Review: Blightcross, by C. A. Lang

This was my first ARC, so I was pretty excited to get the l from the publisher, offering a review copy. My little blog is all growed up! And hey, it’s Dieselpunk secondary world fiction, so I was sold on it from the get go.

The cover is very true to the book – the braid, the eye colour and hair colour, the red cravat, the necklace with saphires, all mentioned in the book. The clock tower in the background too. It’s nice to see a cover with a female main character not being over-sexualized, which is doubly appropriate, since there’s no romance in the book. Nice to see an author not trying to shoe-horn it in where it’s not needed.

It’s a very plot driven book, so if you’re a reader who likes a good adventure, this is an Indiana Jones style story. Capra is a Valoii deserter from Mizkov, having abandoned her people and their war against the Ehzeri, and with her military background, she’s a great butt-kicking heroine to center the story around. She’s also found herself in a part of the world where men don’t respect women, and it grates on her terribly. Also, since there’s no romance in the story, she doesn’t suffer from being rescued by the male lead constantly, and ending the story being the trophy girl for the male lead. It reminds me a bit of the Holly Vesper series, by Lloyd Alexander – adventuring heroine without the need for there to be a male love interest to make her interesting.

One thing I really liked was the fact that the plot was well foreshadowed. Things early on in the book matter later, and the hints were subtle, yet the promise was clear. The Archon that Vasi must be sure to keep in check, the giant unseen thing beneath the tarp in the armoury, visible from all over, the Sevari family memorial that the characters don’t have time to check out the first time you see it. All promises that there’s something cool there, and we’ll get to see it later. And then the author follows though on them, and that goes a long way for me, especially when a lot of debut authors forget the foreshadowing.

The other main characters are fairly well developed. There’s Vasi, an Ehzeri, who’s main drive is also not finding someone to fall in love with, but protecting her younger (twit) brother who’s intent on getting himself into the maximum amount of trouble possible. She’s not quite as kick-butt as Capra, but she has more of a quiet, come up from behind kick-assery, being a magic wielder.

Ironically, Lang being a male author, it was more the male characters that I thought could have used a bit more character development, though even there, it’s not that they’re not developed, it’s more that the development doesn’t get in until after the halfway point. Alim, being the exception – an old friend of Capra’s from the military, sent to execute her for desertion, who blames Capra for the death of his wife.

The worldbuilding was fresh. The story takes place in a city built on the oil industry, as mechanization quickly replaces magic in this world. I’ve always been a sucker for worlds where magic and technology are being mixed, so I love the world. Even the oil itself has the background story of being the blood of the fire giants after their legendary figure cast them down into a pit.

The one world building thing that disappointed me though, was the hand cannons, and lack of detail on them. I kept wondering, are they match-lock, wheel-lock, flint lock? The term historically refers to a hand-held version of what looked like a miniature cannon, dating at least 500 years earlier than the time period the rest of the worldbuilding invokes. The weapon in the story was described as having a wooden stock, though and machined barrel, which sounds more like a pistol. There was mention of the long loading time, but little description of how it was loaded and fire, for all that they were used frequently through the story. Nary a mention of cloth or ramrod.

The bit that really made me twitch though, was when a character dropped the shot into the barrel and then the powder.

But I’ll refrain from ranting, because that was a relatively small thing, and overall I liked the book and it’s themes. There’s the background environmental theme, with the chemical output of the refinery, of labour, and treatment of workers and women. I was particularly intrigued when I realized that the Valoii and the Ehzeri are an allegory for Israel and Palestine, and was impressed with the delicate handling of the emotions of that conflict. It’s an allegory that could so very easily be done very badly, but the author didn’t demonize either side. Instead, he presented characters on both sides of the conflict, and made their feelings towards the conflict, and towards one another feel real as individuals, treating them like people, not stereotypes, and not representations of all of their people. Neither side’s characters were presented as “bad guys”, and I think it was respectfully handled.

It ended with a couple loose ends, but I took that to be hooks for the next book. Where things will go from here, I don’t know, but there are some secrets in Capra’s past that haven’t been told yet. I will definitely be looking out for the next book, whenever that comes out.

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The Art of Bad Titles or Words I Swear Never to Use in a Title

There are certain words that make catchy titles, and certain words that make my eyes glaze over if I see them in the title of a book. Basically, if one of the following words is in the title of the book, you’ve got one strike against you in convincing me to read it:

  • Heart
  • Moon
  • Star
  • Crystal
  • Blade
  • Shadow
  • Quest
  • Dream
  • Dark/Darkness

If I ever am tempted to use two of the before mentioned words in a title, somebody please shoot me.

