It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.

  1. Juan Manuel Pazos says:

    Your writing is just as amazing as it’s always been. Thank you. And I simpathize: can it really be so difficult to find escapist fun that’s not problematic? Are the options limited to the heady deconstruction of stereotypes or the fun but shallow paint by numbers? It’s certainly worrying that you feel like making excuses for what you’re reading in order to enjoy it, like “this was written in the 1950’s so some sexism is to be expected” or “the only black character has just been killed but I’m sure that’s an ironic commentary on horror movie tropes” or some such thing.

  2. Diatryma says:

    Tanya Huff’s The Silvered did this for me. I really appreciate books that don’t require a ton of brain to read and that don’t invite a ton of brain to analyze, or that invite analysis of the system rather than the book as a single entity. I read a loooot of romance when I’m stressed. Then again, the things that I pick at in romance are not things that pick at me in daily life, so it isn’t as visceral a fight.

  3. sorcharei says:

    I am suffering from a flare-up of chronic depression, probably because my mother is dying, suddenly, unexpectedly, and in a decidedly awful manner. I have lost the ability to manage complex reading, but reading remains my go-to comfort zone, so I have also been looking for light reading that doesn’t annoy me to the point of wishing it were a physical book so I could throw it across the room (because deleting it from my ipad is not nearly as satisfying).

    Your post on default narrative settings was the thing that diagnosed the issue, and I found it so difficult to distinguish new light reading that i could stomach that I “solved the problem” by going to books from my childhood, where my discontent with default narrative settings would be balanced by my remembered delight from the first time I read the thing. Elizabeth Enright, Sydney Taylor, and Edward Eager have been entertaining me while I sit with my mother. It’s not an ideal solution by any means, but it’s worked so far.

    **adding Sword of Fire and Sea to my to-read list*

    • fozmeadows says:

      I’m so sorry about your mother, and can totally understand the need for comfort reading. Can I also recommend the works of Tamora Pierce? Her stuff is truly wonderful.

  4. Juan Manuel Pazos says:

    I’ve had some bad news recently too and I need some comfort reads too. I’ve turned to the Harry Potter films and the Hobbit but some new read along those lines would be mostt welcome. Tamora Pierce is now a clear possibility or maybe Frances Hardinge.

  5. I bounce off many books – even those written with rounded female characters in active roles – because I’m tired of a particular type of narrative. You characterise it here as easy v issue book, and indeed many books can be heavy issue books. But there’s another set of books which tend to fall into ‘easy reading’ which I think of it as “girl proves she can do stuff boys can do” books. There’s lots of books like this. They’ve been an important part of the development of SFF.

    But I’m so bored with that story.

    I don’t want to read version 5000 of “I can do this just as well as a man”. I want to read stories where the woman is interested – and allowed – to have fun. Or where her problems are moral issues which aren’t related to gender. It’s the primary reason I write egalitarian worlds, and most of the reason I’ve very very picky about SFF I pick up to read. Not because the story is a bad one which won’t please me, but because I’ve heard it too many times. It’s not the only story about women which can be told.

  6. Erin Hoffman says:

    Hi there. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this post, and also to express my feeling quite lucky that Sword reached you in this way.

    I don’t know that it matters much, but the effect you describe was very much deliberate. So much so, actually, that the one cold query I sent to an agent when I sold the book talked about specifically this: that I wanted to write escapist fantasy with a progressive world that didn’t go out of its way to tell the reader it was progressive (the agent in question represented a lot of diverse work that I greatly admired). My characters wouldn’t stop to talk about why there were female ship captains or matriarchal gryphon clans, because it doesn’t occur to them that things should be any differently.

    I believe strongly in two things (well, more than two obviously, but at least these two): that works of fiction serve an important palliative humane purpose, and that specifically the fantasy worlds we create are voluntary on their deepest levels. In another type of fiction you might be able to say that element X is present because historically it was so — there is no such valid argument in fantasy. Everything that is there is there because we *want* it there.

    My litmus test for a fantasy world, in terms of this palliative value — which I come at also from a game perspective, in part due to my experience designing entertainment for kids and people of limited means — is whether I want to *go to* that world. Even with its problems, I want to go to Pern. I want to go to Xanth. I would never want to go to a world that marginalized women or people in general on any genetic basis. And I don’t want to write for people who do.

    Whew! Sorry to ramble on your blog. Again, though, thanks for writing this, and you made my day. One of the artifacts of writing such a book is that this dimension goes mostly unnoticed because it’s intended to be invisible. So the few times it’s been called out by readers have been hugely rewarding. 🙂 Your path to the book is amusing, too! I recognized your name, I think from a comment on livejournal from long ago, but I’m glad our paths crossed again. 🙂

    All best to you and your baby!

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