Book Review: An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy | A Fantastical Memoir

 

by A.M. Justice

USPrincess

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

Artwork by Mary Ann Strandell

 

Art mirrors life, even for authors of fantasy. Here on the Guild of Dreams, Chantal Boudreau has written a lot about how her interests inform her work (her coffee essay is a favorite); Autumn Birt and Steven Montano have both provided us with photo essays showing their influences in the natural world; and Scott Bury has told us about his inspirations from family members to the change in seasons. I’ve also blogged about my real-life influences, and on the home page of my website, you’ll find some real-world pictures that serve as location shots of Knownearth (they’re there on the homepage, just scroll down). Jane Rosenberg LaForge wrote an entire novel-memoir hybrid in which she traces the key elements of her fantasy to people, places, and events from her youth in 1970s Los Angeles. In the spirit of LaForge’s novel, this blog is a hybrid review-reminiscence.

A mutual friend introduced me to LaForge about a month ago, and we met for lunch before I read her book (which I bought). We commiserated over the challenges of raising children in New York City, and we shared stories of parents and ex’s. LaForge was funny, charming, and wise, and I enjoyed our time together. A few times over lunch, she’d mention a painful family dynamic and then say, “Read the book,” to close the topic. Yet it wasn’t until I did read the book that I realized how much LaForge and I have in common. As children and teens, she and I hovered on the fringes of school society; we both took ballet (never excelling at it); we both failed to tame unruly hair; and we both suffered the indignity of a smarter sibling. We both loved horses (although my mother pulled me from riding lessons after my first fall, so my horse-love was the abstract kind) and depended on friends and parents to ferry us to school dances and parties, thanks to delayed driving lessons. (I was further transportation-impaired because I didn’t learn how to ride a bicycle until the week before I left for college.) We both attended high school in Southern California, although her beaches lined the Pacific, while mine skirted the Colorado River, four hours east in a fast car on Interstate 10.

What really struck home about An Unsuitable Princess, however, is that it’s a book about regret and a plea for forgiveness. Most of my work involves some sort of failure, and the quest for redemption afterward. LaForge’s memoir culminates in an “if only” moment, which sank into the earth of her imagination and blossomed into a lovely story about isolation and rejection and the redemptive power of loyalty and love. We all have those youthful moments when we behaved less than admirably—you can find my real-life regrets catalogued in the essay collection Four Doors Open. LaForge’s real-life regret echoes backward through her fantasy, working magic on the reader, illuminating the depths of a story that, until you reach that pivotal moment in the memoir, seems to be merely a light fantasy about a young man in love with a mute outcast.

Set in an imaginary land resembling Elizabethan England, the fantasy features a nobleman and a blacksmith’s apprentice who both owe their lives to the ministrations of a young witch named Jenny. Both men seek to help her, in defiance of the queen, who ordered Jenny shunned. After Jenny disappears, a rescue mission unravels the mystery of her speechlessness and pariah-status. True to the period in detail and manners, the fantasy is beautifully written in a poetic, dreamy style that still echoes days after I finished the book. The narrative does start slow—it didn’t immediately hook me—but it gains momentum and emotional weight, becoming quite a powerful story by the end. An epistolary chapter—a fictional memoir within the fantasy framed by the real-life memoir—was particularly affecting as a starkly beautiful, heart-wrenching chronicle of the blacksmith’s foot-soldiering in a pointless war. From this point on in the narrative, the courage and heroism of the main characters, their loyalty and love for one another, captured me and and continues to haunt my thoughts.

Like the fictional tale, the true story took a while to grab my interest. Written in a modern, journalistic style, the memoir lacks the color and beauty of the fantasy. I suppose the distinct styles are meant to help the reader stay oriented to the real vs the fantasy world, but I would have enjoyed a more poetic, less prosaic approach to LaForge’s remembrances. Early on, I also resented the interruptions posed by the Laurel Canyon factoids every few paragraphs. The reader can easily skip the memoir (or the fantasy), because the two sections are typeset differently, and I considered doing so at first. However, I grew used to the author’s asides and began to enjoy them, particularly as she left her childhood behind and began chronicling her teens. The last sections, detailing LaForge’s experience working at the original Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, fascinated me—in high school I longed to dress up in Elizabethan costume and work the Faire. (I was in my late twenties when I finally made it to a Faire—the one in Northern California—but I attended as a paying customer and by that age was too self-conscious to dress in garb.) LaForge’s “if only” moment—the regrettable action that fuses fantasy and memoir together into a deeply moving tale—resonated as something I might easily have done. And I might well have translated that event into a tale about someone who acts heroically instead of selfishly (in fact, I do that every time I write a story).

