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Fantasy + Mystery/Detective Fiction

This is a post by James Davis Nichol:, which starts this way:

I recently happened across a Twitter conversation in which an author asserted, with the unwavering confidence of a person about to denounce the heliocentric model of the Solar System, that mystery/detective/police or legal procedurals are antithetical to horror/fantasy. This is a claim for which I am grateful. My quest for inspiration is endless and nothing serves me quite as well as a bar so low it requires a trench.

I laughed. A bar so low it requires a trench! I’m going to remember that one.

Of course that’s a ridiculous assertion, so ridiculous that I’m surprised anyone offered it as a hypothesis, never mind asserting it as a statement of fact. I instantly think of, eg, Lord Darcy. I will add, these are too … how shall I put this … too Sherlockian to appeal to me. They’re all about the clever plot, which is not what I like in mysteries. But they are most definitely fantasy stories that are also detective fiction.

I don’t know whether Nicholl mentions them, but he’s always recalling older SFF, so probably! Let me look … no, he doesn’t. But after all, there are zillions of examples of fantasy/detective novels. Here’s one he does mention:

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett 

The great city of Astreiant and the monarchy of Chenedolle to which it belongs recognize the rule of law…in rudimentary fashion. However, there does exist a cadre of professionals charged with enforcing such laws as exist. Pointsman Rathe is one such professional. What begins as a simple missing-persons case is revealed to be a problem of far grander scale: all across the city, children are vanishing. The straightforward folk of Astreiant default to blaming the first scapegoats who come to mind. Rathe, for his part, actually cares about the truth. It’s not at all clear that he will be able to uncover the truth in time to save the children.

This one is much heavier on the fantasy and much lighter on the detective fiction vibe. Also lots more emphasis on the characters. Nothing Sherlockian about it. I liked it a lot.

Nicholl lists off a handful of others — not many, but a wide range.

There are so many others, and a tremendously wide range if you include every kind of mytery. Let me try to think of a few that aren’t just mysteries, but are specifically detective fiction. All right, here’s one: The Eyre Affair

Which is in a class of its own for a zillion reasons. When someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career. … Her career as a detective, of course.

And Jackaby by Ritter is another.

I liked this one quite a bit. I see there are three others in the series. Maybe I should try the next. Although I kind of have enough books to read right now, I have to say. And for me, detective fiction can be nice to read, but isn’t likely to be really emotionally engaging. Too much intellectual working out the crime, not enough sinking into the story … here’s one that might be an exception, though: Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series.

A very good trilogy, and here we have a cop at the beginning of her career, in a world where cops and detectives are a pretty new idea. I’d say that really, this trilogy straddles the distance between detective fiction such as the Lord Darcy stories, and fantasy-with-detective-elements such as Point of Hopes. Lots of worldbuilding here, lots of emphasis on the characters. I liked this series a lot and I’ve read it several times.

Anyway, there’s no end. I’m sure we could think of dozens if not hundreds of books that are both fantasies and detective novels / mysteries. That really IS a bar so low you have to dig a trench.

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Update: Tasmakat

All right, so I really thought I’d have nothing to say this morning.

a) I spent a lot of time last week reading The Golden Enclaves (which was fantastic, yay!)

b) I spent practically all of Saturday at Archon (which was perfectly fine, and I greatly appreciate all your suggestions for the panels!)

c) Have I mentioned that I’m taking my mother to physical therapy a couple times a week? She’s doing okay, but that has a big impact on how much time I have in the morning.

d) The dratted biology class. I will (probably) complain about it less in another week or so, after we hit mitosis/meiosis/genetics, particularly genetics. I really love genetics! But at the moment, do you realize I was compelled to assign a lab report? (It’s in the syllabus.) (I know, I could have taken it out, but I guess it’s okay to provide this one experience in writing a lab report, plus some students could really use the extra points in a take-home assignment.) (But now I’m going to have to grade the dratted thing. It will take hours to grade 20-plus lab reports, and they will be much more boring than, say, an equal number of English Comp I essays.)

However, all that aside, I actually made a lot of progress on Tasmakat! That’s because I wrote almost 9000 words on Sunday.

Wow, you may be saying, I bet that means Rachel finally wrote the big revelation scene where we find out the truth about certain important things!

No. I thought I was going to, but instead I wrote a scene that I didn’t see coming, plus associated scenes.

I won’t tell you anything about it, except that Aras snaps, “You stubborn Ugaro, I won’t let you do something you so vehemently don’t want to do!” And Ryo answers, with just as much force, “You arrogant Lau, I will not permit you to make a decision that rightfully belongs to me!”

So that was a tense moment. Aras walked out and Ryo made his own decision, and then we moved on with the consequences of that.

