Fantasy

Ra ra, fantasy!

I mentioned yesterday that I went to the panel on the original Conan the Barbarian stories at Dragon*Con this weekend, which basically ended up as a fascinating recounting from Michael Stackpole on how he wrote the novelisation of the new Conan the Barbarian movie.  I ended up coming away from the panel with two main conclusions.

The first is that I really want to read the Conan stories.  I’ve had a copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, collecting Robert E. Howard’s first thirteen Conan stories, since I worked at Barnes and Noble, but I’ve never read it.  Time to check for an ebook version.

The second is that it’s made me want to work on some fantasy.  Lately I’ve been alternating between revisions for A Traitor’s Loyalty and Inheritance.  The frustrating part about that has been regularly having to shift creative gears between working on a thriller and working on a dark fantasy.  Pretty much everything I write falls into one of those two broad categories, and I’ve got a great deal of enthusiasm for one of the two, but rarely for both equally.

After I got the first editorial letter on Inheritance from my agent, it took me a little while to work up the enthusiasm to get to work on it.  Once I finally did turn to it, the revisions went great, but then I finished just as I was getting really pumped up about working on fantasy.  But then it was time to work on A Traitor’s Loyalty–so when I got my second editorial letter on Inheritance, I really had a feeling of, “Ugh, no, I want to work on a thriller.

In that respect, the timing of Dragon*Con and the Conan panel is perfect.  I finished the final draft of A Traitor’s Loyalty while I was trapped in England, so until it’s time to start on the copyedits for that (or, you know, get to work on the other thriller for which I’m contracted), I’ve got nothing formal to do other than work on Inheritance.

Time to get to work.

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Cylons and Sithi and Sebaceans, oh my!

This is the place where I’d ordinarily craft a preamble that would lead logically into a list of my five favourite sci fi villains. But since today is the last day of the month, and therefore marks the successful conclusion of my October sally into NaBloPoMo (this year with only one genuine cop-out of a post), and therefore is the 31st consecutive day on which I’ve posted, and therefore I’d like nothing more right this second than to pick up this laptop and drop-kick off the balcony so that it describes a very pretty arc through the air as it descends the thirty-foot slope that drops sharply away from the rear of our building, let’s instead be just a bit postmodern about the whole thing, and tell you straight-out that this post is a list of my five favourite sci fi villains, and then simply get on with the whole thing.

(Stay with me through that whole sentence? Well done.)

Cylon centurion and Six5. Cylons, Battlestar Galactica. I’m speaking here specifically of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which has aired within the past decade. When the reboot production team set out to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe, the most fundamental change they made was to the story’s villain, the Cylons, the race of robots who wipe out human civilisation in the series’s opening episode. No longer were the Cylons of alien origin; now, they were manmade, our servants who had gained sentience and turned on their masters. And the face of the Cylons was no longer the lifeless, metal visage of a Centurion warrior, but instead the twelve different models of human Cylon, androids who looked, sounded and even registered medically as completely human, who felt emotions and who could move invisibly among the real humans, but who when killed would simply have their consciousnesses downloaded into a new body. I think the key facet in Battlestar Galactica’s success is that it is a story of its time, of the post-9/11 world. And the human Cylons play into that perfectly–the suspicion, the paranoia, the witch-hunts brought about by not knowing if the person next to you, apparently your friend, could in fact be your enemy, an enemy who has no fear of death because they know that death will only lead to their own resurrection.

4. The Storm King, the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. As a writer, I am intensely jealous of Ineluki the Storm King. He is the perfect villain: an evil, implacable, formless elemental force, possessed of great power, whose only goal is the complete destruction of humanity–and yet we sympathise with him. The tragedy of his fate tugs at us–that he had once been a member of the beautiful, peaceful, immortal elven race, the Sithi, and that it was a last, unsuccessful attempt to save the Sithi from genocide at the hands of humanity that led to his resurrection as a being of sheer malevolence. We can’t even really condemn him for wanting to revenge himself on humanity by wreaking our destruction.

Scorpius and Captain Crais3. Peacekeepers, Farscape. It is part of the central genius of Farscape that when American John Crichton finds himself stranded in a distant part of the universe, all the alien races he encounter look nothing like us–all except for the Peacekeepers, the ruthless, efficient, hierarchical mercenary military organisation whose various representatives hunt Crichton relentlessly over the course of the series. In other words, the only characters who look human in Farscape (apart from the two central characters, Crichton and renegade Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun) are the bad guys. In addition to the baseline appeal of that idea, there’s also the fact that it aids drama considerably–every new alien the main characters encounter assumes Crichton is a Sebacean (the Peacekeepers’ species), and therefore distrusts him; and Crichton is able to disguise himself and infiltrate the Peacekeepers when the situation warrants. And besides all that, the Peacekeepers are just deeply cool–all black leather with red accents, and warships whose bridges are decorated in a 1930s industrial art deco motif.