An Unsuitable Princess has a few other flaws. Occasional malapropisms and instances of missing or extra words kicked me out of the story more often than I would like. In compensation, the Kindle and full-color editions include stunning artwork by Mary Ann Strandel that compliments the narrative, while not quite illustrating it.

Overall, I would give An Unsuitable Princess 4 out 5 stars. The fantasy portion is a lovely story, quiet, sad, and uplifting; the memoir is insightful, often funny, and wise, like the author.

An Unsuitable Princess, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

Kindle, $4.99

Full-color print edition, $44.99

Black and white print edition, $16.99

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. A confident driver these days, she nevertheless prefers roaming her Brooklyn neighborhood, looking for inspiration, on her own two feet. You can follow her on Twitter (@AMJusticeWrites) or join the Citizenry of Knownearth on her Facebook page.

Cheesy Fantasy Movies, Part 1

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is pretty awesome.  Game of Thrones, perhaps even better.  For fans of epic fantasy, these efforts represent the culmination of what we love about the genre, everything that pulls us in whenever we pick up a new novel or sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons with our friends — the drama, the politics, the darkness, the sense of danger and wonder and excitement and the discovery of worlds that can only exist in the imagination.

But not every effort to bring epic fantasy to the screen have been nearly so successful.  In fact, it’s safe to say that most of them were pretty awful…and yet we love them anyway.

It’s hard to say why epic fantasy translates so poorly to film, but it seems that much of what feels so sweeping and serious in the personalized experience of reading a novel comes across as a bit hokey when projected to the screen.  My theory (for what it’s worth) is that fantasy films make such an effort to have a broad appeal that they get mired in fantasy stereotypes instead of telling good fantasy stories, and as a result end up feeling hackneyed and cliche.  That, plus they’re often just cheesy as hell.

And that’s not to say these films aren’t enjoyable.  Hell, I’m a fan of every single one of these movies (and many more like them), but I would hesitate to call them good examples of fantasy…or even good cinema, for that matter, but there’s still a level of enjoyment to be culminated from watching these films.  Sometimes you’re just in the mood for fantasy, and you decide that maybe a 243rd consecutive viewing of Peter Jackson’s trilogy might be pushing it…

So, without further ado, here’s a quick rundown of some fantasy films that aren’t especially good…but they are fantasy, and still enjoyable in their own right even taking the cheese factor into account.  I’ll cover 3 movies now, and a few more the next time my number comes up for the Guild.

Beastmaster

Beastmaster

Despite the fact that it starred Marc Singer, Beastmaster actually had a few things going for it.  Sadly, the story wasn’t one of them: the young prince Dar (Singer) is intended to be sacrificed by the evil sorcerer Maax (Rip Torn, long before he started taking semi-respectable roles).  Dar is rescued by villagers and raised as their own, knowing that one day he’ll return and free his kingdom from Maax and the bestial soldiers of the Jun Horde.  Oh, and Dar can telepathically communicate with animals, because…well, because.

Corny as hell but surprisingly engaging, Beastmaster benefits from some well-staged battle sequences and a hammy performance by Torn.  Unfortunately the film is seeped with cheesy dialogue and could have benefited from a more original story, but it found tremendous appeal because the animals were so cool.  And for some reason Beastmaster spawned two sequels and a TV show, so apparently the filmmakers knew what they were doing…

Willow

Willow

Even George Lucas couldn’t quite get it right.  Fun and flashy but incredibly derivative and utterly predictable, Willow‘s title character is a Nelwin (who just happen to be identical to hobbits in almost every way) who becomes entrusted with the care of a young princess prophecy states will bring about the downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh, sneering with aplomb).  Along the way Willow gains allies in renegade warrior Mad Martigan (Val Kilmer, excellent as always) and Bavmorda’s rebellious daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), who race around with Willow from one action set piece to the next until the day is saved.

I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t enjoy Willow, but I’ve always accepted it for what it is: fluffy, throw-away entertainment, without much of an original idea to be found but still refreshing for its humorous dialogue (the movie is practically a self-parody at times), well-done action sequences and beautiful art direction.