And this morning, I finally began the big revelation scene. I jumped over a hopefully short transition scene to get to it. I’m going to try a new strategy this week: on weekdays, jump over everything transitional, everything doubtful, everything I’m not sure about, and write the scenes that I most want to write. Then go back on the weekend and fill in the transitional material and figure out the difficult stuff. I think — I hope — that will mean I get more done per week. Here we are in October! I would LOVE to be writing THE END by the end of this month, or at least pretty close to it.

Other things that are taking time: I’m also beta-reading another book for Sherwood Smith, the third book of the Norsunder War series, and reading an unpublished book for Kay Kenyon with an eye to providing a blurb, and wow, I just feel really busy right now.

Oh, I’ll comment a bit about the above two books:

Sherwood Smith’s series is omniscient viewpoint and we get roughly a thousand different points of view. I’m much more engaged with some than with others. I’ve read a good many recent books in this huge set of linked series, so I’m deeply invested in some of the plotlines, while I care a lot less about others. However, the second book hit many, many buttons for me with a whole bunch of my favorite characters, so I’ve been looking forward very much to the third book. It’ll be four books total, I believe. I bet I see the fourth this year. She’s very fast.

Kay Kenyon’s book is interesting because I picked it up while writing all these posts on Positive Fantasy. This is totally not that, and it’s been, as I say, interesting. I found myself thinking very explicitly, “Are these people EVER going to be NICE to each other?” The answer is, as far as I can tell, is basically no. However, the main character has now discovered she has magic powers, and some people around her are at least looking like they might become allies, though personally I wouldn’t trust any of them as far as I could throw them at this point.

Great cover, I will add:

It’s one of those novels that’s very YA, but too slow paced for YA, so it’s adult fantasy. I ought to write a post about that, because there are quite a lot of fantasy novels that I think fit that description — YA but slow paced. Anyway, hopefully I’ll wind up really enjoying this book. I’ll certainly let you all know if so.

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The Scholomance Trilogy: What did Naomi Novik Do Right?

Okay, so, I didn’t get anything done yesterday because I read the rest of The Golden Enclaves instead. It’s excellent! A great ending for a fantastic trilogy. I’m just filled with admiration for what Novik achieved in this series, so I thought I’d take a stab at talking about that without revealing any important spoilers. I think this is possible! Let’s see if I can do it.

So, what did Naomi Novik really handle excellently in this trilogy?

A) Wonderful voice. The protagonist, El — Galadriel Higgins — has a highly distinctive voice. This story is told in an interesting way; it’s sort of contemporary fantasy, close enough that El’s syntax and locution are thoroughly modern, even though we barely see the mundane world at all. This gives El an opportunity for sarcasm and snark. You can pull that off in an SF setting with slang that is quite different from modern slang, as Eluki bes Shahar showed, for example, but you can’t really do it in high fantasy. This style suits both El and the story perfectly. The books are funny even though they are also grim, edging into horror. They’re much, much easier to read than an equally dark story told in a less sarcastic voice.

B) Amazing unlikeable characters. There’s El herself, who is the quintessential example of a fantastically likeable unlikeable protagonist. And! Bonus! There are a ton of other unlikeable characters who are all different from El and different from each other. This trilogy could be used, and should be used, to illustrate how to do unlikeable characters who are splendidly likeable. El is so sympathetic because she’s been badly hurt and this has means that she’s simmering with rage and has a massive self-protective chip on her shoulder, so the reader wants to sympathize with her, plus she’s amazingly self-sacrificing and pours all her efforts into saving people even when it’s really, really hard for her. And Novik makes all that believable.

Then we have Liesel. Wow, she’s so unlikeable! I just love her and I’m delighted she got a big role in the third book. I have SUCH a soft spot for focused, ruthless practicality. It’s hard to write a really intelligent character, but here she is. It’s not just that everyone in the book acts like Liesel is a genius. She really is a genius. She’s so much fun! And nicer underneath than one might think at first. Novik signals that by having her in a relationship with Alfie, who is genuinely nice. That’s a practical choice for Liesel, but do you think for one instant she couldn’t have used someone vicious if she’d wanted to? No, part of the reason she picked out Alfie is because he really is nice. I’m sure that’s true, even though Novik didn’t (quite) come out and say so.

C) Fantastic use of foreshadowing. The whole story ties together amazingly well, even though I don’t think you can see many of the most important elements coming. After reading this trilogy, you can sit down and lay out the plot elements that are important and look at where they first appeared and how the characters viewed those elements. Then trace where those elements turn up and rate how important they are at every step of the way. Then look how they all lock together as the third book moves toward the conclusion. This is REALLY well done. Plus the ultimate resolution is strongly foreshadowed, yet hard to see coming. It’s just stunning.