Darth Vader2. Darth Vader, Star Wars. Our society doesn’t do narrative tragedy anymore, and that’s a shame. While it’s certainly true, as well know, that George Lucas knew that A New Hope was in fact the middle of the Star Wars story even when it was released in 1977, it’s not true that the Star Wars story was always the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. When, in A New Hope, Ben Kenobi tells Luke that his apprentice Darth Vader turned to evil and “betrayed and murdered your father”, he meant that quite literally, regardless of one’s point of view. It was only during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that the full story was developed, including Vader’s true identity and his relationship to Luke and Leia. I think it’s no accident that during that process, Star Wars as a story shifted its emphasis steadily until Darth Vader is indisputably its main character. That shift reflected Darth Vader’s popularity, and his appeal both to storytellers and their audiences–because, like Ineluki the Storm King, he is a genuinely tragic figure. He turns the Dark Side because of motives we can all identify with and even applaud; in the end, he’s redeemed, but because of all the awful things he’s done in the meantime, that redemption can only come through death.

Three Daleks1. The Daleks, Doctor Who. It’s chic in certain circles nowadays to be tired of Daleks, to declare that they’re overrated. Pish tosh, I say. Daleks are badass. They turned a low-budget educational children’s show into one of the world’s two most science fiction franchises, now approaching its fiftieth year. They spawned two spin-off movies of their own. They appear in the Oxford. English. Dictionary. You don’t accomplish all that without being badass. Everyone always has a hypothesis to explain their universal appeal; I think it’s a combination of a number of factors. There’s their obvious function as Nazi-analogues; Nazis, with their combination of coolness, discipline and loathsome evilness, are simply always going to be appealing (so appealing that Republican congressional candidates dress up like them). Tying in with that, there’s the fact that they are essentially bullies–so relentless and invincible inside their travel machines, but with a powerless, pathetic little blob of a lifeform, the Kaled Mutant, inside them. (I’ve heard it hypothesised that every child identifies with the Kaled Mutant; that they all want to climb inside a Mark III Travel Machine and exterminate their parents and their teachers.) And chiefly, I think it’s that their utterly devoid of anything anthropoid in their appearance–they’re totally alien. No legs. No head. No humanoid limbs. That intonationless, wobulated voice.

Basically, they’re badass.

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The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al RassanOver the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan–poet, diplomat, soldier–until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddites’ most celebrated–and feared–military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond….

I’ve talked before about my love for the work of Guy Gavriel Kay. At three, he has more books on my list of favourite books than any other author, fiction or non-fiction. We’ve now reached the first of those, no. 41, The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Kay isn’t my favourite fantasy writer (though he’s in the top two or three), but he does write the most thoughtful and intelligent fantasy I’ve ever read. You won’t find any dragons in his books, and generally you’ll find next to no magic–Al-Rassan, to the best of my recollection, doesn’t have a single instance of magic in it. But you’ll find examinations of characters and of the societies they form.

Kay’s written at length about fantasy’s potential as a genre of literary, rather than adventure, fiction. He made another great point about this on his website earlier this week (scroll down to the 12 April entry if more have appeared above it), after finding that Gerald Martin’s new biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez defines magical realism as a genre in which the world is as the characters believe it to be … without any indication from the author that this world-view is quaint, folkloric or superstitious.

This is very close to language Kay himself has used about the potential of fantasy, again and again–that by casting his characters in fantasy settings, rather than historical ones–he can make his worlds match his characters’ perceptions of it. Thereby he can remove the condescension we feel towards these characters for believing in witchcraft or fairies or the evil eye–and remove a mechanism we use for separating ourselves from the characters.

His books are often wrapped up in the atmosphere and culture of historical societies. Tigana is redolent with Renaissance Italy; Sailing to Sarantium and its sequel are set against Justinian’s Byzantine Empire; his new book, Under Heaven, is apparently based on medieval China (so I might soon have to revise that statement about a lack of dragons).

The Lions of Al-Rassan is steeped in Spain under Moorish rule, just before the Christian rump states in the north launched the Reconquista. (The book is in no small part a re-telling of the story of El Cid.) The Asharites (Moors) have ruled Al-Rassan for centuries, but have grown decadent and weak; the Jaddite (Christian) kingdoms are poised to launch an invasion. Amidst this, the greatest warlords of each side offend their respective kings and are exiled, turned into swords for hire. And then they find themselves drawn to the same woman, a healer of the despised, outcast Kindath (Jews).

