Genre Mash-Ups

I’ve read a couple books recently that meld distinct genres in ways I’ve never considered before, and the results have been pretty awesome.

rebel-of-the-sands   steeplejack

Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton, is a gunslinger set in the fantasy Middle East, with a sharpshooter protagonist who’s the child of a djinni. There’s dialogue reminiscent of old westerns and several almost-train heists, amid a backdrop of a corrupt sultan and international intrigue. The best word for it would be ‘rollicking’.

Steeplejack, by A. J. Hartley, reads like a victorian mystery happening in a fictional, industrial South Africa-inspired country. It’s rife with intersectional conflict and political espionage, as well as the politics of a post-colonization state, but also strongly Sherlock Holmes-flavored.

I enjoyed both books, but was constantly struck by the contrasts in setting and genre. It made for two very fun reads.

 

 

Fantasy Misogyny

It seems like every book I pick up lately has a protagonist struggling against a supremely patriarchal, sexist, oppressive society. And I’m absolutely not saying we shouldn’t be writing and reading about these issues, be they incorporated into fantasy worlds or not–but lord am I getting a little exhausted of being surrounded by a society that hates and enacts violence against women, especially when I’m reading to get a bit of a break from it.

It might be just a coincidence that this is the backdrop to all the books I’ve read somewhat randomly lately. It might be that mounting social tensions are being reflected in YA literature. It’s probably a bit of both. But it’s exhausting. Right now I could use a few fantasy worlds without misogynistic cultures. I could use a story about a girl who isn’t facing down sexism as well as the big bad.

Psychopomps?

What’s a psychopomp? It’s a question most people ask themselves at least once in their lives. The answer is that a psychopomp is a being who transports souls to the afterlife.

Why do you care? Another questions most people ask themselves at least once in their lives, regarding psychopomps. The answer is that you care because psychopomps are seriously cool. The very nature of a psychopomp imbues them with a sense of liminality: they are at once deities of death and not, they are of the living world and the underworld, benign guides and malicious reapers. Animal psychopomps–foxes, owls, etc–easily evoke the sense that they can slip between worlds on a whim.

Psychopomps can be: angels, ancestors, spirits, monsters, gods, goddesses, butterflies, birds, dogs, and multitudinous others.

Hermes, more oft known for his role as a messenger, is a psychopomp as well, with one foot in Hades. Of course, Charon is more well known for his role as Greek ferryman of the dead. Aken serves a similar role in ancient Egyptian mythology, and Urshanabi in ancient Mesopotamian. There is Xolotl, Ch’eng Huang, Valkryies, Agni, and many more.

In The Book of the Dead, half the cast is made up of psychopomps. Nebtu, one of the protagonists, is a psychopomp herself. They are more familiar with life than the rest of the gods of the underworld, because they are in constant interaction with it.

 

Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

no1-ladies-cover

I’ve finished one of the books I promised to read this year! Cue confetti flying, fireworks whizzing. The No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency is a book that, for some reason, you always picture your grandmother reading.

Alexander McCall Smith is an interesting dude, born in Zimbabwe, co-founder and teacher at the University of Botswana. So he’s definitely got the cred to be writing about the place, my first consideration when I picked up the book.

In the honored tradition of the critique sandwich, I will go good-bad-good. I absolutely loved the character of Precious Ramotswe. Savvy, funny, serious, and determined, her self-confidence was one of my elements of the book. From childhood she is conditioned to be clever and observant, and to take no shit from men.

Which makes it all the more out of place when she falls prey to an abusive relationship. I don’t want to make light of this issue: sexual assault and marital abuse are something many, many women face, and we shouldn’t not talk about it. But I do question the aptness of using it as a plot device in this particular instance, after a buildup of Precious’ character as someone unlikely to fall victim to this brand of violence. To me it felt abrupt and out of character, and I was taken aback by the suddenness of its appearance.

Precious’ concession to marriage at the end of the book to Mr. J.L. B. Matekone (another great character) felt out of place to me as well. While we see him as lovestruck and longing for Precious’ companionship, her thoughts on marriage remain clear until the very last page: that she is content to be unmarried, in fact, she is strongly opposed to remarrying. We see no evidence of this changing before she concedes to his second marriage proposal on the last page of the book. A bit unbelievable.

