Posts Tagged ‘Katharine Kerr’

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole series in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss  a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or  George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively consider nominating –  if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelganger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing  and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.

Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.

There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’  are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests  that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.

The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re  introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.

Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.

Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time lurking around Elfwood, drinking in the fantasy geekness vibe. Particularly, and in addition to gawping at all the awesome artwork on offer, I’d check out member profiles for book and author recommendations, partly because I was still new to reading adult (that is, non YA) fantasy and wanted some reassurance that I’d been picking the right sort of books, but mostly to try and find new authors. Time and again, a name that cropped up as a must-read was Katharine Kerr, which puzzled me at first, because I’d already tried to read A Time of Exile, the first book of her Westlands cycle, and not been able to get into it. This was before I implemented a firm policy of never starting a series midway through, a lazy attitude attributable in no small measure to the difficulties of reliably finding first volumes of anything in second-hand shops – which, as a tween and teen limited to a pocket-money budget, is how I bought most of my books. But even though I’d already tried and, by that sloppy standard, failed to read Kerr’s works – a single attempt being the usual limit of my effort – I couldn’t ignore the regularity with which I saw her books recommended. Thus it was that I expended some energy to acquire the very first book of her very first Deverry series, Daggerspell, in the hopes that reading from the beginning would solve whatever problems I’d hitherto had.

It did, of course, and from then on, I was absolutely hooked. But what I didn’t realise, way back in 1999/2000, was that the series itself – because even though you can break the entire Deverry collection up into four discreet acts, the story they tell is one continuous, interlocking narrative – was incomplete. Having powered through the first two quartets, I finally found myself at the end of The Fire Dragon (third book, third act) with nowhere else to go. And yet, I had hope, because at that time, circa 2001, there was a release date circulating for the planned final book, such that I have a surprisingly solid memory of walking into a local book store to check when it was due, and noting with some excitement that, according to their system, it was only a few months away. Alas for my younger self, this turned out to be something of an ambitious overstatement: due to illness on the author’s part, it was 2006 before the next volume eventuated. Still, I reread all the other books in preparation, then dove right in, eagerly anticipating closure, only to find that there were three more volumes still to come. Though I picked up the next of these a year or so later, by then it had been so long since I’d fully immersed myself in the world that I couldn’t keep track of what was happening – or rather, of the detailed web of backstory, past lives and history connecting all the characters. And so I made a decision: I’d wait until the final book was out, and then, in one grand gesture, reread the entire series start to finish.

It’s been two years since The Silver Mage, the final Deverry book, was released. Ever since we started packing up the bookshelves for our UK move, I’ve had it in mind that this would be the year to tackle the series in full. I even set the books aside on a special shelf at our new house, certain I’d be wanting them sooner or later. I’d planned for it to be later – the number of new books I’ve acquired since January is truly staggering – but all the while, Deverry has been calling me. When I saw The Silver Mage on sale this week, it felt like an omen: though still lacking a copy of the penultimate novel, The Shadow Isle, I went to the shelf, pulled down Daggerspell and started to read.

That was on Tuesday. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just started A Time of Exile, volume five overall. I’ve been hungry for these books, devouring them, and even though I’ve read the early volumes multiple times before, enough time has passed that the story feels new again. Kerr writes beautifully, with an intelligence I can only envy. A Celtic world, Deverry’s richness comes from its reality: humour and hardship feature equally in the characterisation, while the world itself is so perfectly detailed that it can’t help but make me aware of how important research is to a fantasy writer. Magic, politicking, alliances, duty, culture, the minutiae of daily life, historical resonance, religion and local peculiarities are all so lovingly yet naturally rendered that Kerr makes the culmination of 23 years of work look easy – right up until you contemplate doing the same thing, and realise how fiendishly difficult it must be. Small yet crucial details like local accents, the layout of towns given over to specific industries, the daily domestic consequences of war and the problem of communicating over distance are all slipped in, fleshing out the background of every scene without ever resorting to an infodump. And then there’s the characters, so sparsely yet perfectly drawn that it’s like looking at a piece of Japanese calligraphy, with vocal mannerisms, distinguishing physical characteristics and individual quirks investing even those with walk-on parts.