In these posts, I talk about my favourite books, and discuss why I like them so much; this implies a recommendation, of course, but recommendation isn’t my main purpose. But today, I am actively recommending that if you haven’t before, you check out Guy Gavriel Kay.

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Shanghai
Words yesterday: 1356
Words total: 5061

Time spent writing: I don’t know I can really answer this. I wrote from noon to 2pm, but then I also managed to keep writing for much of the afternoon while the kids were awake. But of course it was haphazard at that point, because I kept getting called away every five minutes. I’m sort of impressed with myself managing it.
Darling: He wore a suit that looked finely made and that had probably fetched a handsome price at the time it had first been tailored, but now it looked threadbare and distinctly old fashioned.
Words that boggled Word: knifeblade
New words today: switchblade, coolies

Bildungsroman

Catherine ParrI’ve been immersing myself in eighth-century Europe and the Near East, though my progress there has been distracted a bit over the past two weeks or so. I don’t have a very cohesive picture of what this project’s going to look like yet, but I do have one or two ideas that are starting to take shape.

One of those ideas is about the story’s protagonist–or in this case, protagonists, since there are two of them whom I would like to function on a more-or-less even footing. They’re twins, a boy and a girl, teenagers.

Neither of these is my typical hero. Most often I write about older men, usually within about five years (in either direction) of forty. Often they’re old soldiers, or otherwise seasoned. They’re men who have had time for life to embitter them–they usually have something pretty dark in their past.

While I don’t find them to be the same character, this is certainly a decent description of the heroes of Inheritance and Masks and Shadows. So since this project I’m working on now is book two of the cycle, coming between Inheritance (book one) and Masks and Shadows (book three), I would ordinarily, therefore, be pretty happy that my new protagonists are looking so different from the standard model.

The problem, though, is that I’m writing a mediaeval fantasy–and my heroes are a teenage boy and girl. The single most cliché hero it’s possible for a mediaeval fantasy to have is a teenage boy. And the second most cliché hero it’s possible to have is a teenage girl. Indeed, it’s only the fact that I’ve got both that makes me feel like this is anything other than a complete cliché.

This isn’t a dealbreaker, of course. There are an infinite number of ways for a decent writer to start from a cliché and still craft a compelling story. For the female protagonist in particular, I’m rather excited about an idea that will let her be genuinely the prime mover of her half of the plot while avoiding another cliché, one that annoys me like few others when it appears–when the tomboy heroine serves as the Unrealistic Smasher of Gender Role Stereotypes.

So we’ll see.

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Hackneyed fantasy rule no. 123

Rather than being polite and using names, everyone must instead address others by some sort of superficial character description:

“Brother, have I ever lied to you?”

“I grow tired of your word games, old woman.”

“Do not think to trick me again, traitor.”

“You remind me more and more of your grandfather, heir of Valerius.”

Please don’t think for a second that I’m claiming my own fantasy isn’t full of this. In fact, that last example is a direct quotation from Inheritance.

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Staying behind by choice

Left BehindThose of you who look the five random book titles that pop up on the left side of the screen might have noticed that I own all twelve volumes of the Left Behind series of novels. Actually, in this case it’s more that we own all seven volumes, since these were definitely purchases motivated by Lisa, not me. I could only force myself to get through the first two volumes in the series before I had to give up on them–and that was purely because of how excruciatingly bad the writing was, without having any idea also just how bad was the theology that’s the series’s whole raison d’etre.

I don’t know if any of you, beyond Lisa, have read the original Left Behind series (I say “original” because, like with so many series of more mundane inspiration, after they had completed the story they set out to tell, co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins somehow found there was now more to tell us about and began publishing prequels and sequels). But if any of you have, or if you’re interested in the series, then allow me to recommend something far more engaging and thought-provoking than the series itself.

I’ve spent the past week or so reading through the extensive Left Behind archive at Slacktivist. This is a detailed examination of the series (well, so far just of the first volume), in which Fred Clark goes through it page by page. Mr Clark’s day job when he’s not writing Slacktivist is editor of PRISM magazine, journal of Evangelicals for Social Action. What’s more, he is–somewhat unsurprisingly, I should hope–an Evangelical Christian, a member of precisely the main target demographic that the Left Behind series is proselytising to.

When I gave up on the Left Behind books–or as Mr Clark calls them, the Worst Books Ever Written–it was because the writing was so absolutely atrocious at every level. There was, firstly, the simple issue of pure writing craft: right from page one, Jerry B. Jenkins–the Left Behind co-author who does the actual writing–actively works to make sure the reader can never engage with the story by making sure the writing constantly keeps us at arm’s length from what’s actually going on.