D) Use of tension. Wow. I mean throughout, though I’m also thinking specifically of the climactic scenes. It’s tough because by then El is SO POWERFUL, but the resolution isn’t about that; or rather, it kind of is about that, but power isn’t what brings about the resolution. But before that, long before the climax, through the whole story, Novik shows just a masterful use of tension. This series could be laid out with the Hunger Games to look at tension — how to develop, maintain, use, and resolve tension — but as far as I’m concerned, this trilogy is very much to be preferred. There are certain elements both stories have in common, but I greatly prefer the way every single one of those elements is handled here. That’s true even though I liked and admired the Hunger Games trilogy in many ways. I doubt I’ll ever re-read that trilogy. This is a trilogy that I will re-read with great pleasure.

E) The world wind up in a (much) better place and heading in a (much) better direction. So do all the characters we care about. You can watch all those elements click into place as well. This is something I expected, and even though I admit Novik made me worry for a few pages now and then, I wasn’t at all surprised at the larger elements of the resolution. Except Novik went farther in shoving various elements into better positions than I expected, and I loved that. I’m trying not to spoil certain things here. Let me see. All right, I think I can say this: I appreciated seeing certain things that happened in the past in a different light, and I appreciated that Novik didn’t make those things unimportant or okay, yet still managed to set them into a better position at the end.

Here is an element of “winding up in a better place” that I think I can talk about more explicitly. I love, love, LOVE how so many classmates from the Scholomance wind up supporting El at one time or another as the events in the third book unfold. This is just … I don’t know how to put it. It’s a deep redemptive arc laid below all sorts of more important events. It’s a redemptive arc that addresses all the dislike and suspicion El has always endured. Through this story, many of those classmates move to support El even when that’s hard and dangerous. It’s wonderful.

Novik didn’t have to do that. The story would have worked almost as well without that, and doing this made her pick up so many minor characters and work them back into this story. I’m so glad she did that. This element pulls so much together and shoves the whole world more clearly and firmly in a good direction.

This isn’t just one of my favorite books of the year, this is one of my all-time favorite fantasy stories period. I’m putting it way above Uprooted and Temeraire, even though I liked both of those books quite a bit. I think Novik pulled off the ending FAR better here than in Uprooted, and maintained tension and interest and coherence of the story FAR better here than in the Temeraire series. I can’t think of a single thing I would have liked Novik to do differently in the Scholomance trilogy. This is just a stunning work. I would really wish I’d written it myself, except reading it was such a tremendous pleasure.

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Positive Fantasy: Yet another possible Term

So, I pointed Sharon Shinn to my recent post about Positive Fantasy since after all I included one of her trilogies in that post.

She said, by the way, that she had a hard time writing Dream-Maker’s Magic but, when she struck that line about kindness being magical, decided she had to finish the book. Just a nice detail.

Sharon also handed me another conception of positive fiction — this time a broader term, for fiction in general, not fantasy specifically. But wait for that just a second.

Various of your comments made me rethink my prior criteria. Sure, I like high fantasy style; yes, I like a more numinous type of magic. BUT, you’re right, those qualities aren’t required. They’re additional axes in, shall we say, an n-dimensional space of literature.

Here we go: not a range, but a space. Grimdark to kind on one axis, realistic to fantastic on a second access, self-conscious/subverting tropes to high fantasy on the third, and now there’s a space in which to plot my personal favorite novels. It would be kind of fun to do this, but also a lot of trouble and I’m not good enough with graphics, so it’ll never happen.

Especially since it would probably actually turn into a space more like this:

With ten thousand input variables.

Regardless, how’s this for the truly essential criteria for positive fantasy:

  1. The protagonist is deeply kind
  2. The tone is not gritty
  3. The style is elevated, formal, not cutesy, not overtly self-conscious
  4. The characters and the world wind up in a better place at the end

What do you think?

In describing this kind of fiction, I think it’s hard to do better than Liz Bourke’s comment, which I quoted in the previous post. Here it is again, rephrased slightly to make it more generally applicable to this kind of literature:

Filled with a keen sense of kindness and empathy; a fundamentally generous story.

There you go. To me, that is the heart of this subgenre. I need to remember this exact description, because if I suggest this topic for panels at conventions, this is what I’d want in the description of the panel.

And this then leads to the term Sharon pointed out. This wasn’t coined for fantasy, which is probably why I hadn’t run across it previously. But here it is:

A newly recognized genre of literature, Up Lit focuses on human connections and life-affirming stories filled with joy, kindness, humor, heroism, hope, empathy, compassion and love. The goal here is not to bury our heads in the sand and write off our turbulent times. Up Lit is simply modern literature with the power to remind ourselves of – and celebrate! – some of the many joys to be found in our human existence.

