Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gritty Fantasy

I've seen many blog posts, interviews, and articles over the past couple years talking about the new wave of gritty fantasy. The usual authors mentioned include Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and George R. R. Martin. Mostly what the articles mention is the focus on realism and everything being shades of gray rather than the old black and white of high fantasy.

I agree with the assessments only in regards to Martin. I love his shades of gray and the truly gritty, mostly realistic portrayals of human nature. I tend to disagree, though, when it comes to the other writers.

I love gritty realism if done properly. This is why Martin is my favorite living fantasy writer. Created worlds that are treated with the same seriousness of our own real world appeal to me.

Abercrombie and Morgan certainly do gritty and absolutely do shades of gray, but what they don't do, in my opinion, is realism. You see, realism doesn't mean only gray, with no admirable people, as we mainly get in their novels. In the real life that I know, people have lots of faults, and there are truly some bad characters out there, but mostly what I see are people who truly try their best to be decent. I've found this to be true even in the most backwards countries that I visit.

That's where these writers go wrong for me. They make everyone pretty much repugnant. No one in their worlds seems to have much altruism. One might argue that their times are different than ours, but I would argue back that regardless of how bad life may have been at any time in history, there have always been at least some people with more positive attitudes toward life or generally more cheerful dispositions. There have always been a few who try to do right. There have always been some heroes, even if not perfect. In Best Served Cold Abercrombie did briefly have one character make a few noises in the direction of wishing to be a better person, but that died quickly as the character evolved into a monster. He did also have another character have a generally cheerful disposition...while being utterly vile in all other respects (and this was the character I liked best in the book).

Martin does a great job of getting this balance right. He has a few flat out bad characters, such as The Mountain That Rides or Tywin Lannister, but mostly he gives us characters that may appear evil at first, but once you get to know them a little better you can see that your first thoughts about them were not necessarily the entire story. This would apply to Jaime Lannister, Tyrion, and a few others.

I don't mean to be overly harsh with Abercrombie and Morgan. I got some enjoyment from their books, and I certainly believe there is an audience for what they do. Their work just doesn't seem as realistic to me as so many bloggers or critics suggest.

My own aim in writing has been to take the sweetness that I love in high fantasy and instill some of the serious realism that I love from Martin. I put shades of gray, but I also have altruism and real heroes...even if flawed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Self-Publishing Dream

Self-publishing is gaining a more and more respect these days, at least to a degree, but traditional publishing retains most of the advantages still. I primarily hold out hope for traditional publishing at some point, but I do have one intriguing idea that nags at my mind every so often, however unrealistic it may be.

Art by Stephan Martiniere
I dream of a book that is as much a work of art as it is a novel. I dream of finding just the right artist - one who loves my work and likes the idea of working with it, in the way that Alan Lee and John Howe and others did with Tolkien's work, while having a style that fits what I wish for in an artist. I dream of having that artist agree to be a partner in creating a high-quality self-published set of works that would stand out from the general self-publishing crowd. Imagine having not just a gorgeous cover, but thirty or so fabulous paintings scattered throughout each book, depicting the most amazing scenes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Being forward thinking has its drawbacks, I guess. I began querying my epic fantasy about a year and a half ago, and in my queries I commented that it was the perfect time to pick up such a book due to the forthcoming Game of Thrones and Hobbit movies. I got some requests from some really great agents but they all ended up saying 'close but not what I'm after right now'.

So, now Game of Thrones has actually come out, and as I knew it would be, it is huge. I expect a few agents are now interested in taking a fresh look at epic fantasy stories. I dislike the fact that I now feel I can't requery any of the many agents I tried already. It's sad, because one of them might actually consider my story in a fresh light now. Heck, George R. R. Martin was the very inspiration for my story, in style at least, though my story is very different. Wouldn't it have been better for an agent to do the work with me to polish the story a year and a half ago so that it could be ready for publishing now when the fire is hot, rather than only now showing interest in epic fantasy?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mercurial Memories

My work in progress is a distant prequel to my fantasy novel The Shard. It is tentatively called The Immortality Game and is a near-future sci-fi thriller set in Moscow in the year 2138. Many things are not as advanced as one might expect, because some catastrophic things have happened between now and then that caused a mini-'dark ages'. In other words, most of the world regressed dramatically for a few decades before new governments were able to restore the veneer of civilization. America, for instance, has been broken up into several smaller countries. One of my characters comes from Western America (I'm trying to think up a more appropriate name for the western part of America breaking off into its own country, so any suggestions are appreciated).
by Christian Hecker
I am having trouble in my current chapter, because the main character is fleeing into the old metro station at Kolomenskaya in Moscow. The entire metro system has long been abandoned, but has been taken over as living space for the many homeless. Since they live in the darkness underground, people refer to the metro dwellers as Trogs (short for Troglodytes).

