life being a fan of fantasy and science-fiction works is sometimes the greatest!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Fan Love

In the 2+ years that OF has been running, we've discussed many things, from movie adaptations of Tolkien to deep explorations of the sources of inspiration for fantasy and science-fiction authors. Yet in all that time, I've learned that nothing gets as much reaction as a simple Author vs. Author or Character vs. Character discussion.

Currently, we're running a series of Quickpolls on favorite characters, in the tongue-in-cheek named Character Quickpoll Series. This is following on the heels of a very successful (and sometimes controversial) Author Quickpoll Series. Over the past five months that we've done these two series of Quickpolls, the level of reader participation has increased markedly, but at what cost?

I participate on a limited basis at a half-dozen other fantasy/SF-related sites, using a variety of screen names. At almost every single one of them, I've noticed what almost amounts to a factionalization of those sites along character/author lines. Nowhere is this more evident than at the SOIAF board. There, in their Other Authors section, one can expect to find plenty of posts devoted to comparing authors, including the linked-to one of Martin versus Jordan. But to be fair, this also occurs with too-frequent occurrance at OF as well, especially when we have been known for taking our potshots at Terry Goodkind and his interview style and how that compares with the perceived qualities of his Sword of Truth series.

Sometimes, comparing authors is a worthwhile endeavor. However, many times, it seems as though we get caught up in a reductio ad absurdum situation. Either a poster will say, "This book is kickass! Buy it now!," or on the flip side, it'll be more along the lines of, "This sucks!" (or sux, or suxx0r, depending on the person and the code language they want to use). Two months ago, Robert Salvatore mentioned the OF Quickpoll in passing when he talked about the negativity that internet websites seem to have toward the non-kosher authors. We had a very honest and open discussion about this issue and I am glad that we resolved matters to our mutual liking.

But Salvatore does raise a very important point. Why is it that many have to believe that they must bash other authors into the ground at the same time that they express their admiration for another author's work? Shouldn't the merits of a George R.R. Martin stand on their own without having to be compared to a Robert Jordan or any other fantasy author?

And that leads into an even more fundamental issue for fans who post on websites. We're not exactly known as paragons of debating. All too often, our attempts to discuss matters breaks down into simple likes/dislikes, without a clear model for determining those preferences. Over at SFF World two months ago, a mini-battle of sorts broke out over how to delineate between "quality" and "non-quality" speculative fiction. But the specifics of that debate are for another post, I fear.

There are two important things to consider here: Why do we like this character/author? How does this character/story work for me? All too often in the constricting confines of internet forums, we have little opportunity to expound upon our initial statements, due mostly to the time it take for us to compose and organize our thoughts on the matter. There are plenty of very intelligent writers that visit these forums, yet even they are sometimes guilty of writing only a sentence or a paragraph and expecting everyone else to see as he/she sees the issue. I know I'm guilty of this in the past.

But what can we do about it? For the time being, apparently not much. Although there are many that are willing to put forth the extra effort required to spark a lively and civilized discourse on how we view authors and their characters, there are many times more of us fans who are content to engage in questions that revolve around a Versus scenario, whether it's Martin vs. Jordan, Erikson vs. Martin, Tolkien vs. Miéville, or if it's a Character Deathmatch sort of setting. Sometimes, in order to get some of the former, we have to indulge others who want the latter.
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