That’s actually a pretty good term! And then it’s easy to specify UpLit SFF.

I’d take out “modern,” though. It doesn’t matter when a book was written. If you step outside of fantasy, then Little Women and A Little Princess are both going to qualify as UpLit. I’m sure plenty of other older works would also qualify.

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All the Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need

From Writer Unboxed: All the Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need

Since I’m on record as saying (many times) that virtually all writing advice is either useless, overstated, or garbage, I am naturally interested in this post. Go ahead, Writer Unboxed, tell me what the truly essential writing advice might be:

Ah, this is a bait-and-switch title. It’s just a post offering snippets of advice from a handful of authors and commenting on that advice. Like this:

Another common piece of writing advice is to write every day. I’m not sure who said that first, but the author Jodi Picoult has this to say:

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Note that she’s not specifically advocating writing every day, but she does have a point that writing something is better than nothing.. However, having a goal to write every day doesn’t work for everyone. You might miss one day, then promise to catch up tomorrow. Life gets in the way and you don’t, so you resolve to write three days’ worth the next day. Something else comes up and you can’t complete your goal. For some people, that can invoke a sense of failure or even stress to write so many words in a single day to catch up.

For other writers, they have to give themselves that aim of writing every day, maybe at a set time every morning, otherwise they never manage to get any writing done at all.

Which is fine. You might as well say: The advice to write every day works for some people and not for others, and we already knew that, I expect, but it’s certainly a lot better than saying “Write every day” and stopping there.

I’m not always making my 2000-word-per-day goal for Tasmakat, by the way. Fortunately, I am not the sort of person who feels guilty about that. It’s a goal, not a requirement, and there’s a lot going on. Also, The Golden Enclaves dropped yesterday, so guess what I did last night. I didn’t even look at my laptop. I’m really enjoying it so far!

Meanwhile, back to the advice post …

I’ll leave you with this one final piece of writing advice, from playwright Lillian Hellman:

“If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

There you go! THAT is good advice.

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Quick, let’s have some ideas —

Five requests, one from Mary Beth and four from me. I’ll start with hers:

A) Do you know of any SFF stories that are (a) good and (b) around 1000 words in length? I know that may be an impossible challenge, but how about it? That’s about three normal pages.

I will add that there are some stunning stories that ought to be used in English class but that are (obviously) longer than that.

Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is one that leaps to mind for me.

Bloodchild may be my favorite-ever SFF story.

The Great Silence is probably Ted Chiang’s shortest short story, but it would be great to include something of his, and several are short-ish.

Obviously The One Who Walked Away is great for sparking debate.

But I’m sure that plenty of you read more short stories than I do. Anybody have any other suggestions?

NEXT. My goodness, look, Archon is THIS SATURDAY. I’m on four panels and I haven’t even thought about them! Help!

B) Religion and its place in SFF.

Obviously religion is handled well in, eg, the Five Gods novels and novellas by LMB. I also want to mention The Hands of the Emperor. Ann Leckie always includes religion in her novels as just an integral part of the worldbuilding, but more as scenery than as a driver of the plot. I can mention designing the (obviously very important) religions in the Tuyo world and the Death’s Lady world.

What else? Please throw a handful of suggestions into the comments. I would particularly appreciate any SFF novels where the religion is (a) central, and (b) obviously stems from some real-world religion, because that is a topic specifically mentioned for this panel.

C) The Hero in Fiction

I feel I have a good handle on this topic. I have clear opinions about the difference between the hero and the protagonist, about what makes a hero compelling, about what makes a hero likeable vs unlikeable and what those descriptive terms mean and what they emphatically do not mean. Also I’ve thought about heroes with clear character arcs vs heroes that don’t change over the course of the novel or series.

Any other related thoughts I’m missing?

D) Best Self-Published Authors in SFF

Well, this is an enormous category these days. So

Victoria Goddard

Alice Degan / AJ Demas

Nathan Lowell

I liked the book I read by JM Ney-Grimm, but I’ve only read one complete novel of hers so far.

Name your favorite self-published SFF authors, please! Who would you most like to see mentioned in this panel?

E) “Science Fiction Settings — Beware of Planetary Chauvinism.

I’d forgotten about this one completely. What’s it about? Ah, space-based SF where home is not a planet. Fine.

