Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


The making of a fantasy map

Neat post today at tor.com, by Isaac Stewart, who creates some of those maps we find inside the cover of fantasy novels. This is a post about the map he drew for Brian Staveley’s  The Emperor’s Blades.

I wanted the final map to:

  1. Match the design of the book.
  2. Match the feel of the book.
  3. Feel like an artifact from the world of The Emperor’s Blades.

Ooh, that is a great way to start. I would love Stewart to do maps for my books.

I almost always run into the same problem each time I try to adapt a real-world cartographic style to a map meant for a novel.

Real world maps are huge and detailed.

A map meant to fit in a hardcover book (and subsequently a paperback) can’t be as detailed as a real-world map and still be legible. Even though I treat the map as a product of its fantasy world, it has to be understandable to modern audiences. Usually this means I can’t copy the exact style of my reference, but I can use it for inspiration. I decided to borrow the style of the mountains, rivers, and ocean.

Then we have a discussion about designing the border of the map, then the delineation of the land versus the water, coastline and biomes, and “texture.” National borders and labels go last.

This is a great post, especially if you enjoy maps and also enjoy a detailed look at the creation of visual art. If you have a minute, click through and read the whole thing.

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Nine books that are really horror even though that’s not where they’re shelved

At tor.com, this post: 9 Terrifying tales you won’t find in the horror section.

This post caught my eye because it includes The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell.

Wow, I immediately thought. So true. 

Stubby the Rocket says: 

The Sparrow and its sequel are solidly sci-fi—there’s space travel, first contact, relativity-based shenanigans—but there is also a palpable sense of horror throughout the book. The novel begins with the knowledge that something went terribly wrong with the first human mission to the newly discovered planet Rakhat, and the book unspools through a relentless account of hope, cultural misunderstanding, and tragedy.

That’s all very well, that stuff about relentless tragedy, but let me be a little more clear than Stubby: These books contain the worst situation I have ever seen described in any novel ever, SFF or otherwise. The only challenge could come from novels detailing Nazi atrocities. 

In some ways this is a very good duology. I don’t believe in the alien species, plural, for technical reasons rather than literary reasons. I mean: I disagree with Russell about the evolution of intelligence and I would be prepared to argue that she has made very serious mistakes in her conception of this topic. From a literary standpoint, I have no such objection. She had to design her world like that to make the story work. Which it does, in a totally horrifying way.

Also, that woman can write really snappy dialogue.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

I’ve also read The Road.  Yep, it’s pretty horrifying all right. I would say it is redeemed to a certain extent by the very last bit of the story. On the other hand, I don’t believe I kept it. If it’s still on my shelves, I should give it away, because I doubt very much I would ever want to re-read it. 

Also, of course, there’s the punctuation, or lack thereof. I vote for this being a rather effective storytelling device in this particular case, but I would not like to read many books written this way, and I can absolutely see readers throwing the book across the room on the grounds that it is absolutely unreadable.

The others from this post, I haven’t read. The only one that sounds like I might like it is Never Let Me Go.  If any of you have read this, what did you think of it? Thumbs up, thumbs down, would you recommend it?

Now, I can’t help but feel that a list of nine books is lacking a certain something. Let’s all help Stubby the Rocket complete this list by adding a tenth book, because lists of nine? What the heck is that about? Running out of time before your column is due is no excuse.

So, another book that is not customarily shelves in horror, but absolutely is horrifying: What would you all pick?

My choice:

10: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Unlike the others on Stubby’s list, I may well read this again, eventually. Also, I gave a copy of it to the English instructor who was teaching YA Literature last year. I think it’s fantastic — and remember how I said only the Nazis could complete with Mary Doria Russell’s scenario? Well, they can, and did, and this is the most readable book I can think of that shows that.

So that’s my pick for the 10th spot on this list.

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Writing about guns?

At Kill Zone Blog, a post by John Gilstrap about some of the mistakes writers make when they include guns in their fiction.

As a side note, I’ve heard that the two things that will get you the most little notes from readers are mistakes about guns and mistakes about swords. I don’t doubt it. Thinks that bother me: mistakes about horses or other animals. Do I write to authors about it when they call an animal a “mink” when they absolutely mean “least weasel?” No, because I am not a gun- or sword-nut, and thus apparently by definition less likely to point mistakes out to the author.

Notice that I may make snide comments about your zoological illiteracy for DECADES, though.

Anyway, Gilstrap says:

I watch those scenes and wonder what kind of moron searches for a bad guy without a round in the chamber, ready to fire?  Why walk into a gunfight with your gun unloaded?

Good question! It reminds me of someone saying, “Maybe next time we shouldn’t shout as we go through the door.” Something like that. Where is that from? Was that from a Vorkosigan book, maybe?

Gilstrap adds:

“But John!” someone shouts.  “Everybody knows there’s no safety on a Glock!”

Not so, I reply.  There are actually three safeties on a Glock.  They’re internal.  There’s a trigger safety, a firing pin safety and a drop safety.  You can throw a chambered Glock against a concrete floor as hard as you want, and it won’t go off accidentally.  Yet, if you pull the trigger intentionally, it will fire every time.  And that’s the point.  When someone is about to kill you, you don’t want a lot of intermediate manipulations to get in the way of returning the favor.