Jenkins has absolutely no concept of show-don’t-tell. Time and again, the reader is told something is the case, even if we’re provided nothing to evidence that–or, in fact, if the evidence would seem to point to the opposite being true. For instance, one of Our Heroes, Buck, is immediately labelled the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time (or as Clark calls him, the GIRAT), despite the fact that any journalist who acted like Buck does might well qualify as the most incompetent journalist in the world.

The novel opens with the Rapture, when about a third of the world’s population spontaneously vanishes, transported up to Heaven. In seconds this causes untold mayhem, due to the crashes resulting from cars whose drivers were raptured and planes whose pilots were raptured. At the time of the Rapture Buck is on a jet liner whose pilot has to skirt half a dozen crashed planes on the runway as he lands. The plane then has to park at the end of the runway, half a mile from the airport, and the passengers and crew have to walk back to the terminal. Buck, as the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time, must hurry over to the wrecks and immediately start covering them–or even helping the desperately overstretched emergency services pull survivors from the wreckage, right? Um … well, actually … if he did that, not only might Jenkins run the risk of actual competent characterisation of one of our two heroes, but he’d also have to actually describe the devastation he’s already spent quite enough time on simply by telling us it’s happened. Never show us what you can tell us about instead! So Buck blows past by all the devastating crash sites between him and the terminal without a second glance, and in fact feels rather proud of himself for beating everyone else from his flight back to the airport.

Beyond such basic competencies as a writer, though, what also bugged me about the Left Behind books is that coauthors LaHaye and Jenkins seem to be writing about topics they genuinely don’t understand. They’re End Times theorists, which means that they’re very interested in those aspects of modernday life that they think will be important tools of the Antichrist, like the United Nations, “World Jewry” or the news media. And Tim LaHaye’s wife Beverly is the founder of Concerned Women for America, the United States’ leading anti-feminist organisation. So feminism is a big focus of the LaHaye household and had been for over fifteen years at the time Left Behind was published.

And yet any attempt they make to depict the United Nations, or the news media, or Judaism, or a feminist, or even the friggin’ Holy Land itself, you just want to smile sympathetically and pat them on their heads for their weird little efforts. (And if you didn’t find any of those offensive enough, check out LaHaye & Jenkins’ attempt to let us know that all those doctors and nurses and counsellors who dedicate themselves to women’s reproductive health are just in it for the riches to be had from the booming abortion industry, something they decided to insert apparently just out of a selfless desire to enlighten us, since it certainly doesn’t have any relevance whatsoever to the story they’re telling.)

The specific episode in Left Behind that made me realise that, as a reader, I couldn’t give the authors credibility on … well, anything, was the Antichrist’s speech at the United Nations a week after the Rapture. Evidently this passage makes quite an impact on Clark, too, since he devoted three separate posts to it.

This is the scene where the Antichrist makes his first appearance to the world, enrapturing (hehe) and inspiring us with his charisma, his wisdom and his message of peace, generating the goodwill that will see him rise easily to become ruler of the world. And he achieves all this–by the end of his speech, his entire audience, including jaded diplomats and reporters, are cheering and spilling tears, and when the speech is broadcast around the world it creates a global speech.

Except that the thing is, this stirring, inspiring speech–comprises reciting a list of the UN’s secretaries-general, a list of the various UN agencies (including their directors and the location of their headquarters!) and then, I kid you not, an alphabetical recitation of every member country of the United Nations. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up (except apparently you can.)

(Clark, incidentally, misses another part of this sequence that I found rather annoying, the regular repetition of how impressed everyone is with the Antichrist’s “knowledge and grasp of the UN and its mission”, which is apparently even more impressive since he doesn’t come from one of the UN’s five Great Powers. With this little piece of profound–and profoundly insulting–condescension towards everyone on the planet who doesn’t happen to be a citizen of France, Great Britain, Russia, China or the United States, the coauthors make such fools of themselves that I genuinely don’t know which irony to pursue. Is it that it seems to weird to assert that anyone could have trouble grasping the UN’s mission in the first place–except that the authors themselves are demonstrating that it certainly is possible to have deeply weird and misinformed views on that body? Or is it that they’re insulting the basic comprehension skills of everyone outside the five Powers, when demonstrating that those of us who come from one of the Great Powers are still capable of remarkable ignorance ourselves?)*

But Clark’s analysis moves beyond just all the horrible writing. Because he’s an Evangelical Christian, and an exceptionally literate and well-educated one at that, he can discuss–lucidly and authoritatively–all the shoddy and, in fact, heretical theology behind the Left Behind books, as well.