Other than Niven’s Ringworld, what are some ideas here? Oh, there’s the zero-G quaddie environments in LMB’s Vorkosigan universe. Generation ships are scattered through SFF, but usually work rather badly (because that’s what drives the plot!) I could REALLY use some ideas here. SF where people don’t live on planets. Anything but planets. Please suggest any novels you can think of that feature such settings.

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Updates: Tasmakat

Well, Tasmakat had now told the origin story of the Lakasha to Aras and Ryo. Will that scene stay in the book? There’s one line that foreshadows the soon-to-be-revealed big problem. Is three pages of an origin story too much for that one line? Maybe. It’s a cardinal rule not to tell the reader details about the world just because they’re neat details. On the other hand … they’re neat details. So we’ll see.

Whew, anyway, we are at last juuuust about to have the big revelation I’ve been working toward all this time. A few minor scenes to set it up. Then: Big revelations, big decisions, big costs: it’s all about to come crashing down on Aras and Ryo. It’s going to be a challenge. I mean for me! Writing it will be a challenge. But I’m looking forward to it. I think we’ll get there this week, even though weekdays are just dreadful for getting anything done. I’m averaging just about 15,000 words per week, which is pretty terrible, but in light of everything going on, also pretty good.

It has (unsurprisingly) taken quite a lot of pages to get here. Those 30,000 words I cut? Yep, that many have now been added back in. Of course, that’s happened in moving forward, so that’s fine.

You know, even after all this time, it’s difficult to believe how many words it takes to get anywhere and do anything. Isn’t there a joke about how you figure a budget by assuming your project will take longer and cost more? It’s like that, but with words. Also, I kind of think I was forgetting the denouement when I was thinking about how many more words this was going to take. Although some details about the denouement are quite clear to me and have been for a long time, so I’m not sure why I wasn’t factoring that in.

I will almost certainly be saying, “Three months later, we arrived” at some point in there, between the climactic scenes and the tying-it-all-up scenes. I think we’ll have had enough long journeys by that time. Oh, maybe we can do a magic journey! Poof, we arrived! I don’t know, that might work, we’ll see.

***

In other news, the first Gen Bio test generated a fairly normal curve. The modal grade was indeed a C. More Fs and Ds than Bs and As, but fairly comparable. The range was from 37 to 106. In shocking news from education: skipping class is inadvisable if you are already struggling. In truly shocking news, wow, nobody studied the material in chapter three. Or not nobody, but that was pretty straightforward material — memorize a handful of facts about four broad groups of biological molecules — and I really just have no clue why people had trouble with it.

In completely different commentary about science education: why are we covering these precise topics? I’ll tell you why: because those are the topics we’ve always covered from the dawn of time and no one is ever going to reevaluate the curriculum because it would be too much trouble to revise the instructional materials and standardized tests. We therefore cover: The scientific method, very basic chemistry, very basic biochemistry, very basic cellular biology including photosynthesis and cellular respiration, mitosis, meiosis, human reproduction — a ridiculous insertion that should be left to high school health class — exceedingly basic genetics, a tiny bit about evolutionary theory, and a very superficial look at ecology.

Here’s what I would personally prefer: in this order: the scientific method, ecology, ethology, evolutionary theory and biological diversity including deep time, genetics (I really like genetics), applied biology aka medicine, and How To Evaluate Studies For Rigor. I’d insert that last component back into every unit. Here are some ecological studies; let’s evaluate their methodology. Here are some animal behavior studies; let’s evaluate their methodology. And so on. I am sick and tired of “studies” that declare that cats do great on a vegan diet — look at this owner survey that says so! Dog breed doesn’t predict behavior — look at this owner survey that says so! Hey, look here, Collies are the single most aggressive dog breed — look at this owner survey that says so! Yes, this year alone, I’ve seen “studies” that purport to show all of the above. All based on owner surveys because that’s the quickest, easiest way to get totally screwed up results. If you can call that “results.” Which you really can’t for “studies” this ludicrous.

By the way, one of the essay questions students could pick proposed a scenario and asked students to design an experiment. One student did such a splendid job on that question that I threw in two extra credit points for sheer excellence. She did far better on the essays than the multiple choice and wound up with a mid-range C. All her essay answers were good, but that one was so good that if she’d wound up with a 79, I’d have handed her one more extra credit point and bounced it to a B just on the strength of that one essay question. There’s nothing I’d like students to really take away more than an understanding of what experiments actually are and how to think about them.

Well, onward to the unit on photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Ugh. I can’t guess how many times I’ve gone over this in my life, and while yes it’s all important I suppose, it’s difficult to claim with a straight face that knowing that photosystem II comes before photosystem I, or the names of the intermediate molecules in the dark reaction, matters in any way to anyone who isn’t a botanist or biochemist or whatever. But here we are. I wonder if I can get everyone to remember that photosynthesis is the fundamental source of free oxygen? That actually is important.