Interesting! I didn’t know that, because even if I have read about Glocks before, that kind of trivia does not stick with me, unlike trivia about, say, nine-banded armadillos always having identical quadruplets and things like that.

If you are interested, here is a post about guns from Terrible Minds.  

This is the kind of post I would look for if I was putting enough gun details into a story that I was worried about getting those details right.

Here’s a post about swords and other fantasy weapons.

And, you know, if you ever want to include the right kind of dog in your fantasy novel, with the right characteristics for the breed, drop me a line. I will be happy to tell you about the characteristics of the Tibetan mastiff or the Finnish spitz.

One (two) writers who get their dogs right: Ilona Andrews. Nice job, guys, keep it up!

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How to write horses in fantasy

At tor.com, Judith Tarr writes: This is how you write a horse: Dun Lady’s Jess.

There’s plenty of nice chewy genre stuff going on in the book. It’s a portal fantasy with parallel worlds. There are wizard wars and breakneck chases and nasty politics. There’s interesting worldbuilding: a world in which magic takes the place of technology, with spells for everything from cooking food to healing broken bones to waging war. The good guys have complex lives and motivations, and the bad guys are not evil Just Because. They have reasons, mostly having to do with money and power.

But when it all comes down to it, I’m there for the horses. One horse in particular, the dun mare of the title. … In Dun Lady’s Jess, Durgin gives us a real horse, as real as human observation can make her—and then, through the side effect of an untested magical spell, transforms her into a human woman.

Yep. As it happens, this is one of my favorite fantasy horses as well. Jess (the woman) and Lady (the horse) switch back and forth, and the heart of the story is about Jess/Lady dealing with this.

Jess has a lot to process. She doesn’t think like a human, but the longer she lives as one, the less like a horse she becomes. When she’s forced back into her equine body and brain, she’s thrown into shock. The greater strength and stamina, the keener senses, are more than welcome, but the reduced mental processing power frustrates her to the point of breaking. Horses have extremely good memories, which means she can remember everything about her life as Jess, but much of it escapes her understanding.

Tarr’s horse-centric review is good, and Durgin’s trilogy about Jess is a lot of fun. Quite a few viewpoint characters, more than I might like, but most of the viewpoint characters work well for me and throughout, the focus is mainly on Jess. Plus who doesn’t like a good portal fantasy? And this is a good one. Have any of you read that too?

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From Quora just now

This one caught my eye because it is in the running for most incoherent question ever. 

If the second part of humanity was heralded via the end of cultures competing on who can enslave people more civilly, when dies the second evolution happen?

Assuming the questioner meant “does” rather than “dies,” what could this mean? I think this could be used as a starting point for all kinds of interesting SF stories.

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Ode to Gray

I just found this a delightful essay.

I’m drawn to gray, as to a dream, but not to any old gray. Not storm-cloud gray or corporate monolith. I prefer tranquil gray: the undyed wool of sheep in rain, the mood inside a Gerhard Richter painting, the mottle of an ancient cairn. I don’t mean any one gray either but the entire underrainbow of the world, the faded rose and sage and caesious. Liard, lovat, perse. The human eye perceives five hundred—not a mere fifty—shades of gray. Paul Klee called it the richest color, “the one that makes all the others speak.”

I would absolutely vote for storm-cloud gray. Nevertheless, it’s a great paragraph. The underrainbow of the world! 

Gray in the wild opens and spills. Put two grays together and you’ll see the color each one hides within, the “endless variations” noted by Van Gogh. I think of the handful of river pebbles I once snuck into my pockets on a day trip to a waterfall: they were dusty gray when I got home, but underwater, each concealed a secret separate life as green or red or blue. So many things that seem gray on the surface have a treasure to unlock—myself, I hope, included.

Click through and read the whole poetic essay, if you have a moment.

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Erdemen Honor by CJ Brightley

So, I mentioned this series the other day, not by name. Let me mention it by name now. 

The first book is The King’s Sword. I read that late last year and liked it quite a bit. It was part of the Noblebright bundle, which is the only story bundle I’ve tried where I liked more than half the novels included. I have made more than one good discovery via bundles which otherwise I would have missed, though, so maybe I should try some more bundles.

Here’s my review.

So I went on with the sequel, which is A Cold Wind, and then the third book, which was Honor’s Heir.

Now, I remember clearly saying at some point that I would enjoy slice-of-life fantasy where not much exciting really happens. It turns out this is sometimes true (In Arcadia) but sometimes not so true.  In A Cold Wind, I sometimes felt that not enough was happening. Also, many times during the veeeery show development of Kemen’s relationship with Ria, I wanted to shake Kemen and shout, JUST PROPOSE ALREADY. I liked the book okay; it was a pleasant reading experience; but I did not rush out super fast to buy the third book.

On the other hand, I did buy the third book, and I wound up liking it quite a bit. Kemen’s got his life with Ria in order at last, thank heaven. What we have now is a secondary character from the second book, brought front-and-center as a point-of-view protagonist. This is Elathlo, a boy of the Tarvil people, who were raiding and generally being a nuisance in the first couple of books. Now Elathlo’s grandfather has given him to Kemen to train as an apprentice and basically to “teach him to be a man.” 

