Posts Tagged ‘UF’

So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?

It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.

No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible¬†occurrences¬†make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.

But never forget that damage has a cost.

Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks,  its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out;  seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.

Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.

Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.

Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them,¬†because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.

But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.

For wanting to run away, too.

Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.

And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?

In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.

But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical¬†in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters ¬†– more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.

Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.

This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.

And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.

Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage.¬†The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird ¬†– an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy.¬†In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.

Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get Рand yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.

But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they¬†can’t can’t can’t¬†– so loudly and so frequently that the question of¬†want¬†becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.

Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.

Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support¬†– whether characters or writers –¬†is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.

2011 involved unprecedented levels of book-related awesome. That’s a big call to make, because as you may have noticed by now, I read voraciously, constantly, and have done my whole life. ¬†Undeniably, one of the things that made 2011 so special was my discovery of Amazon – or, more specifically, the belated realisation that I am a grown woman with my own income and can, as such, buy books on the internet whenever I want. I can’t rightly explain why it’s taken me so long to realise this without delving into the twisted warren of personal psychology, but the practical upshot is that for the past few years, every time I’ve heard about an interesting book or author whose work I can’t find that the local bookshop – which, frankly, is most of the time – I’ve been tagging it on my Goodreads shelf and then sighing over its inaccessibility. Internets, I don’t know what to tell you: I am a complete moron, basically, but all of a sudden, it suddenly occurred to me that I could buy these books online.¬†Hallelujah! ¬†Huzzah! And so I did, and it was awesome.

It is worth pointing out that my husband is suddenly very, very keen on the idea of me getting a Kindle. Every time a new book finds its way into the house, he twitches. There are two good reasons for this, namely:

1. We are rapidly running out of shelving space; and

2. The next time we move, he’ll be the one hauling all my boxes of books down four flights of stairs.

The point being, it’s not just my consumption of books that went up in 2011, but the purchase of them, too. Not only was I trying new things, but suddenly I had a back catalogue of literally hundreds of books I’d been wanted to read for ages, plus the means and opportunity to buy them. And I am here to say, they did not disappoint. Of the 156 titles I read in 2011, only a very few rubbed me the wrong way, and even those still tended to be worth reading. The rest were, by and large, brilliant, which perhaps explains why I chewed through so many so fast. And here is where we come to the reason why 2011 was such a staggeringly awesome year, bookwise: because not only did I read many an awe-inspiring book, but in the process, I became infatuated with many an awe-inspiring author. Not since I was a teenager discovering SFF through the greedy acquisition of second-hand paperbacks has there been a time when so many new writers have instantly made the transition from ‘person whose books I enjoy’ to ‘canonical favourite author’, the latter state being distinguished by the fact that I must have their books, all of them, NOW.

There’s something very special about being made to feel that way again – as though a genre you’d thought you’d known had suddenly opened back up again, richer and even more awesome than ever. And thus I give you, in order of their discovery, my:

Top Ten Authors of 2011

1. China Mieville

A few years ago, I bought a beautiful but¬†unwieldy¬†copy of Perdido Street Station. Perhaps I was just too young for the book, or my expectations of it were such that I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it – either way, I ended up putting it aside. Not long after that, I tried again with Un Lun Dun, but despite enjoying the story, I was so distracted by its similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that, three quarters of the way through, I put it down and never remembered to pick it up again. And then, in 2010, I bought a copy of the newly-released Kraken – third time’s the charm, I thought – and decided to save it for just the right occasion. And then came Worldcon, during which time I actually ended up meeting China Mieville. Very kindly, he signed my copy of Kraken – and then I heard him read¬†a chapter of it aloud. All of a sudden, it was like a key had turned in my head: everything about his writing that had puzzled me locked into place, and though I was too overwhelmed and exhausted to tackle such a big book at the time, when I finally picked it up in January 2011, I devoured it in something close to a day. Mieville is powerfully, sometimes exhaustingly awesome: his intertwined language and concepts appeal to something deep in the brain, and once you’re inside his stories, it’s impossible to let go. Even better, he’s become an author whose work I can share with my husband: we both loved The City & The City, and were subsequently blown away by Embassytown. Since then, I’ve also finished Perdido Street Station and have a copy of its first sequel, The Scar, ready to go.