My memory is betraying me here. I visited Kolomenskaya many times when I lived in Moscow. The park there (a refugee camp in my story) was a place I loved to visit for walks. I simply cannot remember whether the Kolomenskaya metro station had an escalator or just stairs. Most metro stations in Moscow have escalators, many of them quite long, but there are a few that are closer to the surface and have only stairs. I think that this station was one of the latter. Getting a detail like this right is important for a story. I have Googled the station, but the images I get show only the interior. One image looked promising, but it turned out to be for a different station.

*Sigh* This is part of the reason it is great to write fantasy. You don't have to worry about getting real-world details wrong!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fantasy: Where Has the Excitement Gone?

Maybe it has always been this way and I just don't realize it because I am not old enough to have lived through earlier periods, but it sure seems to me that we live in a time where the fantasy is, well, good, perhaps even quite good at times, yet it lacks the excitement I crave.

There were a good many authors in earlier times who produced books that I would pick up excitedly and move them right to the top of my to-read list. Tolkien; Howard; Leiber; LeGuin; the Thieves World series; the early Shannara books; the first five McKiernan books, and so forth, all were must-read for me.

Nowadays the only books that really get me excited and I simply must have them immediately are George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Sure, there are some other pretty good ones out there, from Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series to Patrick Rothfuss's Kvothe books, but even those don't truly get my blood boiling with must-read anticipation.

Is it just me? Have I changed so much? I don't think so, because when I revisit old favorites I still feel that excitement for them. I can reread A Wizard of Earthsea or the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser book as many times as I like and always love them. Only Martin's books do that for me today. I recently finished The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, both of which got rave reviews, yet they were very unexciting for me. I liked them okay and will probably never read them over again.

It's true that I am leaving out YA for the most part (though I suspect LeGuin's books might have been called YA if there was such a category back then), but then I don't much care for YA other than the Harry Potter series (sacrilege, I know, given how many of you out there are so heavily into YA).

What are your thoughts on fantasy today?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Cover I Want

Let me try to show you the cover art that I dream about for my fantasy novel The Shard. It starts here:
Just the knight and horse, not the background, and he should be near the right edge of the painting. Now turn him so that he is facing slightly away from the viewer. I want him in just such a slumped posture and the same with the horse. The man knows he is looking at a scene that changes everything. He knows the long peace the land has known is gone. The only thing wrong with him is that he doesn't wear plate mail armor like this. So, on to the next picture:

This shows what the knight should be wearing...almost. It should look like this except that the surcoat design should have a red and black checkerboard pattern. If the artist puts a shield on him it should have the same pattern.

The knight has some men with him, though the ones on horses could be mainly out of the picture, perhaps just a hint of them showing up behind the primary figure.

Across from the knight is a wall of forest receding to the horizon, the trees all looking like giant redwoods, except that the bark is silver. Between the knight and the forest is sun burnt grass. Two of the trees should have hacking marks in them, with red sap leaking down from the cut. Five bodies should be scattered near the trees, with one out in the field, lying with his head toward the knight. Each body has a single silver-fletched arrow jutting from its back. There should be an axe or two lying near the cut trees. Depending on the balance of the picture, there could be a man-at-arms kneeling near the body and looking up at the knight, or he can be absent. There should be some crows hanging about.

That's about it. This is a scene from early in my book, and I feel it would be a good one to use as cover art. My dream would be to have it done in the style of Alan Lee, since I love his muted colors and elegant realism. I don't need the colors to be quite this muted, but I do want the realism. See this picture for example:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones Love

I realized that it is a little odd that I have posted nothing about the new HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, given that George R. R. Martin was primarily responsible for inspiring me to actually begin writing a book. I consider his A Song of Ice and Fire series to be the best fantasy by a living writer (in second place for me would be A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin).
The reason, I suppose, is that I feel the need to dampen my own excitement over the show, because I won't be able to watch it for many months. Living in Azerbaijan, I have no legal means of watching it until it is released on DVD.