Legend

Legend

Jack (Tom Cruise) lives in the forest, where he occasionally flirts with young Lily (Mia Sara), an innocent maid.  One day Jack takes her to see a unicorn, unwittingly revealing the pure creature’s location to goblins in service to Lord Darkness (Tim Curry, looking nothing like Professor Frankenfurter).  Jack is soon appointed by the faeries of the forest to save the unicorn before it’s sacrificed, which would allow Darkness to reign supreme.

If that all sounds kind of silly…well, it is.  Thankfully, the director behind this silliness is Ridley Scott, whose arresting visual style and fabulous use of shadows and light can make even a largely nonsensical film like Legend an engaging treat.  There are some terrific special effects (the troll is awesome) and a few very well choreographed battles, but overall Legend comes across as a bunch of interesting ideas that never quite found a real story to go with them.

What cheesy fantasy movies do you hate to love?

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Steven Montano watches too many movies, and there’s no question they’ve rotted his brain.  He also writes fantasy novels and likes to get lost in the woods.  Find out more at his website.

Snapshots of a fantasy world

by Autumn Birt

Where story inspiration comes from, or even just the bits that make up the plot lines of an epic story, surprises me. Life infiltrates a writer’s mind and somewhere in the subconscious becomes something extraordinay.

I’ve written here about how a painting inspired the town of Mirocyne in my epic fantasy trilogy the Rise of the Fifth Order. On my blog, I’ve written about how a leadership course altered my view of quest groups. Everyone getting along for a common goal? I think not. Someone is going to crack or have a different motive or get into a fist fight over their beloved facing danger. Stress and facing death rarely results in lasting cohesion.

In the last post, Chantal mentioned how nature and tribal settings inspires her writing. Steven Montano has posted some great pictures from outings that inspire him with new fantasy ideas. And I can’t say I’m much different. Life events bring out my creativity. I’ve written singsong poems about courting squirrels and the amazing fun I have all the way up REALLY high ladders while nailing shakes into the gable of my house (my husband is afraid of heights. I’m not. I am, however, afraid of hitting the ground at a very high velocity…).

Some recent mini-adventures served to remind me how much I love being on the water. Gee… is that why book 1 of my trilogy is named Born of Water and has a LOT of sailing in it? Actually when I started thinking of it, a lot of the places I’ve travelled inspired the many cultures found in the world of Myrrah where the trilogy is set.

I’m a big fan of the phrase “Iife is what happens while you are waiting for something else.” That includes existing as I struggle with words and ideas in my head. Writing is so very important to me. I’m happier when I’m writing. I like who I am more when I’m writing. It changes the very core of my personality. But that change is worthless unless I use it to enhance the time with the people I love.

So this post is meant to inspire – not just writing but living too. Which I’ve been trying to enjoy a bit more this summer after two years of house building. Of course, I try not to let enjoying life eat into my two WIP, the story I’m editing and the occasional book I’m reading. Hey, I have priorities! ;)

 

Sailing on the Grey Dawn on the Sea of Sarketh... or the Heron on the Gulf of Maine!

Sailing on the Grey Dawn on the Sea of Sarketh… or the Heron on the Gulf of Maine!

Section of the Turcot River near the forest of the Kith!

Section of the Turcot River near the forest of the Kith! At least that is what it looks like to me…

Some of the old steps leading up to the abandoned Temple of Winds

Some of the old steps leading up to the abandoned Temple of Winds… or in this case a volcano located on a remote tropic island – which is way cool too!

 

Ayashe is the hero of his own adventure saga... as long as I come along to supply food and cuddles!

Ayashe is the hero of his own adventure saga… as long as I come along to supply food and cuddles!

Lunar moths... creating new moons!

Lunar moths… creating new moons!

If I had walls like this, I wouldn't have to worry about drywalling OR painting! :D

If I had walls like this, I wouldn’t have to worry about drywalling OR painting! :D

The Lake of Tears near the Temple of Solaire!

The Lake of Tears near the Temple of Solaire!