Criticism aside, I loved so many things about this book. Precious’ use of Agatha Christie to lend validity to her detective agency, the connection she felt to her homeland: Precious loves Africa, loves Botswana, with a such a forceful wonder. Precious loved herself fiercely also, as a fat woman, as a damn good detective. And she was staunch throughout, never doubting that she could handle any case, from missing dogs to malicious witchdoctors.

I would definitely recommend this book. It is an engaging, quick read, with an incredibly lovable narrator. I probably won’t read the rest of the series right now, but I’ll be trying out the TV series.

 

Obscure Words

Many books like to complect obscure, tonish words into their stories and use them crebrously. By the end of it, the reader just feels smarter, their facund vocabulary munified by at least one.

Here’s a good resource for finding that recherché word that will become forever associated in your readers’ minds with your story. The Logorrhea is a dictionary of unusual, lautitious, cacologous words. Now you can bloviate to your heart’s content.

Some select words to mabble this post:

  • Fabaceous: bean-like
  • Rumbustious: boisterous
  • Tarantism: the irresistible urge to dance
  • Deipotent: having godlike power
  • Hepatoscopy: divination by the study of animal livers

An Emotional Wreck

When it comes to how to make characters’ emotions feel real, the best advice I’v been able to dredge up is that you must feel it yourself.  The moments when my descriptions of characters’ emotions come out the best is when I’m immersed in their emotional state.

I once wrote a scene in which a character cried—I can’t remember why he was crying, but honestly I put him through the wringer for that whole novel, so there could have been any number of reasons. It was one of those days when the words start flowing and don’t stop for a good hour, and when I came out of it, I felt like I had been crying myself. I had all the symptoms—the kind of drained feeling, the tight face, the wobbliness of a good cry. But I most assuredly had not been actually crying—only writing, immersed, about a person breaking down.

But sometimes (often) I read over my descriptions and the emotions are stiff and clunky, completely unconvincing. I’ll revert to simply telling instead of showing, never a good idea. But the best case scenario is when you’re right there with your character, feeling their pain and joy and embarrassment (that’s possibly the worst one, let’s be honest).

There’s no magic formula to get you into that space. Sometimes you have to leave a gap in red text that says “insert emotional moment here”. Sometimes you make yourself write something crappy, break out the ‘she said sadly’s and the ‘he felt happy’s and go back and fix them later. But one way or another, that emotion has to make its way onto the page. It has to be strong enough to make not just the writer feel it, but the reader too.

In A Past Life I Was A Merchant Sailing Vessel

Who doesn’t love to google their name and find out what they’re notorious (or not) for? I tried the other day, to see if this blog would finally show up. It did! Huzzah. But something even curiouser turned up as well, which I’m still thinking about, a little bewildered.

When you google ‘Evangeline Giaconia’, the first item of the second page of google is a a google books link to the “Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, Volume 26, Part 1894”, scanned from a document published in 1895.

One page 131 of this list there is a listing for the Giaconia, a lugger weighing 6,037 tonnes. There is also a listing for the Glendy Burke–with a postscript which defers the reader to the bottom of the page, where a note reads: ‘Formerly British schooner Evangeline’.

I still can’t quite wrap my head around this: my names on two different vessels on the same page of a document from 1895. The listing is alphabetical, so it had to be the postscript that contained the word ‘Evangeline’, or it wouldn’t have been on the same page as ships starting with ‘G’. How wild.

To bring this back to writing, I suppose it’s things like this that remind us that weird, bizarre coincidences do exist, and that maybe we ought to check our suspension of disbelief sometimes when we’re getting a little skeptical. Last night I was sighing in exasperation as Francis Thurton’s gaze just happened to fall on just the right newspaper article in Call of Cthulhu, but maybe I ought to give him a bit more credit. Maybe the world is more cohesive than we think.

schooner-with-squid

Ahoy from the SS Evangeline! We go in search of the Old Ones.