Think about the Left Behind series. What comes to mind? If you’ve read them, you’re already aware how badly written they are. And even if you haven’t, the Rapture and the End Times are enough a part of how hateful their theology is.

But somewhere in there, when you read the words “Left Behind”, was probably the word literal (unless you happen to have sufficient knowledge on the subject to realise that’s not true). Because somehow LaHaye, Jenkins and their partisans have managed to create the illusion that the timeline they depict in the Left Behind series can be found in the Bible. They describe their books, and their Christianity, as springing from Biblical literalism. Journalists who cover them–even those who are writing about how hateful the books are or about what sort of twisted, dangerous politics their believers engage in–then unquestioningly repeat this description. Partly, I think, this comes from journalistic laziness or ignorance, but also it comes from the trend in America that as soon as someone claims to be acting out of Christian conviction, they’re suddenly free to say or do whatever they want without getting called on it, no matter how crazy or divorced from reality their words or actions might be.**

Of course, if by literal you mean “picking and choosing only those passage you want to interpret, and even then claiming that you can only understand their meanings by treating them like some sort of arcane code that has to be deciphered rather than by reading them, you know, literally, hopping randomly around the Bible as you string together your timeline, and declaring that key passages like the Sermon on the Mount don’t apply to you”, then sure, LaHaye and Jenkins’s particular brand of Biblical deconstruction–called premillennial dispensationalism–might be considered literal. For those who actually know the definition of the word literal, though, we’d need an alternate word to describe such a reading.

Now, I couldn’t hope to provide a coherent or detailed refutation of this peculiarly American Christian heresy, because I don’t have the knowledge base. But Clark does. My favourite post on the subject is this one, but there are many others throughout the archive that I’ve found just as fascinating. At the moment Slacktivist’s earliest Left Behind post is here. Even if you’ve made the very wise decision not to check out the books yourself, I recommend the archive as a little window into the mindset of the ten million Americans who have read them.

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*The sentiment becomes even more bizarre when we realise that LaHaye and Jenkins are only further highlighting their own ignorance of the United Nations. It’s impossible for it even to occur to you that whether or not you come from one of the Security Council powers should have anything do with your understanding of or engagement with the UN if one is aware of the basic fact that the United Nations have never elected a secretary-general from within the five powers. (Englishman Gladwyn Jebb served as “Acting Secretary-General” for three months in 1945/46 until the General Assembly could elect a true secretary-general at its first meeting.)

**To a degree it reminds me of when The Passion of the Christ (or as I prefer to call it, Two Hours of Beating the Bejeezus out of Jesus) came out, and people you really thought should know better–people you’d really expect to have read the New Testament–kept going on and on with their praise for the movie being so true to the Gospels, when in fact there’s very, very little of The Passion that can claim a Biblical basis. The Passion’s primary texts are quite evidently the Roman Catholic Chuch’s Stations of the Cross (several of which have no Gospel basis) and The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a hallucination suffered by a nineteenth-century Catholic nun.

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The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins

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The hallowed death of Harry Potter (SPOILERS)

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsSo I finished early this afternoon. My thoughts:

–Let me open by repeating what I said yesterday: not including Hogwarts highlights how essential Hogwarts is to the books; it provides a connecting strand for the disjointed series of events that make up the first few hundred pages of a Harry Potter novel, allowing JK Rowling to create the illusion of plot.

–You know how, around one to two thirds of the way into a Harry Potter novel, Rowling finally finishes setting up all the things she wants to set up, and then the actual linear plot starts and the book really catches your interest? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is 759 pages long, and we finally reach that point on page 592.

–Bearing in mind the above two points: we finally return to Hogwarts around page 580.

–Bearing in mind conclusions always suck. Witness “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2”; or even Return of the Jedi, which–while I think sometimes it gets unfairly slated by Star Wars fans–simply isn’t on the same level as The Empire Strikes Back. Bearing that in mind, this wasn’t a bad read. And it could have been a lot worse.

–ME: Considering that big resolutions always blow chunks … this one could have been a lot worse.
NIKKI: Coming from you, I think that might be high praise for jk.

–Everyone was pretty much aware that there was a giant checklist of items that needed to be accomplished in book seven, right? Cause there seem to be a lot of people on Teh Intertubes who are disappointed. Did they expect the “Check-the-items-off-the-list-one-by-one” book to mark a sharp rise in quality from the author or something?

–Reading this book is a bit like reading the outline (or perhaps the pitch) for a video game:

After the opening action sequence (the Seven Potters), we go to world one (the Burrow), where we explore, gain information, pick up inventory items, survive encounters with bad guys.
Then go to world two (the Ministry of Magic) and repeat.
Go to world three (Godric’s Hollow), repeat.
Go to world four (the forest), repeat.
Go to world five (Malfoy Manor), repeat.
Go to world six (Gringotts), repeat.
Go to world seven (Hogwarts), repeat.