Me framed in my husband's motorcycle mirror along the Gaspe Peninsula. Just to prove I didn't copy the above photos from the web! ;)

Me framed in my husband’s motorcycle mirror along the Gaspe Peninsula. Just to prove I didn’t copy the above photos from the web! ;)

For all of those significant others and good friends of us writerly types – don’t give up hope! It is not impossible to remind the writer in your life that they should be living their own adventure. And to help you out, here are some phrases that my husband has found useful to win my attention:

“Hey, if you get out of bed now, you’ll have an extra half hour of writing time!”

“But if you go, it will inspire your writing/short story/WIP!” (Bonus points if you can relate WIP to proposed adventure)

“We can swing by the bookstore/library.”

“The recharger works by converting the motion of your backpack into electricity. You get 5 minutes of reading/writing time for every mile you hike!” (Did I ever mention that my husband has a cruel streak?)

– Autumn decided not to share any photos of her new WIP, Friends of my Enemy. The pictures are much darker and more disturbing! Find out more about Autumn and her writing at her website www.AutumnWriting.com or find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page.

 

 

 

The Animal in our Natures

by Chantal Boudreau

Maybe it’s the sunny weather or the more common random encounters with wildlife, but summertime always makes me long to get back to nature – to a simpler way of living where a person had to exist in harmony with nature in order to survive. In primitive times, you had to understand how the world around you worked, develop your skills to match the demands of your environment and adapt to the flora and fauna occurring locally. I still get a taste of that by gardening, trips to the park or camping in some forested area, but it really only is a taste. Living completely off the grid will likely remain one of those daydream fantasies for me that will never be realized.

I think that’s why low-tech tribal fiction, and primitive fantasy fiction in particular, has always appealed to me. Writers from Jean Auel to Wendy Pini (some of her elves, the wolfriders and the go-backs, live primitive lifestyles) struck a real chord with me growing up, their stories involving characters in tune with nature, facing down-to-earth hardships and challenges and seeking solutions in magic, spiritualism and resources occurring naturally in their environment. The protagonists have strong bonds with animals and a profound understanding of beneficial properties of plants and minerals found in their particular terrain.

But Clan of the Cave Bear and Elfquest weren’t my only influences (although they were significant ones). My Snowy Barrens Trilogy would likely not exist if I hadn’t had the opportunity to read such novels as The Reindeer People and The Wolf’s Brother by Meghan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb), or The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce, tales with hunter-gather backdrops exploring old ways and rudimentary lifestyles (and all of them written by women, for some strange reason.) These are books I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in tribal fantasy fiction.

This is also what generated my fascination in old-world mythologies, ones that have been somewhat abandoned by modern people, although they aren’t completely extinct. It’s why I chose to explore Native American mythology in the Snowy Barrens Trilogy, and Sami, Serbian and Thracian mythologies in my three yet to be published Darker Myth novels. They are all mythologies that explore the relationship between man and nature, between animal and spiritual. I would recommend reading tales from these mythos as well – the Glooscap stories are some of my favourites.

So if the next time you go strolling along a woodland path and find yourself imagining a sprint through the forest, spear or bow in hand, clad in leathers, furs, carved bone, teeth or claws, maybe you should consider adding these books to your to-read list. They all make for exciting summer reading.

For the Love of Writing

By Bruce Blake

As I sit down to write this post, I feel not unlike what I imagine a man with a drinking problem must experience as he gets up in front of a roomful of strangers for the first time to announce he has a problem. I’m not given to making personal admissions over the internet too often (unless I’m gushing about my kids or my wife), but I feel it’s time to get something off my chest.

I’ve faced a number of significant personal challenges over the better part of the last year, and I’ve let it come between me and my writing.

Those of you who know me fairly well are likely not surprised; after publishing five novels last year, I have yet to publish a single word this year. While I wrote the entire first draft of a novel in about two weeks last year, I find myself struggling to put fingers to keyboard to produce anything meaningful.

But this isn’t a post about writers’ block, because that isn’t my issue. Ideas flow freely through my mind, scenarios to be played out on the page at some later date.

It’s also not a post about motivation, at least not directly. No, until I hurt my back, I didn’t know what it was.

I better qualify this by pointing out this was not a serious injury, In fact, I have no idea how it is I went to bed one night feeling fine and woke up a few hours later with pain so bad I couldn’t stay prone. For our purposes, though, the physical cause of my discomfort is moot. The important part of this event is that it prompted a visit to the chiropractor.