I mean, I’m not the best at titles, but skimming over a list of amateur fiction titles in a workshop, I found at least four to seven titles containing each of those words. I read a couple out to my husband, and he said, “I think I’ve read that book. Like, five times.”

Really, if the best title I can come up with for a story is The Crystal of Dreams, or The Moonblade, or Heart of the Whatever the Hell, then maybe you need to rethink your story. If that really, honestly is the most appropriate title, then, well, I don’t know what to say.

But chances are, it isn’t. Chances are, there’s something more unique and intriguing to your story than the name of the object of power that’s going to save the day when your hero acquires/uses/destroys it. What titles like that tell me, is that this story is about a thing, that’s probably some kind of gimmick that makes the story go, and little more than that. Doesn’t tell me about characters, or anything like that.

Titles that attract me are ones that have more, you know, unique words. Actually, I think the word I’m looking for is specific. Words that refer to something specific, rather than vague ideas. The first thing that comes to mind is the one I keep looking at, and I’m not sure if I’ll read, but the title grabs me, is “Whitechapel Gods.” Whitechapel is a district in London. It has meaning to me. It gives a lot of context to the word “Gods.” The words in my list, they could mean a hundred million things, in context, and paired with another one of the words in the list, it’s even worse, because then you have no context provided by the second word.

Which reminds me, there’s a clause in my vow never to use those words that states that those words may be used freely if they are being used literally. Peter S. Beagle’s story “Two Hearts” refers to the two hearts that a Griffin has, in the world of the story, because both must be pierced to kill it. If a character’s actual heart has been replaced with clockwork, then I’m good with a title like “Clockwork Heart.” I reserve the right to use “Moon” in my title, if the characters are actually traveling to the moon. “Star” and “Dream” would be reserved for sci fi only. The rest, I can’t really think of a good excuse for.

Just my two cents, and just my opinion. Anyone else have anything that makes their eyes glaze over when they see it in a title?

Book Review: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

This is one that caught my eye a long time ago, I think though a blog, and I’ve been meaning to read it. The setting intrigued me, and the book has not disappointed. I bought it  from the Sony Reader Store over my uncle’s wifi, because I was amused at the convenience of being able to buy a book with my new e-reader without having to go home and hook it up to a computer, even to set it up. So, I got it on Christmas Day, when I got the reader, and finished it exactly a week later, on new year’s eve, at a party, huddled in a corner, going OMG there’s only 20 pages left, I can’t stop! Best book I’ve read since The Windup Girl.

What follows may be triggering – the setting is post apocalyptic africa, where the genocides and other activities related to genocides in africa have not stopped. Given that, I should not have to explain what sort of topics this review may contain that may be triggery.

Ok, that’s out of the way.

The story centers around the genocide of an entire people, and how rape is used as a weapon to destroy their spirit. It’s a heartbreaking story, but inspiring, because the main character is so driven. I was interested to see non-erocentric fantasy, and it’s a rich and ugly world that these characters live in. A world where a woman can scream for help to a crowd of onlookers as she’s dragged into an alley to be raped, and the onlookers stand there and watch. They are different people than we are. When Onyesonwu sets out to find her biological father who raped her mother, to stop his bringing his soldiers to rape her people, her mother doesn’t try to stop her, doesn’t try to make her stay home to protect her. No, she looks at her daughter and says, when you find him, kill him.

After some of the recent blog posts complaining about authors dealing with rape poorly, it was good to see it treated as it should be. The author never refers to it as sex, and doesn’t shy away from using the word rape to describe it.

The main character herself is sympathetic, and yet never wallows in sorrow, or if she does, the narrative doesn’t dwell on it. She’s a woman of action, and doesn’t allow herself to indulge in self pity, however lousy her lot. She fights to change it, and I find that the most engaging of character traits.

Onyesonwu also has a relationship with a young man, and it’s a rare one – a healthy one. It’s not that there is never any conflict between the two – not at all, there’s plenty of angst. It’s just not angst that tears them apart. They may argue passionately, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need each other, or that they aren’t right for each other. It’s refreshing to see such a believable couple.

As for the main conflict, nothing is black and white there. As I said, it’s an ugly world, and an ugly war. There can be no victor in such a war. Neither side is innocent, and the story goes into child soldiers, even.

And it will take a miracle to stop it. That’s the sad thing. Much as I liked the book, it makes me sad to think that even in fiction, the author couldn’t find a way to end such atrocities without resorting to magic, which is something that we can’t hope for in real life.

It’s a book that really goes there. It’s very dark, but it’s beautifully written, and paced precisely. I feel like I’ve learned something about being human, that I’m ashamed to know.

