Sleeps With Monsters: Marie Brennan Answers Six Questions

Over at, I interview Marie Brennan, author of A Natural History of Dragons:

Marie Brennan: I honestly think anthropology is one of the most useful fields a fantasy writer can study, more so even than history. It introduces you to other ways of living, other ways of thinking, and really cracks apart the idea that things which are familiar to you are somehow the natural product of existence, rather than social constructs that, from an outside perspective, may seem very odd indeed. This can be anything from the big ideas (some cultures are horrified by burial of the dead; others are horrified by cremation) to the small details of daily life (which meal of the day is the big one?) to things that are completely random and recent (pink used to be a boy’s color!). Putting those kinds of things on your radar can make your settings far richer and more interesting, whether you’re writing about the past, the present day in a country foreign to you, an invented land based on some part of the real world, or some place as unlike reality as you can manage.

Linky comes bearing gifts and huddling away from the cold

Natalie at Radish Reviews on Kathleen Tierney’s Blood Oranges:

Basically, Quinn gets turned into a vampire-werewolf (a werepire? a vampwolf?) as an apparently indirect consequence of getting in the middle of a job gone bad and the entire plot flows from there. Quinn makes things up, revises her accounts of previous events in the book, and declares that since she finds action sequences in books boring that she’s not going to have any. It’s fantastic.

The Georgian Bawdyhouse on Beware the “Squeaking Woman”! (1728):

The people here, it seems, are extreme cautious of being out too late at Night because of the squeaking Woman, call’d Long Margery, who is a great Haunter of this Parish. This Apparition (as the Tradition saith) appears in various Shapes and Forms, and has been seen and heard by many of the Women in this Part of the Town. The particular Office of this Ghost being to visit the Doors of Women in Child-bed only, and if they are not for this Life, to give them fair Warning by three loud Shrieks; and if a Midwife or a Nurse do but report they have heard anything like this, though the Woman shall be in the most happy Way of Recovery, the Husband would be thought worse than an Infidel, if Preparations are not immediately made for his Wife’s Funeral.

Ursula Vernon on Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt:

The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.

Chaucer Doth Tweet translates “American Pie” into Middle English: Bye, Bye Englisshe Jakke of Dover. (Via Rushthatspeaks.)

Cora Buhlert on It’s Still Very Grimdark Out There:

And talking about the gender gap among rape victims in gritty speculative fiction, this is something that bothered me quite a bit about Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, which I otherwise enjoyed a whole lot. Interestingly, Green’s name never shows up during discussions of of gritty speculative fiction either. Quite the contrary, several of the review snippets on the backcover of my edition call the Deathstalker series “light and humorous space opera”. Because whole planets being slaughtered in graphic detail and the bodies of the victims being ground up and turned into a highly addictive drug is just so bloody funny. But I guess the fact that there is true love (lots of true love even for the least likely of characters) and hope in the Deathstalker series means that it cannot be dark and gritty.

Linky needs to catch up with logging her reading (and write faster)

Marie Brennan on How to write a long fantasy series:

It took three years and two months rather than the two years I initially planned, but I have, at very long last, finished the Wheel of Time re-read and analysis. And as I promised quite some time ago, we’ll end with what I’ve learned.

This post, unlike the others, is not WoT-specific. I’ll be referencing the series, because it’s the primary source of my thoughts on this topic, but the point here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series — here defining “long” as “more than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.” (So something like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books wouldn’t count, since they’re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so I’m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.

I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Tor’s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.

Michelle Sagara with Where Is My Outrage? Here It Is:

The title refers to this post, by author Nora Jemisin. It is worth reading. It is not going to make your night any happier.

But then again, I’m not going to make your night any happier. I don’t know if people will find this post triggery–but it will descend, in all probability, into rant and a genuine, visceral anger. So this might be the time to scroll past.

Leah Bobet on Freedom To Read:

And we need to learn that: so people of all ages can see some of the world and decide who they want to be. So we can not just think critically, but realize that you can disagree with certain things.

I learned that what you want and what you’re talented at aren’t necessarily the same thing, and why that’s okay, long before I washed out of my first professional choir and had to face that I would never be a career musician. I learned that gay people are just people, with loves and ideas and problems, before the first friend ever came out to me. I understood something of how wonderful my city could be years before I started to explore it.

I read those things in books. That was a good thing in my life.

I am glad nobody took those books away.

Joe Abercrombie on The Value of Grit:

Grit is an inclusion. Not grit is an absence. Nothing to prevent gritty books including the ennobling, the clean, the beautiful. Indeed, I’d argue that the extremes of darkness only allow the glimpses of light to twinkle all the more brightly, if that’s the effect you’re after. Clean books deny themselves a chunk of the physical and emotional spectrum.

