Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Kings & Queens in Fantasy

It appears I wrote this months ago, and neglected to post it.


Of course I like to see kings and queens in stories. I grew up reading about King Arthur and his knights, the Pevensie children in Narnia, and Bartholomew of Didd. As a child I knew that a monarch could be very good or very bad, and have overwhelming influence over the lives of subjects—this fit with my childhood understanding of authority. Justice played an important role. A bad king or queen must be shamed (as in Bartholomew and the Oobleck), or defeated (Narnia), while good monarchs must undergo trials and maintain strength of character (Arthur, Aragorn). Looking back now with more experience, that looks like propaganda—or nostalgia for a world that never existed. Normally one aspiring to autocracy sets out to kill the other contenders (as does Jorg in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence), and justice is decided by the winner.

                And there always remains the question: what next? So the most capable guy (or girl) has gained the throne. What about twenty years later, when that person’s heir is a maniac, or simply incompetent? I explored that question in The Emperor’s Knife. Young when their father died, and scarred by the aftermath of his death, neither Beyon nor Sarmin is ready to rule. 

Much of history shows autocracy to be unpopular, typically leading to the formation of parliaments or other bodies designed to share power with the throne. Perhaps such a body would have preserved Cerana from Emperor Beyon’s greatest flaws. 

In fact democracy plays a strong role in history—so why don’t more fantasy novels feature legislators (one thing I liked about the recent Star Wars movies)? Perhaps that seems a bit boring, or too close to how we live now—not second world-y enough. Maybe it’s just too complicated to write about a few dozen ministers instead of one king or queen. 

But then power in itself is a theme, and it’s compelling to study those who grasp it, especially when done by the likes of George R. R. Martin or Gene Wolfe.

It brings us back to the question of why readers enjoy fantasy.  Some like to read about historical combat or complicated magic systems. Some like the challenges faced by characters in the genre—betrayal, grief, trauma, self-doubt. Few people say they are interested in fantasy governments, and when faced with an issue in which the reader has no interest, simplicity is best.

But why did I explore autocracy? To remind myself that we got it right—that democracy works best? History has already provided that answer. Maybe I, too, suffer from a strange nostalgia for a non-existent past. Living under the control of a powerful monarch, with limited choices, sounds a lot like childhood. There’s a certain comfort to having decisions made for you—but it’s the sort of comfort one must put aside. The coming-of-age nature of many fantasy stories might lend itself to worlds with absolute rulers—where to bypass or overcome the ruler/parent is to come into one’s own—to grow up. There’s a satisfying mythological feel to that.        
So why is fantasy full of kings and queens? All of the above answers are possible given the author and the story in question. Still, it’s always interesting to read a fantasy book with a different setup. For example, Miserere by Teresa Frohock shows us a world (or Woerld) ruled by religious councils, while Courtney Schafer writes about  a city under the control of mages in The Whitefire Crossing. Personally I think it would be interesting to use elements from the governments of 15th-century Florence or Venice (likely, someone already has).  So fantasy authors are not stuck with kings and queens—it’s just a habit, and not an awful one.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Coffee Makers and Why Reviews Are Important

Like many authors I suspect I spend a little too much time wondering why some people don’t like my story. I’ll get five people who loved it and one who didn’t, and I’ll focus on the one – not just out of hurt pride but also curiosity. How can one reviewer say the characters are their favorite part of a story, and another reviewer say they were cardboard cut-outs? It’s confusing, but at the same time, every reviewer is correct. I can’t argue their enjoyment of a book, or lack thereof, is mistaken. They felt what they felt. It’s their own subjective experience which nobody can gainsay.

What brings this to my mind? Well, I’ve been shopping for an automatic drip coffee maker for months. It has taken me this long to make my decision because a $100 coffee maker is, by necessity, something I’ll have to live with for a long time. So while my current coffee maker - finally undone by the city’s hard water - was leaking all over the counter top, I googled and read review after review. 

For us caffeine addicts, the coffee experience is so personal and intense that a betrayal of our hopes is disastrous. Too hot! Not hot enough! I had to wait too long for my morning cup! Drinkers lash out in their frustration. For every five good comments on a coffee maker, there is at least one that swears it is the worst on the market. We want the coffee we are expecting to have, at just the right boldness and temperature. The problem is we’re all expecting a different cup of coffee. 

Sometimes reviews tell you more about people than about the product. Five people complain about the loud steam or the heat of a brew, until one man rates the maker five stars and writes,  “Let me explain to some of you how a coffee maker works . . .” – it’s all WAI (working as intended) – features, not bugs. Some complain about overflow issues; other posters insinuate they don’t know how to operate a coffee maker. For each person with a complaint, there is someone else who will say, “If you don’t like this as much as I do, there is something wrong with you.”

Ultimately I purchased the same brand of coffee maker I already had.

So why did I read the reviews? Because though it’s impossible I wanted to be sure – that first taste of coffee in the morning is important to me too. Because it’s a form of sharing with these coffee drinkers who have posted their opinions in the hopes of helping others. My community of fellow addicts. And one thing the reviews can do is reveal trends. Though we might not be looking for the same cup of coffee, if seven out of ten people say the coffee took a long time to brew, maybe I should think about that feature and decide how important it is to me.

If you’re wondering if I spend a lot of time reading book reviews as well as coffee maker reviews – yes I do. Along with most people who purchase books, I tend to look for the same authors again and again. We know we like their writing. We know what to expect. We trust them – like Cuisinart over a newer, unknown brand. But I read reviews in the hopes of adding to my roster of guaranteed good reads. I notice some reviewers will focus on the magic systems, while others like the worldbuilding or characters. Some prefer non-stop action while others do not. As with the coffee makers, the trick is sorting out what’s important to me while I’m reading.

So the question arises, how does a newer author break in, become the Mr. Coffee or the Krupps of fantasy? Right now it seems I’m with the French-press crowd, the people who take a few extra steps, and I’m happy about that. But the unfortunate fact of publishing is that those who do not sell really well, might not sell at all next time. Publishers, like readers, want to be sure when they opt for a book.

Last week when I was looking for books for my children, I defaulted to the “Amazon top 100.” Then I realized what I was doing. That’s hardly taking a few extra steps. I didn’t see a lot of writers I like to read on that list. So what did I do? I went to Ranting Dragon. I went to Staffer’s Musings. I ferreted out some good stuff. And unlike my coffee-making experience, it was all new stuff.

I’ve come out of it with an even more positive attitude towards reviews, even the negative ones. If someone hated my book because there’s “too much sex” (really, at least one person said that), another person might think, “I love sex! I’ll pick that one up!” (and be disappointed). But seriously, in this community of readers and writers, in which many of us are both, reviews are a way of sharing our love for the written word, for secondary worlds, and for everything else that goes with SFF. Even with the contradictions from review to review, the attention paid to things we might not care about, and the people who say, “if you don’t agree, there is something wrong with you,” reviews still work. They help us sort out what’s important to us in a book – and we might be surprised to learn what we’re looking for, whether it’s the same old thing as before or something completely new. I’m all for that.