Why I write Fantasy and Science Fiction

I have an in person critiquing group that I get out to when I can, and there’s one member I’ve often got together with for coffee or drinks after the meeting. We chat about the craft because the other members of the group tend focus on word choice and phrasing and not to be interested in delving into the more structural aspects of writing.

He has often asked me, in as polite a way as he can, but it’s still pretty obvious that he looks down his nose at genre fiction, if I’ve considered writing mainstream fiction, set in the real world.

I have, it just doesn’t hold my interest. I tried to explain that I don’t go to sit down and write something – the story comes to me, and I write the story that comes.

But I’ve thought about that, and that’s not a complete explanation, because I’ve often had plots come, but not come with settings. I could slap any setting on that plot and run with it.

Only I couldn’t. There is a definite certain type of story that comes to me, and the stories that come to me are big stories. I mean, stories where the characters are influencing the outcomes of wars, revolutions, etc. Things that are big enough that I can’t just set it in the real world because it’s too big to fit. There was never a revolution that went down the way it did in The Eyelet Dove, and the characters are not the little people you can hide in a big event. The plot requires them to be major players, and in history, no such characters and situations existed, and they’re too big to force in without the audience saying, hey, there was never such a character in such and such a time, that could never happen.

There’s just no way to take such plots and tell the story without changing something major in the setting. Which brings you into the realm of alternate universe, futuristic settings, and my personal favourite, secondary world settings. Which is necessarily, the realms of science fiction and fantasy.

I think that may be part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy to many readers, especially the many lovers of epic fantasy. Perhaps the people who read sci-fi and fantasy just think bigger than people who enjoy mainstream fiction, and want to read about people who make real change in the world. In times where free agency dwindles and people have less and less control over their own fates and ability to make a living, and a sense of free agency is a major psychological factor in satisfaction with one’s life, they want to read about characters who take on huge challenges and save their world. People who have the power do something.

Not all Science Fiction and Fantasy is like that, but the stuff I like most is.

Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I promise to get back to the Utopia posts, but I’m in the middle of Nanowrimo now, so here’s something I was working on before I started: A discussion of the nature of steampunk.

It’s often referred to as a genre, an aesthetic, a subculture, a way of life, even. Sometimes it’s only a minor element in a bigger sense of setting in a work of fiction, sometimes it’s the entire point. Some call it science fiction, some call it fantasy.

The obvious: Steampunk is characterized by Victorian or Edwardian aesthetics, or later periods, if you’re getting into Dieselpunk. And there’s the Steam powered gadgetry (or, again, diesel powered, if you’re going Dieselpunk). And finally, unless you’re going Gaslight romance instead of full-fledged Steampunk, there’s the “punk” part – the social commentary.

So, is it science fiction or fantasy? First, then, what’s the defining difference between science fiction and fantasy? The best definition I’ve found is the one given by Robert J. Sawyer: On the difference between Science fiction and fantasy.

So, Science fiction is a possible present or future, where fantasy is a world that never was and never could be. So where does that put Steampunk? It often has “technology” in it, that from where we stand today, we know is impossible and ridiculous, even. Often to bridge the gap of suspension of belief, the author must resort to stating it runs on some form of magic. But just as often, the Steampunk element will be something that, to the people of Victorian or Edwardian times, might have been possible. Like using a zeppelin to fly to the moon. Or even better, a chair with fireworks strapped onto it. (That last one’s an example from a much earlier period than Victorian times, but I had to include it because it’s awesome.)

So people will argue, well, when H. G. Wells was writing, they believed these things were possible. Time machines, making animals sentient, turning people invisible, traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there, submarines that could carry people deep under the sea (oh, wait, that one turned out to be possible). So if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction, then is Steampunk science fiction?

Lets put it in perspective. Look at all the tons of medieval fantasy there is out there. Look at medieval times – what did they believe was possible back then? Well, they believed in mermaids and unicorns, and dragons, and wizards, and magic.  And when people write medieval fantasy now, no one asks whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Granted, no one asked whether it was science fiction or fantasy in medieval times either – but that was only because they hadn’t invented genres yet. For that matter, when H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were writing, it was still being called “Scientific Romance.”

So if we look at it being not the subject matter or setting that defines science fiction, but the perspective of the author, then Steampunk, even when it contains nothing that the author calls magic, is fantasy. Since science fiction looks forward, to what the author believed was possible at the time he/she wrote the work, and fantasy looks backward, at bygone eras, and imagines what fun it would be if the dreams of the past were not shattered by the reality of present knowledge.

This is why you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones.  The point of genre, after all, is to categorize books into if-you-liked-that-then-you-might-like-this, in order to make it easier for readers to find things they’re likely to enjoy.

P.S. – Halfway through nano – a little behind, but catching up. Wish me luck.