–So Harry and the Gang are trapped on a dragon’s back worried about being thrown off–and there’s no mention whatsoever that they already know a really common spell to teleport away (which they’ve spent the past six months using to travel around the country), not to mention a spell to suspend them in mid-air if they get thrown from the dragon’s back (which they have just used during their raid of Gringotts Bank).

–Most annoying element of the book: the clumsy way characters from previous books were regularly introduced just so they could immediately be killed off, which was pretty clearly only being done to make sure we all get that this is the Big Last Book and the situation has So Much Gravity.

–High point of the book: having the subtlety never to make explicit that the deformed baby in King’s Cross Station was Lord Voldemort. It’s the little touches like that that show JK Rowling has the potential to become quite a good novelist one day.

–I don’t know if it’s me getting used to her writing or her getting lazy, but it’s becoming so obvious to me when something minor is introduced that’s actually going to be revealed to be super-important in a few chapters that she might as well put flashing lights around it.

–Scratch that. Real most annoying element of the book: that the reader and the main characters spend four hundred pages knowing that the next steps are to visit Godric’s Hollow and Hogwarts and instead keep finding excuses not to do so. And then later on, it’s even made explicit in dialogue that this is what was going on. I really really hate it when the characters’ refusal to advance the plot is actually made a plot point.

–I’m fine with mentioning how Voldemort is too arrogant to think that anyone else could ever know Hogwarts enough to find the diadem. But I really think it’s going over the top to actually have the internal monologue where he calls it “the room that only he could be crafty and cunning enough to discover” (or whatever the exact wording is), especially considering that he hid the diadem in THE ROOM FULL OF CRAP ACCUMULATED OVER THE CENTURIES BY PUPILS LOOKING TO HIDE STUFF.

–JK Rowling apparently doesn’t Americanise the word “pants”. “Merlin’s pants” isn’t referring to his trousers.

–Part of me is really disappointed that Snape turned out to be good, just because everyone concluded so instantly that he wasn’t really evil anyway.

–A pair of seventeen year olds of different genders living in the woods with no human contact for three months. Anyone really think there’s any chance that Harry and Hermione didn’t do it like rabbits?

–If Draco and Ginny can ever take corporeal form, they should sue the pants (hehe) off JK Rowling for criminal character underdevelopment. Especially Draco. We got nothing–neither a confirmation that he’d chosen Voldemort once and for all, nor a decision to forsake him and choose the good side (even if just out of cowardice) after all. Despite it being pretty clear throughout this book and the last that he was going through some major existential struggle that would lead to a good character climax.

–Still say Harry should have died. Have never said she actually would kill Harry off, but simply that the story wants Harry to be killed off, both narratively–Harry exists purely to counterbalance Voldemort, so once Voldemort’s dead, he no longer has a purpose in life (as the epilogue unintentionally confirms)–and in terms of character development–for seven books (perhaps this one most of all, except for The Philosopher’s Stone), we’ve constantly been told how much Harry misses and wants to be reunited with his parents.

–Neville’s big gigantic heroic moment that’s been being telegraphed increasingly stridently for the past three or four books? That would be a big giant falls-flat-on-its-face. He’s publicly humiliated and even mildly tortured by Voldemort, and then, “Many things happened at once.” And in amongst them, taking up about a single sentence, is Neville’s big moment of heroism.

At a minimum, he needed to have his heroics be centre-stage. Preferably killing Bellatrix, sacrificing himself so that Harry can move on to Voldemort. (If Harry survives, Neville should die. One of the two of them needed to die.)

–Speaking of the “many things happening at once”: until it was rescued by Bellatrix’s death and Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort, the big grand climactic showdown fell really flat. Why? Because none of those “many things happening at once” need Harry. Everyone believes Harry is dead, and they proceed to save the day anyway. In fact, now that Voldemort has destroyed his own ability to cast spells by cursing Harry, they don’t even need Harry to be the one to kill the Dark Lord in the end. Voldemort really could have killed Harry with sixty pages to go, and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to the outcome.

–The epilogue is truly an epilogue; it’s not part of the story, either of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or of the series as a whole. Which means that the story of the seven books actually concludes with the end of the last chapter. Which makes it rather odd that the concluding scene wrapping the whole seven books up and putting a bow on them with its melancholy we-have-come-the-end-of-our-road mood revolves around the disposal of an item (the Elder Wand) that’s not even introduced as a concept until over half way through book seven.