2. N. K. Jemisin

Back before its release, I read a free sample chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms¬†somewhere online. I don’t remember who, if anyone, directed me towards it, but the story stuck with me, and when the novel hit shelves, I wasn’t surprised to see it getting great reviews. Not being able to find a copy locally, this was one I had to wait to get, during which time friends kept recommending it, amazing reviews kept cropping up, and I kept getting impatient. And then I finally bought a copy, and it was brilliant, and shortly devoured both sequel volumes, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods, which were equally as good. Jemisin’s worldbuilding is exquisite, her style both poetic and gripping, but it’s her psychology that really sells me: ambition, need and culture all shape her characters as well as their innate, sometimes difficult personalities, and their interactions are a pleasure to read. She also writes an entirely awesome blog about entirely awesome things, thanks to which I’ve come to think about a lot of important issues I might not otherwise have considered. Her next novel, The Killing Moon, is out this year, and I absolutely cannot wait to lay hands on it.

3. Cory Doctorow 

Technically, this is a cheat, because I first read and loved¬†Little Brother way back in 2009. But for whatever reason, I didn’t follow through with more of his work until last year, when I ended¬†up reading For the Win and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Doctorow’s strong technology themes – and the ease with which he makes them not only interesting, but significant, to relative laypersons like me – are a large part of what makes his work so compelling; but it’s the social justice elements that get me in the chest. The rest of his books are now in my scopes, and hopefully I’ll get to one or more of them at some point in 2012.

4. Octavia E. Butler

I’d heard of her. I wanted to read her books. But I had no idea where to start, and I was tentative in the way I always am when it comes to science fiction greats, because so often I go in optimistic and then find out that really, these stories aren’t for me. But when I came across an omnibus edition of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy in the local second-hand bookshop – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago in a single volume¬†– I decided to plunge ahead. And oh, man. Look, internets: you don’t need me to tell you how amazing, how absolutely jaw-dropping Butler is, because you already knew before me. I was literally broken apart by these books, and though they’re still the only ones of hers I’ve read – stories that powerful need to be rationed, like absinthe or Belgian chocolate – they nonetheless burned themselves into me forever.

5. Paolo Bacigalupi

This is something of an odd one. I made sure to read The Wind-Up Girl after it won the Hugo, and when I did, my reaction was… mixed. (For the curious, my review is here.) There were parts of the story I loved, and others I hated; I came away with a lot of thoughts, but despite the more negative aspects I perceived in the book, I also couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s difficult to articulate why, but sometimes I can have a very Slap Slap Kiss relationship with certain stories: for all my criticisms, I’ll end up loving them more than other works with which I found no fault, because they challenge me. Uncharitably, this is just because I’m a deeply contrary person, but I also suspect it’s because when you see things you absolutely love laid alongside things that make you bristle, you’re forced to rip apart various narrative seams – both in the book and in your head – to find out why you’re reacting that way. This process cannot help but be informative, if not transformative, and the upshot of all my angsting was that the very next month, I ended up buying Ship Breaker. Which, flat out, I absolutely loved. Could not put it down. So not only is Bacigalupi an awesome author, he’s one who makes me think, too – and that is always good.

