Thursday, 30 March 2017

FALLEN

Hello!

My serial with Fiction Vortex has launched this week and it's up at the link. The first part is free to view, so check it out!

http://www.fictionvortex.com/catalog/free/fallen-ep1/

And there's a playlist to listen to as you read, too! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoQMkZp9vOLX1EOlVsSsKSaZAe8eje4i4, so check that out and enjoy!


Monday, 27 March 2017

Urban Fantasy: The Superhuman Crew

Cities change things, that's just the way it is. Old ways fall away and new ways rise up, usually while the past and the old ways of doing things lose their original meaning and become idolised without a proper context.

Urban Fantasy is more or less based on this idea, along with the obvious 'things are not what they seem' angle that's common to the genre. Monsters, which in horror would have single-minded and rather shallow motives (kill humans, possess humans, feed off humans etc, etc) suddenly are part of communities and have to deal with issues like politics, or love... Or paying rent on a space to live, Other issues become prevalent as well, can a werewolf really risk hunting and killing prey inside a city's borders, can vampires rely on nightclubs for their blood when there's a shortage of virgins to go around? They change and new priorities arise as they interact with other communities and with protagonists (who may or may not be monsters themselves, but we assume given the genre are aware of the superhuman crew and the places they hang out in the city's 'backstage'. Monsters can play many roles, as a result. In Urban Fantasy's close cousin, Paranormal Romance, the Byronic and moody/angsty elements are emphasised though never to the extent that a plucky heroine can't step in and save the day through the power of true love. In many Urban Fantasy novels, the politics and intrigues of monstrous communities come to the fore, with vampires plotting against each other or wizards acting as a sort of arcane police force. This brings crime into UF's purview, which is a natural fit not only because cities and crime go hand in hand (sheer population numbers dictate that) but also because if you have vampires, werewolves and so on engaging in their own private affairs, there's bound to be some overspill into the human world. If there isn't, arguably we don't have a story.

The other thing we must realise is that, as a result of the tonal shift from horror to something else, whatever that is, the nature of monsters has to change. A vampire who could destroy a party of protagonists in a horror story will be scaled back to give UF protagonists a chance. In the same way, werewolves are cut back in strength and have more complexity added to their lives. We're not so interested in the horrible things they can do, but instead in how they interact, the stories of treachery and so on that almost inevitably arise out of monster politics.

And yes, politics. I don't mean the bland or idiotic stuff that dominates the mortal world but the sexy intrigue type of politics where vampires jostle for position in court and faeries stab each other in the back. It's integral to Urban Fantasy, especially in a more kitchen sink setting, the sort of thing that Dresden Files or The Hollows books provide. In worlds where Masquerades and Veils have been abandoned in favour of monsters living out in the open, such as Mike Carey's Felix Castor books, you have the added issue of how human authorities deal with the presence of inhuman monsters, which can mean anything from Ministries of Magic to sanctioned hunting teams that go around killing monsters for fun and profit. The question of how mortal governments deal with monsters is one fraught with problems though, and most authors shy away from the issue in part because nobody wants to read books where there are a lot of bureaucratic meetings and not a lot of adventure (well, unless you like the Laundry Files books which handle the horror of administration work very well indeed).  My point is that the monsters become more human and take on more human concerns as a result of living in cities and having to deal with members of their own species, as well as members of other monstrous factions. This is one thing that UF does extremely well and which reflects the nature of minorities in the real world, giving the genre a foot in reality. In terms of adding flesh to the bones of what are often one-dimensional beings, it's pretty obvious that adding a civic element is a good way to go.

Adding to that, the nature of the city allows monsters to have normal lives (or as normal as they can be when you turn into a nine-foot tall war beast every full moon), adding more depth to characters. As a result, they can become well-rounded and fascinating to read about. This isn't to say that the characters in horror are blank, many are well conceived and written, but there is a limitation to what you can do with them when all they are is the opposition. As most contemporary fantasy works present more slippery 'shades of grey' worlds that have less well-defined boundaries, it stands to reason that your more human monsters have more scope.