I’ve been to chiropractors before, but not in the couple of years since we relocated, so I found myself at the home office of someone new to me–a chiropractor my wife has used and highly recommended. When I arrived and began talking with her, I found out why my open-minded, alternative medicine-loving wife liked her so much: she is not just a cracker-of-backs, but also an emotional healer.

Danny Aiello in Jacob's Ladder

Danny Aiello in Jacob’s Ladder

Let me rephrase that to make sure I’ve put it across correctly: like channeling Danny Aiello in Jacob’s Ladder, she not only deals with the physical aspect of the cause of back issues, but also delves into the emotional cause, as well.

At this point, I assume a portion of the blog’s readership is thinking ‘wow, cool’ while another faction is considering finding a post a little less touchy-feely and a bit more writing-oriented. If I told you her method for discerning the underlying emotional issue involved having me hold up my left arm and her pushing down on it while having me say things aloud, that group would likely go running for the hills, but stick with me because I’m getting to the point.

What came out of her assessment was that my back pain was at least partially caused by my lack of writing (and my feelings around it), but then she dug deeper, and we came up with the reason my previously voluminous well seemed so difficult to draw water from.

We all start writing for the same reason: we love to write. For serious writers, it’s not really a choice, but something we have to do, like breathing. But there’s been significant change in the world of writers over the past few years; with the advent of easy self-publishing, writers can actually write with the knowledge that their work will be published, and that readers will consume those works, for better or for worse.

And that knowledge can change a writers attitude.

The first part of my time away from the computer was necessary–some family concerns and starting back at a regular job demanded my attention and a break from creating worlds. What didn’t need to happen was the length of time I’ve been away. What transpired is that I got more concerned about looking at the sales reports on Amazon, reading reviews, thinking about how to promote myself and my works on social media, and overwhelmed by the sheer number and cost of potential places to advertise.

Somewhere amongst that jumble of business, I’d forgotten about the joy of being a writer, the fulfillment of creating a character and laying out a story. But thanks to the help of a guardian angel-esque chiropractor who, in the space of forty-five minutes took away my back pain and gave me insight, I can see where I’ve gone astray.

Am I the only one this has happened to? How many other writers read the blogs and hear stories about authors like Hugh Howey, Russell Blake, HM Ward and others, and lose sight of why they write in the first place? Perhaps I should start passing out my chiropractor’s number, maybe even start a support group.

My name is Bruce, and I had a problem, but I’ve rediscovered me raison d’etre, my passion for writing…no problem.

What about you? Do you still do it for love?

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Bruce Blake is the author of 8 novels. HIs back is feeling much better and he can’t wait to write 8 more.

Motivation and the Writer, Part 2: Expectancy

The last time I was here, I introduced Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory with an application to all the writers out there. This theory of motivation should also speak to the readers of the world as well; basically, if we’re ever to be motivated to do anything, we have obstacles in our way. Like so many things in life, the obstacles are usually within our minds.

Expectancy theory, in its basic form, boils down to three questions:

  1. Can I do the job?
  2. Will all that work lead to something?
  3. Will I even be satisfied with the outcome?

If any one of these three questions can be answered in the negative, there’s going to be a problem being motivated. This is what Vroom called expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Today, it’s all about the expectancy.

When analyzing your own motivation—or lack thereof—do you ever feel like the mountain in front of you is too high to climb? For example: you have a great idea for a novel, but you just can’t get yourself motivated to move past the first chapter or even the prologue.

  • Is it because you feel you don’t have the skill to write?
  • Is it because your mind is so scattered about the world you see in your head that you just can’t focus on one area?
  • Are there roadblocks in your way with regard to time and/or the privacy you need to write the book?

These types of questions should lead you to think there might be a lack of confidence in your ability. If there is a lack of confidence, you’re going to have trouble being motivated to move forward with the work.

Lack of confidence, however, is not always caused by a lack of training or a lack of resources available to  complete the task. In fact, for many people out there, lack of confidence is a symptom of learned helplessness.

What the deuce? I’m blathering on about behavioral science and I have to throw yet another psychobabble term in to the mix? How can you “learn” helplessness? And what does that have to do with confidence.

learned_helplessnessIn 1967, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted an experiment using dogs, electric shocks, and a box. The end result was the discovery (or naming of) a psychological force present in many organisms: learned helplessness.