6. Catherynne M. Valente

The book I started with here was¬†Palimpsest, and – as with The City & The City and The Wind-Up Girl –¬†part of the reason I read it was the Hugo nomination. As is often the case with me, I was nervous: I’d picked up a copy in a bookshop once before, but due to whatever quirk of mood or temper that particular day, I’d decided against buying it. But during a trip to London that happened to coincide with my birthday, I’d decided to give Valente a try, and so set out to acquire a copy of In the Night Garden, which a friend had recommended. Alas, London did not yield me that particular book – but I did find Palimpsest, and so decided, on the basis of the Hugo nomination, that my younger self had no idea what she was talking about. Thus, I bought it, and read the whole thing in a single sitting, curled up in bed in an excruciatingly cheap hotel in the middle of the day. Valente is a poet, and the way she braids this skill with mythology and imagery and longing absolutely kills me. Later in the year, I won an ARC of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in a Twitter contest. It quite literally moved me to tears, and my review of it is here. After that came¬†Deathless, which¬†was¬†unbelievably¬†good; and in my pile of books-to-be read for 2012 are copies of In the Night Garden and Myths of Origin, which I’m really looking forward to. And, like Jemisin, Valente also writes a kickass¬†blog.

7. Carrie Vaughn

I briefly met Carrie Vaughn at Worldcon in 2010. She was a really lovely person, and on the strength of that I decided to check out her work. This started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, the first of her best-selling urban fantasy series: there was a lot to like in terms of writing and characterisation, but what really hooked me was Kitty’s job as a radio DJ. So often in UF, the heroines are kickass women doing kickass jobs from the get-go, and while that’s also a type of story I also adore, there was something really special about Kitty being (so to speak) an everywolf – a kind, competent woman doing something she loved, then rolling with the punches when things went sideways. Even so, I was intrigued by the variety of what Vaughn was writing, and so my next port of call were her stand-alone novels: Discord’s Apple, After the Golden Age, Voices of Dragons and Steel. Of these four, my far-and-away favourite was After the Golden Age, which is about a forensic accountant whose parents are both superheroes. What continually impressed me was Vaughn’s versatility: her willingness to play with different ideas to see what happened, and the fact that her heroines – much like Kitty – always feel like very real, relatable women, rather than untouchable action heroes.

8. Lois McMaster Bujold

Early in the year – on the same London trip where I bought Palimpsest, in fact – a writer friend strongly recommended I read some Lois McMaster Bujold. I stored his advice away, and then, during a particularly fulsome Amazon binge, ordered Shards of Honour, the first novel in the Vorkosigan saga. You may judge my reaction to this book by the fact that its heroine, Cordelia Naismith, is now one of my fictional rolemodels for 2012. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love these books. The politics are vicious, intricate and utterly believeable, the action is breathtaking, and the characterisation is pitch-perfect. In addition to¬†Shards of Honour, I managed to get through Barrayar, The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game, Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms before the end of December; Mirror Dance and Memory are sitting in my to-be-read pile, and as of this afternoon, so are all three volumes of her Chailon series, fortuitously acquired at the second-hand shop. If I could marry her brain, I would. In a nutshell: squee!

9. Laini Taylor

I picked up a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone at the local Waterstones. I’d been seeing it reviewed online, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t really registered. The fact that it was shelved with fantasy rather than YA is what made me notice it, because it’s not so often that you see a book that transitions like that; and besides which, it was a signed special edition. So I decided to give it a try, which ¬†turns out to have been one of the best decisions I made all year. As well as being an author, Taylor is also an artist, and her visual imagination comes across beautifully in her worldbuilding. And just, you guys: THE WORLDBUILDING. And the plot. And the characters. And the everything. Without wanting to give too much away – which is actually sort of impossible, so spoiler alert – this book is now my benchmark for any and all stories featuring:

1. Angels and demons;

2. Impossible romance; and

3. Reincarnation plotlines,

because Daughter of Smoke and Bone¬†manages all three like a boss. (End spoilers.) So then I looked up her other works, and was kicking myself when I realised I’d actually seen her Dreamdark books when they first came out, and hadn’t picked them up! Truly, Past Foz is an idiot. But this has now been rectified: both Blackbringer and Silksinger were¬†marvelous, and I cannot wait to see what she writes next.