It turns out I liked this set up a lot. I liked Elathlo, I liked Kemen, I liked the training-the-apprentice scenes (I generally do like those kinds of scenes), I liked the development of Elathlo’s character and the implicit promise that he would eventually grow into the sort of leader his benighted people need.

I particularly liked how Elathlo was so certain Kemen would eventually loose patience and kill him. That conviction should probably have worn off a bit faster, as evidence piled up and up and up that Kemen would never do anything like that. But in some ways Elathlo is a rather young fourteen-year-old, and his own people are pretty brutal. 

So this book turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy, plus it’s the story that sparked the basic idea that led to my just writing 108 pages in nine days. Things I kept: the basic idea of a young(ish) character from one society thrown abruptly into another society, completely at the mercy of a much more powerful character from that society. What I also kept, because of course I did: both characters are fundamentally decent people. What I changed: absolutely everything else.

Oh, wait, the protagonist is also from a cold country. And I’m telling my story in first person, which is the same as the Erdemen books. That’s a departure for me, but I’ve been trying out first person from time to time recently, you just haven’t seen the results of those experiments yet. 

Other than that, yeah, everything else got changed. 

Nevertheless, Honor’s Heir would not have given me a push to write this other thing of my own if it hadn’t been quite catchy and stayed in my head after I finished it and given me things I wanted to play with.

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Punctuation marks we should be using … maybe

My official response to the new punctuation marks that have been proposed recently, such as the “sarc mark” and others:

This is the doubt point. It is used “to end a statement with a note of skepticism.” What do you think? I don’t dislike it. Hey, I’m good with ending many sentences on a note of skepticism. It’s like saying, “Uh huh” or “I’m sure” in a sarcastic tone of voice, only with punctuation. 

I just heard about the “sarc mark” yesterday on a podcast, which is why I looked up weird punctuation marks this morning. Obviously the sarc mark is meant to signal sarcasm. Here it is:

Some guy who invented this also copyrighted it, so I guess you can’t use it without permission. That sure seems like a great way to get your new punctuation mark into widespread use [sarc].

I would assume that none of these would ever be successful in breaking into the wider world of real punctuation, except that the podcast mentioned that the interrobang — looks like this —

— was actually included on typewriter keyboards in the seventies. Of course, it’s not on keyboards now, which suggests that getting a new punctuation mark accepted is definitely an uphill struggle. If you are interested, here is the Wikipedia entry on the interrobang.

I like the Calibri version the best, but I never actually use Calibri, so I guess I won’t be inclined to use the interrobang either. Also, I don’t think I have ever seen anybody use it ever. I truly dislike the ?! or !?! type of punctuation — except on social media, it’s perfectly okay there — but who knows, I might feel differently about the interrobang if people actually started using it.

Which I don’t think they will.

On the other hand, practically everyone uses smileys now. So maybe I’m overly doubtful. 

How about it? Do you think you’d use sarc marks and doubt marks and the rest if those keys were right there on your keyboard? I might — on social media only. I think it would drive me nuts to see those marks in a novel. Except maybe a near-future SF novel. In that case, new punctuation marks might be fun.

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Three Billy Goats Gruff

As you might instantly guess, this is a new Mari Ness post at tor.com. I always love her posts about fairy tales, so, let’s check it out:

The tale reads very well out loud if you have a proper grownup willing to do different voices for all of the goats and the troll, and a proper grownup willing to make the proper clip clop noises as the goats go over the bridge. (Yes, that’s crucial. Those noises are written into the tale!) If you don’t have a proper grownup—well, it’s still a pretty good story, really. It helps, too, that absolutely everyone, goats and the troll, has the same, immediately sympathetic motivation: they’re hungry. It’s something all three- and four-year-olds immediately understand.

I suspect this is why the story has become so popular as a picture book. After four pages of results, I stopped looking, but can confirm that Amazon currently offers multiple versions from multiple authors and illustrators. True, a few are cartoons, and a few are from the viewpoint of the very hungry troll, but the rest appear to tell retell the story in a straightforward manner—letting creativity go wild with the illustrations.

My own sympathy tends to lie with the many recent authors who have chosen to tell us the troll’s point of view. After all, even in the original tale, in some ways the troll is the most ethical character—in that he isn’t offering up his fellow trolls as fatter, tenderer foods for goats. And in many ways the most sympathetic one: not only does he die at the end of the story, making him the true victim here, but he never gets to eat anything.

Oh, are their modern authors who take the troll’s pov? I didn’t know that.

What do you think of this initial assertion — that the troll is the most sympathetic character? I don’t think I buy that. For me the troll is the monster and the goats are perfectly justified in tricking him. Of course Ness may be a writing with her tongue over toward her cheek here. She adds:

Fortunately, the goats do offer us another moral lesson—that eating a lot and getting fat is the best way to celebrate conquering a troll—something I feel we can all agree with.

Since this is Mari Ness, there is a good deal of historical context and discussion in this post. Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

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