Let’s say you’re in fifth grade and you’re given a math test. You fail. The teacher and your parents urge you to study more, take home practice tests, and maybe get some tutoring.  The next test you get is, once again, a failure. So you study even more. You get a “D.” Maybe a little better, but the more you study, the less likely it becomes that you’ll ever get better. You either fail or barely pass no matter how hard you try.

Now, skip ahead to sixth grade. It’s math class again and you’re handed your first test of the year.

What is your first reaction? For most people, “I’m going to fail this,” is going to be a prevalent thought. What you did was “learn” to be “helpless.”

The same can be said about the writing process. You once wrote a book. People told you it was okay but could be better. You went to seminars, conferences, took classes at the local community college, read all the books on writing you could get your hands on. The next time you present people with a book, they say exactly the same thing to you: it was okay but could be better.

How’s that for a confidence boost? It’s more like a kick in the head, is it not?

So what does this have to do with expectancy? It’s really all about confidence. You have the skill, you have the time, you have the resources, but in the past something kept you from finishing the task…or worse, someone told you that your work wasn’t good enough.

And that will lead us into Instrumentality: does the effort a person puts forth lead to an expected outcome?

Next time.

For now, think about expectancy. How do you combat this learned helplessness or this lack of confidence in your abilities? What do you do to get through the first roadblock of motivation?

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale!

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Smashwords is kicking off its sixth annual Summer/Winter promotion!

Here in the Northern hemisphere, it’s mid-summer.  Readers everywhere are loading up their e-reading devices for summer beach reading and vacations. But what about the good people South of the equator, who are now in the middle of winter? They deserve to curl up in front of the fireplace and enjoy a good read too! That’s the story behind the Summer/Winter promotion!

You can check out all the amazing books on sale here. Check out all the fantastic authors and discover a new book to love.

If you are here and already have a fondness for members of the Guild… well I have great news! We’ve joined the sale. See the links below. And happy reading!

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Blade of Amber

Revenge is the whetstone for the Blade of Amber in book 1 of the Woern Chronicles! Start the adventure for 75% off with code SSW75!

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BofW Companion new

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Born of Water Novel Companion

Background and character information that covers the entire Rise of the Fifth Order series written in a humerous vein from the view point of the Church of Four Orders (they have a sense of humor??). It has always been free!

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Born of Water

Book 1 of the epic fantasy trilogy the Rise of the Fifth Order. Discover elemental magic, unlikely friends, and epic fantasy adventure for FREE!

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Rule of Fire 

Book 2 of the Rise of the Fifth Order trilogy. Would you protect a girl whose forbidden abilities condemn her to death? The story continues in book 2 and you can pick it up for 1/2 price during the sale with code SSW50!

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Spirit of Life

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Spirit of Life

Book 3 of the Rise of the Fifth Order trilogy. Can the coming war be averted? Discover the end to the epic fantasy adventure with this final book in the series for 1/2 price during the sale with code SSW50!

 

 

The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

By Scott Bury

Last week, Autumn Birt discussed villains and raised some interesting points about whether villains are truly evil, or just have different goals from the heroes.

It would be fascinating to continue this examination of heroes and villains, good and evil, absolutism and relativism. But today, I want to discuss another common trope in all literature, including fantasy, that doesn’t get much attention from critics but plays an indispensible part of almost every story: the source of arcane knowledge.

Keeping any story moving sometimes requires the protagonist to acquire knowledge of remote events, characters or items.

Statue of Perseus by  Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head

Perseus, for example, had to search for the Grey Sisters or Witches, three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth. Only they could tell him where he would find the Hesperides, who would give him what he needed to slay Medusa the Gorgon.

How the Grey Sisters knew that information is never revealed, and in fact is not important to the story of Perseus. It’s just important that Perseus learns this so he can behead the Gorgon and from there kill King Polydectes and protect his mother.

Gandalf is the source of arcane knowledge in The Hobbit. He gives Thorin Oakenshield the map that shows the location of the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and also explains the fate of Thorin’s father, Thrain. Gandalf is also the source for uncounted old tales and background facts.

In Bruce Blake’s Icarus Fell series, the archangel Gabriel mysteriously appears just to give the protagonist, Icarus, little scrolls with the names of the souls he has to transport to heaven, as well as the location to bring them for the journey. How she gets this information, and how souls are chosen for salvation, is never really explained—and anyway, who are we to question archangels?