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Positive fantasy

So, a little while ago, I posted about the different terms that have been coined for positive fantasy — hopepunk, sweetweird, the ridiculously terrible term squeecore, and noblebright. All of these terms have problems.

“Hopepunk” implies gritty. No matter what else you do with that term, that’s what “punk” implies.

“Sweetweird” implies weird. It’s specifically meant for fiction in which the world does not make sense. Also, to me, “sweet” suggests “twee” or “sentimental,” which I realize may just be me, but that’s the feel I get from the word. I think of someone looking at a kitten and saying Oh how sweet! It doesn’t seem like a term for sophisticated fiction. Even if that’s just me, I can’t help it, that’s what the word “sweet” feels like in this context.

“Squeecore” turns out, apparently, to have been intended specifically as a derogatory term for any fantasy that is not dark, grim, violent, and sexual. That’s fine, because who would want to actually use that term anyway.

“Noblebright” is just hard to say with a straight face.

However, even if there’s no good term for positive fantasy, we can certainly define a subgenre of fantasy that is:

1) Positive in tone. This is a novel that may feel warm from the first pages, though that’s not necessary. But whether it feels warm and comforting from the start, it does not drag the reader into a view of the gutter. It is specifically not gritty.

2) High fantasy in tone and style. For the purposes of this post, this means secondary world, elevated or formal in style, with magic that is numinous rather than scientific. There’s no implication about specific tropes or character types.

3) Not attempting to communicate a message or subvert reader expectations or common fantasy tropes. “No message” doesn’t mean there’s no theme. If the novel is well written at the level of theme, it should feel to the reader that the story contains a core of truth. But it does mean that the themes do not grade into overt messages from the author directed toward the reader. If the reader can spot some sort of obvious social or political message, the author has failed in an important element of craft (or the author is writing some other kind of fantasy). In the kind of fantasy I’m talking about, everything of that kind should be thoroughly buried in the story.

4) Ends with most or all of the pov characters and the world in a better place. If an important pov character dies in order to bring about a better ending for everyone else, I think that’s a subgenre of heroic fantasy. That may overlap with the kind of fantasy I’m talking about here, but I’m not sure. I may prefer to exclude heroic-death-of-important-character from the subgenre of Positive Fantasy I have in mind.

5) There are no villain pov sections. I just threw this criterion in here at the last minute and I’m willing to debate it. But I think it changes the tone in a negative direction to include villain pov chapters. I don’t think I’m biased just because I personally hate villain pov sections. I think including sections like that drags a novel out of the subgenre of positive fantasy and pushes it into some other subgenre, perhaps epic fantasy or adventure fantasy.

So, fantasy novels that meet the above criteria are what I’m going to just call “Positive Fantasy” for now. Let’s now define the subgenre by example!

TWELVE EXAMPLES OF POSITIVE FANTASY

1) The Goblin Emperor

I mean, obviously. That’s the book that started this whole set of posts in the first place. Here we have a book that begins with Maia and the empire both in fairly bad shape. Maia grows into himself beautifully over the course of the story, forms solid relationships even where that had seemed unlikely — particularly with his future empress — and begins reforms that are obviously going to improve life massively for his people.

Maia is also unfailingly kind. You know what, maybe that should be added as an additional criterion:

6) The protagonist is kind.

Adding that criterion helps snip this subgenre out of the greater mass of Fantasy or High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy or whatever else where the protagonist is a perfectly decent person, but not specifically kind in this way. This isn’t the same thing as being heroic, it’s not the same thing as being a good person, it’s not the same thing as being nice, and it’s not the same thing as being a sympathetic protagonist.

Maia is kind even when it’s hard, even when he’s distracted by a thousand pressing concerns, even when the person to whom he’s kind doesn’t appreciate it or doesn’t deserve kindness. He shows that over and over. This is a quality that’s set really deep in his character. This is probably what makes this novel work so well for me.

2) Death’s Lady

I don’t usually focus on my own books in this kind of list, but this time, this is what sprang to mind as soon as I said The protagonist is kind. This is what readers who write to me about this series say. They say: Daniel is unfailingly kind and that’s what I really love about this series. And that’s true. That’s what he’s like. Kindness is as much a part of his character as it is a part of Maia’s character. Like Maia, Daniel is still kind even when he’s seriously distracted or in a terrible spot himself.

3) Tuyo

Same thing: Aras is unfailingly kind, and that’s something readers love about him.

4) Chalice

Robin McKinley’s warmest story. Even if you don’t really like bees or honey. Mirasol is a genuinely kind person; that drives her actions and impulses from the start and right through everything.