Probably the most popular monster of our times, the vampire finds itself adapted to a series of new roles, from seductive madames to stealthy assassins. The traditional role of nobles lords lends itself well to CEOs and the idle rich, whose wealth derives from suspiciously obscure sources of old money, of course. Vampires are perhaps the most easily adapted monster to our modern world, we can picture them strolling through the city at night, drawing crowds, finding willing victims who long for the sensation of fangs in their neck. Failing that, modern resources allow vampires to get blood from blood banks (if they have the right sort of clearance) and to do little harm. Louis, in the Vampire Chronicles series, need not simply feast on rats, he can get a pint of type o from the local blood bank. Everything that we picture humans do, we can picture vampires doing, just more easily. They are the 1% of Monster World.

In contrast, werewolves seem to be doomed to blue collar work, mechanics and the like. The importance of pack is often emphasised in the genre, in a direct contrast to the solitary loup garou you often find in films. This is not a lonely curse anymore, but one where you're almost haunted by the fact that there are others like you, often seeking to establish who's stronger in the most violent fashion. The problem is no longer that you can't trust yourself around other people because you might flip out and hurt them, but that an unwillingness to fight may be construed as weakness. This can be a double-edged sword, on the one hand, a pack is useful, it gives you people to rely on, comrades and allies. On the other, well, it can start to feel rather cheap as a reader when everywhere you look there are more lycanthropes and the curse isn't just limited to wolves (how many kinds of changer do we need, one for every creature?) Call me cynical but when you have werebuffalo or whatever, I feel it's a bridge too far.

Of course, in contrast, Faeries are so diverse that you can pretty much throw a shoe and hit whatever you want, whether that be shape changers, blood drinkers, or something else.The nature of the Fae is basically so diverse that you could pretty much build a ten part series using nothing but them and not run into repetition, or risk boredom from overuse. Perhaps, hypocritically these are my favourite monsters, I think they're beautiful and their nature is one that seems so at odds with humanity, not in the form of predator and prey but in the sense of the Fae almost living a completely different life to humans.

I feel that we're using monsters as metaphors even more, it's just that vampires are no longer just a metaphor for bestial sexual hunger, but also for the ease that the rich pass through life. Werewolves are a metaphor for the rage that men can feel, and for territorial nature of gangs. And it's pretty cool, that we can use these creatures to talk about the issues we have.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Introvert

I am an introvert. It's something I've felt growing in importance in who I am and how I define myself. Last year I actually started looking at the Myers-Briggs system, via a website called Personality Hacker which I've found interesting and helpful in coming to understand myself (I'm an INFP, which Personality Hacker label as 'introverted exploring'  and for good and ill seems to fit me to a tee). It was particularly interesting to learn that INFPs are heavily focused on authenticity, and also (possibly vexingly) very much devoted to being 'unknowable' as in there's a desire to keep people at arm's length a lot of the time. As a consequence, my MBTI type may have a little more to do with the next statement than I care to admit, but I feel I have to say it.

I hate the stuff I see on Facebook about introversion a lot of the time, it seems devoted to making introverts feel their difference even more than many of them do. I see stuff about how making phone calls is hard or that all introverts are so quiet they just don't talk but these are very individual things. I have no issues with making phone calls, though I admit I prefer to communicate in text, and well while I'm quiet in groups and find it hard to put myself forward a lot of the time when you get to know me and if there are only a few people around, I barely shut up.

Also, when I'm alone I can be all yak yak yak, unpacking the ideas and thoughts that other people just don't seem to grasp (believe me I've tried).