This structure shows up not only in fantasy, but in other genres as well. In the TV series Criminal Minds, for example, Penelope Garcia is

Penelope Garcia

Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness

a continual source of critical background information that she unearths from any database in the world. The show hints that she has unmatched computer hacking abilities as well as software and skills that allow her to cross-reference all sorts of things in seconds.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mysterious hacker Wasp provides clues and facts for the protagonists. And at various points, Lisbet becomes both the protagonist and the font of knowledge.

I don’t know how many Hollywood movies feature a character popping up at a crucial point to impart a little factoid that the hero needs. How they get the information is never explained, and when you think about it, you realize how improbable it is that someone would find this information so easily.

But working that out would take a lot of time, and slow down the story. Good storytellers know when to skim over details that would only distract the audience from the important part, anyway.

The point is, the font of knowledge is an important role in any story—as important as a hero and a villain, because without him or her, the story just cannot happen.

Backstory

By A.M. Justice

How much backstory should I spoon feed my readers?

I belong to a large online writers’ critique group, and I see this question posted almost weekly. Every fantasy and sci-fi writer in the group hops on the thread and gives advice; time and again, the consensus can be summed up as follows:

  • Weave background information and world building into the narrative
  • Avoid data dumps of historical details
  • Under no circumstances put the backstory into a prologue

BowieThese days, prologues have about the same cache as mullets. They might once have been cool, even sexy, but now people just shake their heads and turn the page. I don’t care for mullets, but I do think prologues can serve as a useful gateway to a story (I used one to open Blade of Amber). So long as the first sentence (or paragraph) hooks me, I don’t care whether the heading above it reads “Chapter 1” or “Prologue.” If that hook isn’t there, I won’t read the book.

But back to backstory. When I’m reading the second or third book in a series, long recaps can try my patience. I may skim or skip, thinking tell me something I don’t know. Yet when I first read Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers was already checked out of the library, and in my desperation to find out what happened to Frodo and friends, I skipped ahead to The Return of the King. As the Wheel of Time slowly spun out the fate of Rand al Thor over about twenty years in real time (the story spans about three years), I stopped having the time to reread eight or ten or twelve volumes each time a new book came out. Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson provided readers with a glossary, which helped out during some who the heck is this guy? moments, but near the end of the series I wouldn’t have minded a few more flashbacks or even a full-fledged “previously on…” recap.

JamieThe Song of Ice and Fire has a rich backstory that not only provides historical context but also amps up the romance and intrigue. (Somebody please ask me my theory of Jon Snow’s parentage—I am dying to hold forth on this topic!) George R.R. Martin weaves Westeros’s history into the present action using rumor, dreams, visions, and the occasional bathtub confession. Yet Martin never recaps events from one book in a subsequent volume—the reader gets one chance. Like the fourteen WOT volumes, the SOIAF books aren’t intended to be stand-alone; they are mega-chapters in one very long, continuing story, and you have to read all the books if you want to find out what happens. And while we wait for Martin to publish the sixth book, we can either choose to reread the first five, or merely anticipate that we’ll lose track of all the players in this fantasy version of the War of the Roses. (Speaking of losing track, where’s Rickon?)

With The Woern Chronicles, I’m taking a different approach, writing an episodic rather than a continuing series. Like the Earthsea Cycle, The Woern Chronicles has an overarching narrative, but each novel contains a complete story that is “about” a different thing:

Blade of Amber: revengeA Wizard's Lot, A.M. Justice

A Wizard’s Lot: forgiveness

Scion of Sovereigns: redemption

Legacy of the Sacrifice: revenge

 

You don’t need to read Wizard to find out whether Vic fulfills her mission of revenge in Blade. You don’t need to read Scion to find out whether Ashel finds the strength to forgive in Wizard. Three people close to Vic seek redemption in Scion, and their efforts have little to do with Vic’s original quest for vengeance. Legacy will pick up where Scion left off, but in this final volume, Vic will find herself the target rather than the perpetrator of revenge.

The tricky part in this scenario is that Blade lays the groundwork for the other three books—the repercussions of Vic’s choices in Book One drive her and Ashel’s struggles in Book Two and haunt her family in the third and fourth volumes of the series. And because I intend each novel to stand alone, I have to explain a lot. Why is Ashel disgraced, disillusioned, and exiled at the start of Wizard? Why, in Scion, does Vic fantasize about killing her father-in-law while helping him remain in power? And why in Legacy is everyone afraid of Wineyll?