I was trying to capture this warm feeling in The Keeper of the Mist, but I don’t think I entirely succeeded. My novel went in a more adventure direction and, while I like the story, I don’t think it’s all that similar to Chalice except for a couple of really broad aspects of the worldbuilding. I was also trying for a fairy-tale feel and I think perhaps that did work; here’s the Book Smuggler’s review of Mist.

Now, does Mist also fit into this subgenre of Positive Fantasy? I’m not sure, and that suggests to me that maybe the 6th criterion, that the protagonist be kind in this specific way, like Maia and Daniel and Aras, is really important. Keri is determined and responsible. Her character arc involves learning to trust herself and others. But I don’t think she’s kind in the way I mean here, and I guess I do think that may be a crucial defining characteristic of this subgenre of fantasy.

5) Erdemen Honor trilogy

This is a trilogy by CJ Brightley, and while it’s not perfect, it is the series that directly inspired the opening scenes of Tuyo. (That’s not obvious from the first book.) Of course Tuyo then went off in a totally different direction with regard to practically every feature, but still, this was an important trilogy that got me to write Tuyo. Here’s my review of the first book, and here are my comments about the second and third. I notice I specifically mentioned kindness in the first of these reviews. The characters are indeed kind in the specific way that I’m thinking of for this subgenre.

6) Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood

This secondary-world duology by Patricia Briggs is not nearly as well known as her UF Mercy Thompson series. I like both. But I particularly think this duology fits this subgenre. The protagonist, Ward, has been pretending to be incapable in order to protect himself from his (terrifying) father. Now, with his father dead, he has to take over as lord and completely change the way other people think about him. But what’s important in this context is that he has a whole lot of power over the titular dragon, among others, and handles that power with unfailing kindness. He’s kind in the way that defines this category.

7) The Penric novellas

In a tor.com post, Liz Bourke says of one of the Penric novellas, “Filled with a keen sense of kindness and empathy, it feels a fundamentally generous story, and one that is deftly written.” That’s all true.

8) The Curse of Chalion

While we’re thinking of LMB, surely we all remember this little snippet of dialogue from The Curse of Chalion:

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue, therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how, they may endure.”

I don’t know about you, but these lines struck me the first time I read the book and I anticipate this scene with great pleasure during re-reads.

9) The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, The Truth-Teller’s Tale, The Dream-Maker’s Magic

Amazon was giving me trouble about finding these. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the third book, and they’re not collected into a series page — that’s the publisher falling down on the job — so here you go, links to each book rather than just the first. The second, incidentally, is my favorite of the trilogy and, in my opinion, a perfect gem of a story. If you haven’t read these, you really should. Especially if you would like stories in this subgenre where kindness is central. Here’s an extended quote:

“That was so — Gryffin always has so much pain. That you can take it away like that — it’s almost like magic.”

Chase shrugged in the dark. “Kindness is a form of magic,” he said. “So everyone should be capable of at least a little. Good night. See you in the morning.” And he nodded to me and strode off.

Kindness is a form of magic.

Then magic had sprinkled itself across me many times, when I had not noticed its fey sparkle. I had been used to thinking of my life as bleak and full of darkness, but for the first time it occurred to me how often a stranger had stepped forward to offer me comfort and assistance, no matter how briefly. Ian Shelby. Sarah Parmer. Aylre the Safe-Keeper. The man who had stopped Carlon from beating me in the streets. Chase Beerin. They had been kind to me; most had, in different ways, been kind to Gryffin as well. Looked at that way, my life was a weave of brightness laid over a trembling black, a scrap of midnight velvet spangled with many jewels.

I had another thought as I stood there, trying desperately to understand a completely altered view of my existence. Someday I might be the one to offer kindness to someone else in grim and dire circumstances. Someday I might be the one with wealth or knowledge or strength or power that could be used to alleviate another person’s distress. Such a thought had literally never crossed my mind before. More than once I had been saved. Someday I might save someone else in return.

–The Dream-Maker’s Magic

It’s been way too long since I read these. I definitely ought to read them again soon. I mean, as soon as I start reading anything again.

10) Piranasi

This one’s a little different. The protagonist is indeed kind. But … his perception has been tilted so far sideways from normal perceptions that I’m not sure it counts? But on the other hand, when I think of this novel and the way this character is handled, I do feel that it does count. Here’s my review of this book.

11) From All False Doctrine

Obviously. I mean … obviously. Except that this isn’t secondary world. So, maybe I’m dropping that criterion. I’m not sure, but if the criteria require this book to be excluded, I think probably the criteria need to be revised. Kit is a perfect example of a believable, deeply kind protagonist. Here’s my review.