But, to see a lot of the memes and images on the internet it seems as if introverts are almost being encouraged to use the dismissal we may feel in society and use it as a defining quality that's almost entirely negative. One introvert group, I joined on Facebook was full of depressed people who were only really united by the alienation they felt from being introverts. There was no joy to what they saw in their situation only the fear of being seen a weird, which I believe the echo chamber of the group only added to. Likewise, when questions were raised there were no attempts to find solutions, just a pity party. In the same way that other groups can become a focus for negative reinforcement, it was pretty harrowing to read the constant 'I don't fit' posts; even though that's often exactly how I feel, that I don't fit in and that it sucks. There's only so much complaining that can happen though before you have to do something, it's your own responsibility to live a life that fulfils you, and if that means striking out on your own (something you'd think introverts would be good at), then that's just what you have to do.

So, I wonder how helpful these things are, sure they may be things where we go 'oh yes that's so me', but that might just mean that we see the trap we're backing into without actually doing anything to save ourselves from it. It's no good saying that you're an introvert (or anything really) if you're just using it as a way to punish yourself. It's a sign that you have to step outside the box, look at your life and find a way to navigate yourself to a good place. That probably, for introverts, means learning to avoid things, jobs, events, and so on, that are going to drain us and leave us feeling hollowed out, or as a friend of mine does, biting the bullet and diving in but having 'buffing' time alone to restore that balance.

I do think we need to burst out of the echo chamber and accept that while we may be a bit cracked, that's how the light gets in (to use a hideously mixed metaphor). After all, there's nothing we can do about being introverts, so let's find ways to make it work to our advantage.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review: War of the Oaks by Emma Bull

An Urban Fantasy classic, War of the Oaks was first published in 1987 and has now be rereleased by Penguin with a foreword by Naomi Alderman.



The novel is set in Minneapolis, in the 1980s and centres on Eddi McCandry, a guitarist and vocalist who at the start of the novel makes a fateful decision and ends up in a situation that's beyond her wildest imaginings. Chosen to be a champion of the Seelie Court, purely to bring death to the battlefield in their war against the Unseelie Court (their opposites). Burdened with a phouka bodyguard and without a practical way to make money, Eddi is forced to start another band and the novel focuses on the development of that as well as her involvement in the war. Her relationships also fall under the novel's scrutiny, as she becomes more a part of Faerie and her involvement in their conflict spreads out to include her bandmates.

The book is very much about passion and growth, Bull takes pains to reflect the messy, but growing, nature of human lives against the perfect stasis of Faerie where everything is wonderful but, as Bull takes pains to point out, there are only copies. No Faerie can create, only imitate. Even the mavericks among their kind are bound by this inability, endlessly recreating things, in sharp contrast to Eddi's ability to innovate and make things that are genuinely new, and genuinely felt. This is further underlined by one of Faerie characters in the novel who is obsessed with finding out the deeper meaning of love and death, acknowledging that he can only play at humanity. This being said there is a beauty and wonder in how the faerie and magic are represented. There is a lovely whimsy to much of the magic, paper aeroplanes are used to deliver messages, faeries are summoned by pushing blood into a cake. The traditional tricks are explored and developed and it all makes sense. More, because the story is a stand alone and it is focused purely on this area and group there is no sense of the world being crowded by supernatural beings and the reason that the Faerie war isn't covered on the evening news makes sense as a result, even when battles are fought in the middle of the city.

This, along with the reason for Eddi being drawn into the conflict in the first place, underscores the theme of living, and the meaning and reason for living, in the novel. Rock music is used not just as a metaphor for this but as an illustration, Bull uses music to punctuate tone and, as Naomi Alderman notes in her foreword, you could easily build a playlist from the songs she references.

The characters are likeable, if not especially deep (but that's okay this is fiction, not literature) and the reader will feel a real sense of affection for them as they develop and their lives intertwine. Presented as a group growing into a family, the characters come to depend upon each other more and more and there's a real sense of loss when the inevitable happens and one of them dies.

The narrative is a little predictable, there's some heavy signposting with some of the characters but that doesn't seem to matter so much here. It was almost pleasant to be able to work out some things about the characters without, or before, having their secrets explicitly revealed.