–Ah, the epilogue. What a crappy waste of space. It’s clearly a writing exercise performed before book two was even started, probably even earlier than that. Let me repeat: a writing exercise, whose sole purpose is to allow the author to get to know her characters better. It has no purpose being in a published edition. The only reason it is in the published edition is to allow JK Rowling to have spent the last decade running around telling everybody she’s already written the last chapter. Just like the only reason that horribly inappropriate final line about Harry’s scar is tacked onto the end of the epilogue even though it bears no logical relationship whatsoever to what precedes it, is so that she can have spent the past decade running around telling everyone the final word is scar.

What’s more, I really hate the way it validates high school hormonal romance as being soulmate companionship. Not really the message I think we need to be sending out in a book aimed at adolescents.

–It seems pretty strange for Harry to describe Snape as “the bravest man he ever met”, thirty minutes of flashback about how Snape had no problem with the murder of James and Harry so long as Voldemort kept around Lily–grieving wife and mother–for him to bone her notwithstanding.

–Draco is such a huge fan of Farscape that he named his son Scorpius?

–So presumably, Harry James Potter now has a son named James Harry Potter. Can we get more egotistical? And is it really fair that Ginny seems not to have had any input into the naming of her children?

–Still on the epilogue here. And I’m sorry, but a brief moment of Harry telling his son it’s all right to be Slytherin does not counteract the seven books worth of being told that you can make instant and damning judgements about a person’s moral integrity based purely on the Wizarding equivalent of their skin colour. Especially since Harry then immediately says, “And while I have to make noises about how it’s okay for you to be a Slytherin, that’s all right since there’s no possibility of the Sorting Hat making you be such a filthy thing, anyway.”

–And, pulled from Teh Intertubes, in the grand tradition of, “If your audience doesn’t like a resolution, they’ll just keep insisting you haven’t resolved it yet”: “The story seems perfectly set up for a sequel! (Even if JKR doesn’t write it, will she let people play in her universe?) I like that there were a lot of loose ends, as that’s what happens in real life.”

Um … what loose ends? The identity of Draco’s wife?

Ahh, well. It’s been a fun ride. Rarely have I encountered a storyteller who can so successfully take a bunch of elements that are basically just a bunch of old, over-used clichés* and weaving them into a story that somehow feels so fresh. And that, in case anyone is wondering, is a compliment–and it’s definitely not a backhanded one.

I

*Starting off (even beyond the obvious Jesus imagery of Harry Potter) with the very concept of witch-school being the quintessential English public school. It honestly still surprises me, when discussing Harry Potter with Americans, how few of them are aware of the body of English children’s literature/television built around that concept.

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Midnight parties are deathly hollow

So last night I had the “privilege” of working yet another Harry Potter release party. My specific role was to shift twenty-five hundred copies of the book from their locked storage closet upstairs to the cash registers, which has left me sore all over today

And which involved dragging flatbed handcarts laden with Harry Potter across a crowded sales floor, inducing much ooing and ahhing over the sight of a stack of plain white boxes with the Harry Potter logo on them. (And no, sir, it wasn’t particularly funny the first seventeen hundred times someone made a crack to the effect of, “Grab one off the back,” or, “Let’s rush him and steal all the books,” but when you say it, you imbue it with a glamour and wit it hasn’t previously had.)

What really got me, though, was the amount of ignorance displayed by my own colleagues about how the publishing industry works. I mean, I appreciate that they rarely (never) get to see something with the amount of hype a Harry Potter release generates, but they still have to deal with books with hard street dates every Tuesday. They know that such books come in clearly labelled boxes. They know that such books arrive a week beforehand. So to somehow be expecting that our Harry Potter books don’t arrive till the afternoon of their release, or to make comments like, “If they’re supposed to be secret, if they’ve got ‘Harry Potter’ plastered all over them?” (who on Earth said the boxes are supposed to be secret? Wouldn’t shipping them in “secret boxes” just mean we have to open the boxes to find out what’s inside?) comes off as more than a little amateurish to me.

Can’t say I’m sorry I’ll never have to work one of those parties again. Though at least this time they found me the perfect job–being the person who got to tell everyone to stay the heck away from the books. It’s a big step up from the release party for no. 5, where I had to work it as the friggin’ children’s lead. Yay.

VERY MINOR SPOILER COMING UP; FOLLOWED BY A SPOILER-FREE JOKE/CONTEST

Currently I’m 268 pages into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The only comment I have so far is that I think it was a mistake to have Harry drop out of Hogwarts–reading a (so-far) Hogwarts-free HP book is highlighting how much Hogwarts really tied each of the previous books together and allowed J.K. Rowling O.B.E. to create the illusion of plot.