10. Nnedi Okorafor

I can’t remember whether I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor because of Who Fears Death¬†or because I’d been seeing reviews of Akata Witch cropping up around the place, but either way, I wound up following her on Twitter. The more I heard about her ¬†talk about the themes in her books, the more I knew these were definitely stories I wanted to read, and so without having read anything more than a short story of hers, I ordered Who Fears Death, Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker online. I read Akata Witch first, by way of easing myself in: at least one person had warned me that I might find Who Fears Death harrowing, and in case that were so, I wanted to have read some of her other work beforehand. As things turned out, though, I loved all three books. Okorafor’s constant themes are Africa, culture, feminism, and the power of the outcast, and all her books are breathtaking. Right now, there’s a copy of The Shadow Speaker sitting in my to-be-read pile, and I know that it won’t disappoint.

So, there you have it! Ten awesome authors, all discovered in the space of a year. Seriously though, this whole list should be subtitled How Foz Was Late To The Party, because these are all writers whose excellence has been well-known to other people for years. Only the stubborn idiocy of my younger self is to blame for not having discovered many of them earlier. Damn you, Past Foz! But then, if Past Foz hadn’t been an idiot, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of finding them all in one go, and 2011 wouldn’t have been nearly so amazing. Nonetheless! To compensate for the fact that everyone on Earth was quicker off the mark than me, here is a secondary list of excellent books to see you on your way. In no particular order:

Five Awesome Books from 2011

1. Water to Burn, by Katharine Kerr

The second book in Kerr’s new urban fantasy series about the exploits of psychic agent Nola O’Grady, following on from by License to Ensorcell, with the third book,¬†Apocalypse to Go, which I was lucky enough to read in draft, about to be released. Rather than¬†rhapsodize¬†anew about why these books are amazing, I’ll direct you instead to my previous review, but in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, just trust me: they are.

2. Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

This book is easily my favourite YA dystopia. The worldbuilding is brilliantly in-depth without being overbearing, the writing is excellent and the characterisation solid, but the sheer power of it is what works: a broken world disillusioned by the problems of 21st century romance, twisted into a passionless society from which only the young or mad can escape.

3. The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Three friends. Three dead brothers. A perfect town. A secret. Read this book; it’s amazing. My review is¬†here.

4. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

An incredible circus. A contest between magicians. Forbidden love. Beauty! Magic! Adventure! What more do you want? Exquisitely written and characterised, The Night Circus took my breath away.

5. The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

Shapeshifter Moon doesn’t know who his family were; he doesn’t even know what race he is. Finding out takes him on a journey across an amazing, vivid fantasy world, full of a gorgeous variety of cultures, peoples and magic. This is the sort of book you didn’t know you’d been yearning for until you picked it up – so trust me, and do.

So that’s it, folks – my year in books for 2011! What was your year like?

When considering/plotting future UF stories,¬†I strive to be culturally diverse, and not just Eurocentric. I want to have characters from a range of backgrounds, and what’s more, I want to draw my magical inspiration from a range of different sources. My aim is to do this respectfully, without ignorance or appropriation. I am, however, plagued by the following worries:

  • My default setting on magic in the real world is usually some variant of All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences. This is because most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other, and can therefore only be unified by an¬†amorphous¬†Bigger Picture. I don’t like the idea that only one part of the world got magic (via mythology)¬†right, and inventing new systems that are purely Eurocentric in origin feels like another way of saying that the rest of the world was¬†wrong.¬†But it feels like there’s a difference between rooting around in my own cultural heritage to make new versions of vampires, werewolves and the Greek pantheon, and rooting around in someone else’s to make new versions of celestial dragons, the Egyptian pantheon and djinn. ¬†So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.
  • When it comes to choosing the magic of non-Anglo characters, I’m very leery of creating a Captain Ethnic, where someone’s powers are directly linked to their ethnicity. At the same time, I worry that taking a multi-ethnic cast and giving everyone magic that’s derived from Eurocentric mythology, fantasy and folklore is an act of cultural erasure. Neither do I want to invoke the Avatar/Pocahontas plot of a white character inheriting the burden of someone else’s culture. Obviously, these aren’t the only alternatives, but they’re currently the scenarios I worry about the most.

So, internets: any advice?

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.