(As an aside: finding Abercrombie talking about grit as an inclusion makes me think about archaeology’s pottery analysis and what inclusions of different sorts of materials in ceramic fabrics tells you about their origins. Yes, I am that kind of geek. Although not as much as some people I know…)

Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink has some Hugo nominations and is gracious enough to consider me in the Fan Writer category. Really, me, I don’t think work done for money ought to count, but apparently it does – so thanks, man. I think you should be nominating Martin Lewis or Maureen Kincaid Speller instead, but it’s nice to be noticed.

Collecting all the links!

Or at least a few of them.

I’ve been holding on to Gemma Files’ write-up of “The Bletchley Circle” until I could watch my own DVDs. But I’ve been forced to concede that won’t happen for quite a while yet – and this is too good a write-up (and, it sounds like, too good a series) to sit on.

[T]he thing that sets The Bletchley Circle apart is its investment in the spectacle of unapologetic female intelligence. Susan has doubt about a lot of things, but not in her own capacities as a patternist; her confidence is intoxicating, especially to the other women, waking them from a sort of mutual torpor. There’s a lot of examination of the way “women’s work” is undervalued generally, even with the context of war–their sacrifices laughed off, their urge to service and impulse to put themselves in danger in order to save others pain seen as not as valuable as the same impulse when displayed on the front-lines. All of the Circle, one assumes, have taken a certain amount of crap for not being helpmeet-compliant, for not being content to simply play wife, mother, girlfriend, support-system, etc. None of them want to be Angel of the House, and all of them feel at least a bit bad for it–unnatural, asexual, “left out.” When they’re together again things become organic, and there’s a sense of beauty, of fulfillment, almost vocational/spiritual: The Fibonacci spiral laid overtop the murder-map, at one point literally.

N.K. Jemisin talks about The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing:

Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.

Think about that. Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.

Huh. Sounds familiar.

I have my own thoughts about the problem of orcs and the problem of evil in general in fantasy. The problem of evil in epic fantasy – the traditional kind – is that, usually, it is reified evil. Evil made concrete, taken out of the grey context and compromises of human existence. Good and evil are obviously, easily defined, visible. Marked. The orc – aside from it being Fear of the Other made flesh – is just another example of this demarcation of boundaries and refusal of ethical arguments. Why does evil exist? Because it does. Why is it evil? Because it is. (Because it’s not like us.)

The reaction to traditional epic fantasy in the grimdark forms of deconstruction – well, that tends also to refuse ethical arguments. Evil exists, human beings are shit, let’s roll around in blood and nastiness. I think a lot of the problems I find with “grimdark” as a deconstruction of the epic fantasy have to do with the fact that these deconstructions imbibe (narrowly) a philosophical view of human potential that owes entirely to much to Nietzche: the will-to-power, the dialectic of the master-slave morality (but one that valorises “master” morality), and a marriage of perspectivism to nihilism. Power is, if not the only virtue and only truth, the greatest one. (And individual power, at that: there are no functional communities within the grimdark subgenre, or where they are, they’re deluded, or corrupt, or doomed to betrayal and destruction.)

…But I ramble. I was collecting links.

Nerds of a Feather has an interesting review of Leviathan Wakes:

So what’s the libertarianism doing in Leviathan Wakes and why is it problematic? To answer the first question, I’d guess it’s a product of the attempt to write “old school solar Space Opera,” and the fact that the classics of the genre are positively swimming in the stuff. And–to be fair–since Leviathan Wakes is the first installment in a multi-volume series, this could be a setup for subversion or deconstruction later on. That’s pretty much what Scalzi did to Heinlein in the Old Man’s War books, so I won’t discount the possibility here.

Nevertheless, its deployment in Leviathan Wakes leaves much to be desired. Earth and Mars are highly centralized and bureaucratized states where large corporations dependent on public funds shape policy to their sociopathic will. The Belt, by contrast, is a loose conglomeration of scrappy, independent-minded pioneers sick of being overtaxed and overregulated. Though there are some early attempts at moral grayscaling (the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), for example, first appears to us as an ideologically-blinded radical group), these are abandoned midway for a more Bova/Niven-esque dynamic where Belters appear as archetypal “rugged individualist of the American West” to be contrasted with the nefarious “East Coast Warshington insiders” of the inner planets. These ideal types are deeply problematic in their real world historical-cultural context, but in Leviathan Wakes there’s never much doubt as to who we should root for, especially when every single sympathetic Earther or Martian is just a freedom-lovin’ Belter at heart.

Any more interesting news lately?