All in all, if you're an Urban Fantasy fan, I'd argue that this is a must read. You owe it to yourself to reach back an earlier work and experience one of the works that laid the tracks for Dresden, Anita Blake and all the other characters we know today.  If you need a touchstone, think Charles de Lint, as this book very much reminded me of the Newford novels.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Late to the Party: Trump and the Press

Okay, I've been meaning to write this for a couple of weeks, ever since the White House revealed that 'hostile' press agencies would no longer be able to attend White House press briefings, but life got in the way.

It was a move quite unprecedented, as far as I'm aware there has never been a moment in American history where the President exiled the press. Indeed the majority of commentary has always pointed towards the relationship between the first and fourth estates being too cosy in the USA. From a British perspective where the press is often too happy to collect politicians' scalps to keep the stories interesting, or honest, the marriage of President and Media has often seemed as if there's too much mutual backwashing going on. This, then, indicates a change in tone, a sea change that will have further ramifications.

The most important thing is to realise that this gambit is actually a freeing one. Without access to the White House, the newspapers and TV stations will be forced to revert to an older practice; digging in the dirt to find their stories and uncovering the bodies that are buried. Basically, if they're looking for a Watergate moment, they now stand a stronger chance of finding it. Divorced from the spin cycle that is the modern news, with the exception of Twitter, they will develop new tools for the modern age to do that oldest of jobs - exhuming the corpses that those in power thought well hidden. There are only so many times that 'fake news' will form a decent rallying cry to rebuff the news stories exposed.

This is not to say it will be easy, we live in an age of leaks, and of supreme cynicism. The recent revelations about the CIA will be met in most quarters with a raised eyebrow and a shrug. Of course it's happening, of course, it's normal procedure. We expect the worst because that's what we've been led to expect. The leak narrative, at least when it takes the form of Wikileaks or Panama Papers is something that has been adapted to. Look at how quickly the Panama Papers died a death and turned out to be a non-story.

The other issue is that the current level of technology we possess makes it harder to be a whistleblower. Even while NASA, the EPA and the Parks Service in America continue to tweet and use other forms of social media in defiance of the Mr. Trump, the fact is that the computers they use for their activities are going to record every transaction and action performed on them. Their email servers will keep copies of every email. Basically, the revolution cannot be digitised without falling into the hands of the powers that be or becoming tainted by the dark net. The powers of the state and business are asymmetrically mighty, compared to the powers of the individual.

What I hope we will see is the return to the sort of investigative journalism practised by Paul Foot in the UK and by the Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Failing that, a bit of Hunter S Thompson might go a long way.

Or, you know, Spider Jerusalem.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Around Skyrim Without a Thune





Skyrim, how I love thee. The only game I've never grown entirely tired of playing (apart from Fire Emblem), Skyrim is still on my PS3, and this time Eve and I have undertaken a slightly different tack.

At the moment our character (a female Imperial called Helena Justina*) is level 63, she is relearning the One-Handed skill, and has maxed out Smithing, Two-Handed, Heavy Armour and only has Pickpocket below level 30. She's completed the Companions and Mages College quests and could become Thegn of Falkreath, Dawnstar, Winterhold, and Solitude if she chose to (she is the Thegn of Riften, but only because we wanted a house, Eve is passionate about loot and enjoys Alchemy much more than I). There's a large bounty on her head because I got a bit sword happy in Marketh, and went to town on the guards there in the stupid big quest - you may have gathered we don't like that particular plotline). We have raided tombs and barrows, defeated Dragon Priests, Draugr Deathlords and even ventured to the shores of Solstheim to adventure there.

So what's different? This all sounds pretty normal for the game, doesn't it?