I was saddened to read today about some generally high-quality news media allowing fantasy-hating reviewers to bash the show while smearing women in general. I won't go into detail since others have done much better, but if you haven't read about it, try this link or this one on Tor. It would be better, in my opinion, for these news sources to have people who actually enjoy fantasy do such reviews. That way we could get an honest opinion on how well it was done.
Oh, and while running about the web today, I came across a Gene Wolfe essay on Tolkien and found this great quote (apologies for being off topic):
"Terry Brooks has often been disparaged for imitating Tolkien, particularly by those reviewers who find his books inferior to Tolkien's own. I can say only that I wish there were more imitators -- we need them -- and that all imitations of so great an original must necessarily be inferior."

I'd like to tell all of my readers who love fantasy and sci-fi about The Silver Key, which I just discovered. The writer is far superior to me, yet sadly he has few followers (perhaps he needs to move his Followers widget higher on his page!). I found it well worth my while to spend a couple of hours reading through old posts there, and I imagine many of you would, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Origin of Midas

Do you know why I have that particular photo in the header of my blog? I took this photo when I lived in Zagreb, Croatia from 2002 to 2004. I loved it because of how different it was from the usual statues. Rather than a noble figure on a noble steed with something outthrust (usually a sword or hand or spear), this knight appears weary, slumped, and his horse has its head down.

Ever since I was a teen I had a favorite Dungeons & Dragons character, a paladin named Midas Welby (...he might as well be). Unlike most such knights, who always seem a touch arrogant, my Midas was a truly humble fellow, meant to embody all of the traits that I would ideally like to see in a knight.

In 2006 when I first thought about actually trying to write a book, my mind linked the photo of this statue to Midas, and a scene was born. I imagined him sitting on his horse with a few of his men around him, staring sadly at a scene of devestation that he was well aware meant the end of peace. I loved that you could read everything in his posture. He didn't need to say anything, which was his style anyway. So, I typed out the scene and showed it to a buddy. He liked it, and that encouraged me to continue, slowly but surely.

I am happy with the book. It came out pretty much the way I meant it to. I am a little sad that it isn't a page-burning, can't-put-it-down scorcher. Several readers have said they liked it, but no one has loved it, except for my youngest son (he keeps re-reading it again and again), and he doesn't count as objective. **sigh** I hope someday I can do justice to a story that I love.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I can't write synopses. Rather, I can write them, but not in a manner that works for agents and publishers.

Query letters are a drag, but I can manage them. One doesn't have to tell the whole plot in a query letter. We can pick a single character and a major early catalyst and make an interesting hook to draw in an agent.

It doesn't work that way with a synopsis. There we have to tell about all major characters and plotlines, and give the resolution of the story. Since my stories tend to be very complex with many plotlines and several POV characters, I find writing a synopsis to be so difficult as to be not worth my while. So, when an agent or a publisher asks for a synopsis I simply don't bother submitting to them.

I'm sure that makes them happy. With their shortage of time and huge slushpiles, I am sure they are quite happy not to have my novels adding to their work. I can't help but think, however, that the perfect agent or publisher might be out there and I won't hook up with them simply because they demand a synopsis.

Angry Robot publishing was only the latest such site that sounded promising. It sounded to me like they were really looking for the types of books that I am writing. They wanted a two page synopsis. My complex stories make it impossible for me to write a good five or ten page synopsis, so there is no way I will even attempt a two page one.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bad Books?

I couple of writer buddies and I were discussing some old fantasy novels we had liked when we were teens. I mentioned that I remember liking them but that I had always wished they were a little more realistic. Another mentioned that he still liked them. The third said that he had re-read them as an adult and they were just plain bad.

This got me to thinking about books that are supposedly bad. Yes, to our adult minds such books may indeed be bad. Yet does that qualify them as a bad book if in the taste of teens they are really good? Many of us might argue that yes they are bad, but publishing is a business -- if teens will spend money on books that we adults will sniff at, well that still makes them money-makers.

I wish agents would consider this more often when it comes to certain types of fantasy, such as traditional high fantasy, where almost all agents and publishers seem burnt out on anything that resembles Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons in any way. So what if you think all such work is derivative? If teens and old-timer gaming fans will shell out the bucks for such books, you should be picking them up. One person's 'bad' is another person's favorite type of book.