There’s so much I want to say in praise of Deverry – and doubtless I will, once I’ve finished the series this time – but for now, I wanted to make a particular point that has less to do with the series in its own right and more as a commentary on some of the problems extant in the current crop of YA paranormal romance. When I started my current bookblitz, I was looking only to finish a series that’s been dear to me since my early teens; certainly, my motives had nothing to do with finding fodder for the feminism in fantasy argument. And yet, as I re-immersed myself in the main premise of the first four books – that of the ancient dweomerman and former prince, Nevyn, trying to right the chain of wrongs he set in motion four hundred years ago – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the most crucial plot elements are those so popular in current YA paranormal romance. The love triangle, for instance: the whole dilemma Nevyn faces is due to the fact that, once upon a time, he and two other men, Blaen and Gerraent, were in love with the same girl, Brangwen. After a bad decision on Nevyn’s part tragically resulted in the tragic deaths of all three, he was bound to the world, unable to die until he makes things right in their subsequent lives. The reincarnation of lovers is another big YA theme of the day: as Nevyn physically ages, time and again he encounters the souls of Brangwen, Blaen and Gerraent reborn, always together, and always with Brangwen torn between the two men, one – Blaen – her lover, the other – Gerraent – always chasing dangerously after. It’s worth noting, too, that as Kerr takes her realism seriously, Deverry is a society in which thirty is considered a ripe age for a warrior and marriage frequently takes place at fourteen for girls and only slightly older for boys. This means that, as the key players in the drama meet, love, fight and die across various lives – always guided by Nevyn – they are simultaneously adults and teenagers: adults by the measure of their own society, but still teenagers by the standard of our own. Though these reborn souls carry loves and grudges across lives, they don’t remember their past incarnations at all: that is Nevyn’s burden alone, to try and bring Brangwen, who he has loved for four hundred years, to the dweomer, the study of magic, for which she has a powerful natural aptitude.

So, to recap: we have a love triangle, magic, reincarnated lovers, and a rash vow sworn through the ages. Mix any or all of those elements into any number of YA paranormal romances, and what you have is a recipe for angst: eternal male lovers breaking every vow of magic by falling in love with a teenage girl, or two reborn lovers separated by some past wrong struggling desperately to be together, or some other permutation thereof. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy those stories – I do – but I can’t help but applaud Katharine Kerr for breaking a set of narrative tropes which, while still known when she wrote the first quartet between 1986 and 1990, have gone on to become a backbone of popular YA culture. Perhaps this is just the benefit of telling a story that can show the events of multiple incarnations, but not every instance of the trio meeting plays out the same way. Though the romance is there, it’s far from the sole focus of the plot, and deep, true love – while certainly present – is never used as a justification for immoral, foolish or questionable actions. We are never made to feel, for instance, that either Blaen or Gerraent’s violent, jealous protectiveness of Brangwen is in any way justified: it is bad behaviour that all too often leads to terrible things, and one of the major reasons why they all originally died such tragic deaths. Neither does Brangwen take it lying down:  in one memorable incarnation as a moon-sworn warrior, a sacred position that requires celibacy, she threatens both men with a solid thrashing in the training yards after they nearly come to blows over her, each being open with his lust despite the fact that, in that instance, wanting her is heresy.

Of most importance, however, is the way the first quartet ends. Having had these past incarnations revealed through flashback chapters, the bulk of the narrative concerns the modern incarnations of Brangwen and Blaen, now Jill and Rhodry, and their many adventures together. Rhodry is noble-born; Jill a commoner and, once more, a warrior. Though disinherited and sent into exile by his jealous elder brother at the end of the first installment, by book three, Rhodry has inherited as the sole heir to a significant territory, with Jill poised to become his wife. But Jill, who loves the freedom of the open road, has finally been brought to the dweomer: she wants to study, an impossibility if she marries the man she loves. And so she leaves him – a painful act, but ultimately necessary, and the denouement of the first quartet: Jill becomes Nevyn’s student, her destiny sealed, not by the love of any one man, but by accepting her innate powers and choosing to learn to control them. It’s a wrenching moment, but we know it’s the right decision, because even though we might accept Nevyn as Jill’s real true love, the point of them leaving together at that moment has absolutely nothing to do with romantic destiny, or youth, or beauty, and everything to do with the core of Jill’s soul – her intelligence, talent, compassion, and her desire to learn. And all the while, she’s a character who, for the best part of the series, has been a teenager: seventeen when she first meets Rhodry, and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two by the end.

And so I can’t help asking: why are so many YA fantasy novels, PR or otherwise, geared towards a conclusion where the hero and heroine ending up together is of greater narrative importance than either one mastering their magic, or bringing peace, or learning what they want to do in life? Why do we end up with stories where actually achieving anything at the end is only a real achievement if the protagonist has someone to kiss? I’m not exempting myself from this problem, mind. But reading Deverry again, it makes me realise that there’s more than one sort of story to tell – and more, that I’m glad of it.

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.