END OF SPOILER; ON TO JOKE

So I spent the nine hours of my shift last night coming up with various predictions as to how the books will end. Here are some that I think are most likely:

1. Lord Voldemort turns out to be Harry’s and Hermione’s secret father.

2. Harry drowns the Death Eaters by draining the Thames down their hidey-hole.

3. Harry defeats Voldemort by bluffing him into believing that he’s boobytrapped his wand with Corbomite.

4. It turns out the first six books are really just a fairy story Harry has been improvising during his interrogation by the Minister of Magic, using names from clippings stapled to the wall over the Minister’s shoulder, and really, Harry is Lord Voldemort.

5. Voldemort gets all the Horcruxes before Harry, but when he opens them, he finds that instead of giving him supreme power, they kill him and his minions. Harry and Hermione, tied up in a corner, survive by closing their eyes.

6. Actually, Dumbledore is still alive; he survived by wearing a spellproof jacket, after deciding to read the warning Harry had sent him from the future, after all.

7. Voldemort actually dies pretty early on, just after killing Neville; turns out he was just being manipulated by Bellatrix, the true evil mastermind. Only Bellatrix dies another two hundred pages further in; turns out, she was being manipulated by Draco, the true evil mastermind. Only at the end, when Draco suddenly gets killed, do we discover that the whole situation had actually been set up by Neville–who wasn’t really killed, and who had been setting everything up all along.

8. Voldemort died years ago; all these evil things that have been happening have actually just been Lucius Malfoy, who keeps Voldemort’s fully-dressed corpse in a chair in his living room.

9. Harry’s broomstick is Rosebud.

10. You turn to the last page, and it just goes blank.

Contest: A prize (well, not really) to whoever can correctly identify all ten predictions without looking them up.

I

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I just wanna write about wizards, darn it

William Hartnell as the DoctorSome of have probably been wondering why any news on the progress of Inheritance suddenly vanished (he flatters himself). Things were chugging along; I was working through the book’s first speedbump by coming up with a sketchy outline of what had come before and what was still to come.

Around this time I received an email from my agent, asking what I was working on. So I sent him back a note about Inheritance, and about the whole “VC Andrews plan” I have for the book’s antagonist.

His response was polite but unethusiastic–his main objection seems to be the small number of editors publishing fantasy in this country (about fifteen). He suggested, instead, that I write a thriller. The consistent objection coming back from publishers regarding A Traitor’s Loyalty is that it’s alternate history, so he reasons that a straight thriller will have a much better chance of selling.

My agent certainly has experience representing speculative fiction–he sold the Sir Apropos novels by Peter David, for instance–but I can understand why he’d be leary about taking on a fantasy title by an untried author. And I can also understand, given the current market (thanks a lot, Dan Brown) why he’d be looking for new thrillers.

By nature, though, I’m a spec fiction author (specifically, alternate history and fantasy). For my first novel, I wrote an alternate history that happened to be couched in the form of a thriller (because thriller made the most sense for a novel about Europe under a victorious Third Reich). But I’m guessing now that when I submitted to him, my agent read a thriller that happens to be an alternate history.

To be honest, I’ve got no problem in principle with writing a thriller just because it’s more marketable than a fantasy.* You want to be a marketable author, you need to write something the market will support. I always understood, for instance, that I’ve got pretty much no chance of doing what I dream of doing, which is being a novelist who writes alternate histories positioned as historical novels rather than as sci fi novels.

I don’t think I could write–or would want to write–a contemporary thriller, a la The Da Vinci Code, but I do think that the historical thriller, like the books of Alan Furst, is something I have in me.

But I’m finding that I’m having trouble pushing my mind from the “spec fiction” track onto the “thriller” track. Whenever I come across an element that catches my imagination enough to start building a story round, or to incorporate into an existing story idea, my mind wants to run off on alternate history tangents, not historical thriller tangents.

I do have a few ideas so far that are catching my interest, but I haven’t been able to do anything concrete about them. And I’m reading a bunch of books of the sort I’d like to write–an Alan Furst right now, an Ian Fleming and an Eric Ambler next on the list.

So at the moment I find myself oscillating between continuing Inheritance or trying to turn my mind fully toward thrillers. While this goes on, my brain is trying to divide itself between working on Inheritance and working on thriller ideas (while not really having any one specific thriller idea to focus on). Which really means that my brain is accomplishing nothing right now.

All of which, for somebody who’d really like to do some writing, is very frustrating.

I

*I am a little leery about the prospect of spending the next twenty years writing thrillers, but that’s a bridge we can cross when we get to it–it’d still be much better than never getting published, for instance.

PS You might be saying to yourself, why is there a picture of Doctor Who at the top of this post? To which I would say, why not?

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