The catch is, we haven't triggered the Dragonborn quest. Aside from the opening part where Alduin destroys Helgen, that quest has gone entirely untouched. There are no dragons at places like Mount Anthor and while we're picking the words for Thunes up as we play that's all; they can't be unlocked. We can't even undertake to weakly Unrelenting Force a bandit back a few feet if we're in danger of dying. Instead, we have been forced to rely on skills and magic, investigating thing that we do not usually make use of. For example, we have been using Illusion more than usual (it's not a favourite spell skill because a lot of the time it's simply too fiddly and seems to be more trouble than its worth) and investing heavily in the various armour spells you get in Alteration, even if we aren't brave enough to go without armour yet.

It is actually a fun way of playing, forcing us (well me, really - Eve's a bit of a back seat player unless it involves mixing potions or enchanting items) to change the way we approach things. I have a bad habit of leading with Shouts, using Fire Breath or Marked for Death in the first foray. Not being able to do that means that the character uses more stealth and sniping than usual. She doesn't charge into battle nearly as much as other characters we have played. Her skills matter more, she has to be able to strike hard and fast because there's no backup to reach for if things go wrong. Not having the Thunes has made me a better player in many ways because I use the game's inbuilt skills to buff her up and make her more powerful though magic (which means getting XP).

There's an element of humour to it too, running through the Robots, I mean Guards (sorry, my headcanon is that the city Guards are actually robots, which is why they say the same things and you barely ever get to see their faces) and hearing them make comments about dragon attacks. We both know full well that there won't be any until we actually trigger the quest, and even then they won't really start up until we trigger the Blades quest, another thing that will happen late in the game as neither of us has time for them.

The downside of playing this way is that at some point I have to undertake the main quest, which means that I'll have to face Ancient Dragons from the get go instead of progressing through the ranks of dragon kind in a nice orderly fashion. That does not seem so bad, though, it always seemed a bit odd that the game served up draconic foes in a nice, neat order to test your mettle against. This way the big guys will attack and get taken down (at which point I can turn Smithing Legendary because I'll get to make a suit of Dragon Scale Armour).

So, yeah. It's a huge amount of fun even if we have not really revelled in the many factions that dominate the game. I would definitely recommend playing this way as a change to the normal way Skyrim runs.

*The name is stolen from the Falco novels, where Helena is the Roman Private Informer's ally and squeeze.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Again, with Purpose

By K. Steitz



When I was an awkward, bookish teenager, my favorite novels were The Blue Sword and The Hero and the  Crown by Robin McKinley. Those books are still in my collection; their pages are dog-eared, yellowed, the spines are broken. I loved them deeply and visited them regularly. The main characters in both books were these incredible young women who never quite fit in, but cared desperately for their chosen family and fought tooth-and-nail to protect them. At the time, I didn’t think very hard about why I loved them, or how I had found some of the few books in the genre that had female protagonists- I just loved them.

As I grew, as we all must, I learned that fantasy is a genre for boys. It is about strapping young men who come from modest backgrounds and save their homes/countries/etc, or save their lovers whose names never quite matter. I learned that these are stories of wish fulfillment. These stories, and women, and the world, were almost always told through the eyes of men. I heard the phrase “wish fulfillment” and I thought, “Yeah, okay, that sounds right.”

But what if this genre isn’t just wish fulfillment? Now that we have stories told by and for men and women, perhaps we’re looking at something different? What still draws us to Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle? Now, so far from my teens, I wonder if it’s something different. Perhaps these resonate with us because it is not just merely fantasy or wish fulfillment, but because these plots, these heroes and heroines represent purpose fulfillment.

We struggle day in and day out to justify our 8 to 5 office jobs that are at their core, just busy work. We spend the majority of our lives navigating daily life for systems of government and capitalism that will never benefit most of us. We have no grand destiny, and many of us have lost our purpose, but we can read novels of fantastic people and places, making a difference, finding the courage to follow their dreams, to fight the good fight. Wouldn’t it be brave if we followed our own dreams? During these times, wouldn’t it be brave to make a difference?

Steve's note

K. Steitz is a kickass poet, roller derby... player (is that the right word) and feminist. In 2013 she released her first poetry collection A Record of Night and she blogs at But ah, my foes and oh, my friends.