For readers to answer these questions, they need to know what’s happened in the previous books. To provide essential information without boring readers in Wizard, I use a lot of flashbacks:

The children run like harriers, clamber over each other for the arms of parents and guildmatrons. Surrounded by masks of panic, Geram looks for the one face that reflects not terror but triumph. Men are on their knees, screaming, their hands reaching toward the god whose coming they’d meant to celebrate that night. Women sob in each other’s arms, tear their hair. Hands claw his uniform, begging his help. Twisting out of their grasp, he catches sight of one little girl alone on the grass below, her thumb in her mouth, her eyes frozen on the stage. Following her gaze, he forgets the assassin. Rocking slowly, the queen cradles Prince Ashel’s head, King Sashal clutched between them in the prince’s arms. Deep, shattered sobs crackle from the prince, but the silent queen holds him to her breast, her face etched with the lines of a mother trying to shield her child from the evils of the world.

Oh no! Isn’t there a rule against flashbacks? Probably. However, I use them to not only recount vital information but also advance the story. In Blade, we see the assassination of King Sashal from Vic’s point of view as it happens, but in Wizard I use Geram’s memory of the king’s death to show his first glimpse of Queen Elekia’s humanity. The reader learns (or relives) how Ashel’s father died and also sees the planting of the seed that will blossom into Geram’s love for Ashel’s mother.

Scion and Legacy take place nearly two decades after the conclusion of Wizard, so I use flashbacks far less often and instead rely on dialogue and allusion to provide context. I’m working on revising Scion (in response to beta reader comments), so I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

 

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. To see more of what’s on her mind, drop by the KnownEarth Works website, follow her on Twitter, or hang out on her Facebook page.

VAMPIRE DOWN is now available!

The wait is over!

VAMPIRE DOWN, the final volume of the BLOOD SKIES series, is now available!

And through July 4th, volumes 2-6 are all on sale for just $2.99 each on Amazon.com, so if you don’t own them already go get ‘em now!

Also be sure to check out the VAMPIRE DOWN Blog Tour (see schedule below)!

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Who ever knew the end would come so soon?

In this final volume of the BLOOD SKIES series, Eric Cross and Danica Black find themselves facing impossible odds in the desolate ruins of the world they once knew.  Hunted by the mercenary forces of the newly formed East Claw Coalition and desperate to find the elusive White Mother, the two refugees will be pushed to the limits of their abilities and sanity as they struggle to survive.

Meanwhile, in the near future, the undead hunter called Reaver searches for the lost city of Bloodhollow, the place where humankind will make its final stand, while the undead of New Koth and the rebellious White Children make their push to end the reign of the Ebon Kingdoms once and for all.

As timelines collide and the spider weaves her web, the battle for the fate of the riven world will come to its violent conclusion in the depths of a forgotten city, where unlikely heroes will emerge and hidden evils shall finally be revealed…

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THE VAMPIRE DOWN BLOG TOUR

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Vampire Down Tour Schedule

 

June 25th – Kelly at Paperback Cowgirl Reviews – Review Blood Skies

June 26th – Jasmine at Book Groupies – Soundtrack, Spotlight, Dreamcast

June 27th – Meg at Heart on Fire – Guest Post

June 28th – Toni at My Book Addiction – Guest Post

June 29th – Megan at Megan’s Blog – Author Interview

June 30th – Danielle at Consuming Worlds – Character Guest Post

July 1st – Scott Moon at Scott Moon Writer Blog – Review Blood Skies

July 1st – Katheryn The Perks of Being a Book Nerd – Spotlight

July 2nd – Lou at Relaxed Reads – Review Crown of Ash

July 3rd – Stephanie at The Book Hipster – Author Interview

July 4th Michelle at In Libris Veritas – Top Ten

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About the Author

Steven Montano was something terrifying in his previous life.  Now he’s an accountant, so not much has changed.

An avid hiker, reader, San Antonio Spurs fan, goofball husband and father of two, Steven writes novels (the seven volume Blood Skies series, the Skullborn Trilogy, something black…, and the upcoming thrillers Blood Angel Rising and Colder) and drinks a lot of wine when he isn’t busy pulling his hair out over payroll or trying to balance the company books.

Visit the author’s website.