12) Strange the Dreamer

I’m putting this one on the list even though I haven’t read it. I have it on my TBR pile. Reviews like this one keep making me move it up toward the top, but it also sounds like the sort of demanding novel that requires a reader to pay attention and let herself get absorbed and I just haven’t felt equal to reading it. But lines like “Lazlo is so kind and thoughtful, unselfish and hardworking. He isn’t a physical man or a warrior, but rather, a dreamer and an intellectual and a quiet soul” make me feel like this novel probably belongs on this list.

This description makes me think of another novel that isn’t a fantasy: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, which features Freddy. Freddy is kind, thoughtful, and quietly competent rather than dashing and blatantly heroic. Not that I dislike dashing, heroic characters, far from it, but here we are, with Freddy being my absolute favorite male lead in any of Heyer’s novels.

Okay! That’s a dozen. Here are the criteria again, now slightly revised after considering the above examples. I’ve also sorted the criteria into what I might consider the correct order of importance. What do you think? And what are some other fantasy novels that might fit this category?

  1. Positive in tone, elevated in style, not gritty
  2. The protagonist is believably and unfailingly kind
  3. Magic is numinous, not scientific
  4. Ends with protagonist, other characters, and the world in a better place
  5. No villain pov
  6. Telling a story, not delivering a message

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What do Fiction Authors Get Wrong About Swords?

Another really fabulous, useful Quora answer from Eric Lowe: What do fiction writers get wrong about historic medieval and ancient weapons?

This is a long, long answer that is well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety. But here is a brief summary of the points Eric makes in this answer:

–Authors sometimes treat sharpness as if it’s an immutable, inherent quality of a sword. It is not. It’s more like cleanliness: a sword that has been sharpened will stay sharp until it does something that makes it not sharp, at which point it will remain not sharp until it has been sharpened.

–Many swords can hack into a mammal with a reasonably sharp edge and some force. A truly sharp sword whistles through mammal as if it isn’t even there.

THERE is an image. This is also relevant to a scene I just wrote a week or two ago, when Ryo gets into a (very brief) duel with someone who, um, never mind, probably better not to mention too much about that scene considering the book isn’t out yet. Anyway, I think this comment makes that scene more plausible, so that’s handy. Moving on.

–Swords require constant maintenance. Did you touch your sword today? Then it requires oiling. And I don’t mean, “Did you touch the metal parts?” Did you touch your sword at all today? Then it probably requires oiling. 

–virtually any weapon you can think of has been ascribed deep cultural significance, even in societies that lionize the sword.

–There is a trope in adventure fiction in which a character trains obsessively in secret, emerging as a sort of wunderkind to take his revenge (its almost always revenge). This is not how training works. While there are many ways to practice solo, fundamentally, it takes two to fence. It takes many more than two to fence well. High-level proficiency requires practicing against a multitude of different opponents.

–[A fighter] might well have a preference or specialty, but the idea of someone being an expert in one weapon and only that weapon flies in the face of how historical arts seem to have been structured.

–When you think of medieval “fencers,” you mustn’t think of effete dancers. Think swaggering desperadoes whose schools are almost gang headquarters, rowdy and dangerous men who have studied the art of fighting more obsessively than most warrior aristocrats and have a reputation for getting into frequent fights. 

–From a non-fencer’s perspective, there are no slow swords (nor any other weapon, for that matter). From inside the fight, timing differences of a tenth of a second may seem downright ponderous, but from outside the fight, unless you know what you’re looking for, every single weapon is blindingly fast. 

–for the most part, skilled fighters seem to have acted like predators, which is to say they generally avoided people who stood even a reasonable chance of injuring them. You stack bodies by picking on people who are far inferior to you or by using standard predator tactics such as ambush and attacking in packs, not by engaging in a series of fair fights, or even partially fair fights.

–We are more familiar with blunt force trauma today, so we more easily imagine the bone-crunching impact of a shield rim or a pommel. We have a harder time imagining the dread of implacable steel: the flash of edge or point that invades your body to steal your soul, leaving behind only butchered meat. But if you look at historical martial arts treatises, blunt force techniques are a distinct minority. If you have a blade in your hand, plans A, B, and C should involve using it.

A whole bunch more at the link. I excerpted just little bits. By all means click through and read the whole thing.

I know a whole bunch of commenters here are working on novels of their own. Are you all following Eric? I feel like everyone should be following Eric. I feel like everyone should be begging him to write a book about the craft involved in writing believable, dramatically effective fight scenes and for that matter believable warrior and soldier characters to go with his book about Medieval weaponry. He’s great at expressing ideas and he knows how to think about scene construction and storytelling.

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