Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Books I Read: White Cat

Title: White Cat
Author: Holly Black
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Published: 2010
My Content Rating: PG-13 for violence and sexy situations

Cassel comes from a family of curse workers--people with the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, with a mere touch. Curse work is illegal, of course, so they're criminals. Except for Cassel: he hasn't got the touch. He discovers his brothers are keeping secrets from him and suspects he's part of a huge con. He has to unravel his past and his memories to outcon the conmen.

I loved this (and thank you, dear readers, for recommending it). I loved the powers, LOVED the cons, and thought the characters were great. If any of that sounds even remotely interesting to you, read this book.

There were only two things that kept the book from being perfect for me. The first was a possible-but-minor plot hole near the end. (If you've read it: when did Barron have time to read his notebooks?)

The second was the cover. It's a very cool cover, but when I read descriptive hints like this, I had to take a second look:
"Your grandfather told me that someone in your family was descended from a runaway slave," she says.... People are always coming up to me on trains and talking to me in different languages, like it's obvious I'll understand them.
Maybe it's just me, but the guy in this cover doesn't look ambiguous in his racial ancestry at all. He looks white--Italian, maybe--but not like somebody who obviously speaks a foreign language. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it surprised me that someone thought this guy fit the descriptions.

If you've read it, what do you think? About the story, I mean, though we can talk cover in the comments too.

Fantasy Slang: Starting from Scratch

Last year, I wrote some posts on where slang comes from and how to make your own for a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Among other things, I said coming up with unique terms and idioms for a world was "very hard" at first.

Man, was I right.

The last couple of days I've been working on the beginnings of a glossary for my post-apocalypse world. The bad news is it's just as hard as I remember it being the first time around. The good news is, I've figured out some steps to help you (and future-me) start your own fantasy glossary.

1. Determine what feel you want. Old West slang (like Firefly) has a very different feel from pirate slang (like Air Pirates) or Mexican slang or British rhyming slang. Each will flavor your book and your world differently.

2. Research that type of slang. Write down words you like, that sound cool, that are so obscure you think you could use them without most people knowing the source. Even for words you don't like, write it down if it means something you think you'll need. In that case, pay attention to where the term came from (if possible) and see if you can use the same method to create something new.

For example, when researching pirate slang, I wrote down "grog" and "booty." The terms were too well-known for me to use them (and, in fact, their origins made it impossible for me to use them realistically), but they helped me get the right feel for my own.

3. Know your world's origins and metaphors. If your world is at all based on Earth, you'll want to think about how language might have evolved. For example, Firefly mixed Chinese phrases and swear words with English based on the idea that the two "mega-cultures" had combined.

And Earth or not, every world has its own metaphors. What is (or used to be) important in your world? An icy world might have snow and cold metaphors (like, maybe they'd say "Toasty!" instead of "Cool!"). An agricultural society might use farming or animal terms -- like "groundhog" for someone who's never flown before -- while a city-planet might not know what a groundhog is (though maybe they used to know, and it's become a dead metaphor!).

4. Make up some basic terms. Once you've collected everything above, start with some or all of the following (apologies in advance for some of the examples):
  • A greeting ("Hey!" "What's up?" "Are you well?")
  • A couple of honorifics (Mister, Miss, Your Honor, Madame, Sensei)
  • A term between friends (buddy, bro, mate)
  • One or two insults (bastard, prick, rat orphan)
  • One or two oaths (oh my God, damn it, sh-t)
  • A positive epithet (cool, awesome, rad, pure guava)
5. Play with it. Try writing a dialog-heavy scene with your new terms. Don't worry about presenting it to the reader (or about writing well at all, actually). Just try to see where the new slang feels wrong, where it might be too much, but especially where you make up even more terms or phrases (e.g. where you've used some modern cliche that wouldn't make sense in the fantasy world).

Once you've got the world in your head and a start to the language, it gets easier. You build momentum for thinking up future phrases, and the bigger your glossary (because you are writing them all down, aren't you?), the more momentum you have and the easier it gets.

At least I hope it gets easier. Otherwise I got a loooooong road ahead of me.

Loincloths and the Undead

A brief selfish request (last one, I promise!): "Pawn's Gambit" made it to voting round two! So please, PLEASE, if you're on Facebook, vote for it here to get it into Beneath Ceaseless Skies' Year Two Anthology. (Please?!).

And now our regularly scheduled post:

So I'm not drawing every day, but Marie Criddle did convince me to join this group blog where we draw every week. I'll probably cross-post things here every once in a while, but if you're interested in random sketches by some fantastic artists (and some by me too), head on over to Anthdrawology.

Last week's theme was "Board Games." Check it out.

Books I Read: Perdido Street Station

Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Genre: SF/F/Steampunk/Horror(?)
Published: 2000
Content Rating: R for language, sex, and the sucking of brains

Beneath the ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, arcane races, and bio-engineered Re-mades live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. Everyone's got something to hide, including Isaac -- a brilliant scientist who's in over his head. He's been hired to help a de-winged birdman fly again, but that's not the problem. The problem is one of the specimens he collected for his research: a caterpillar that feeds only on a hallucinogenic drug. What finally emerges from the cocoon turns out to be so terrible, not even the Ambassador of Hell will aid in its capture.

The world in this book is AMAZING. It felt like a dark, more-serious version of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. It's got everything: steampunk tech, psuedo-scientific magic, fantastic sentient species, monstrous terrors, mafiosos, oppressive governments, even artificial intelligence.

The writing is really good, if you don't mind the tangents into a description of some new burrough of New Crobuzon (which really aren't tangents, as the city is one of the main characters in the book, but some might not see it that way). The plot, too, was really strong. I admit there were moments I felt were too coincidental (like when Isaac learned what to feed the caterpillar), but it led me along nicely. And especially once the cocoon hatched, I couldn't put the book down.

Assuming the content doesn't freak you out, you should totally read this book.

So You Want to be a Geek

Fine, nobody wants to be a geek, except those of us who are already geeks and need a way to feel proud about that (God bless you, Internet, for giving us that way!). But maybe you want to hang out with geeks? Understand what's going on at Comic Con? Date a geek?

Stop laughing. It happens.

Consider this an unofficial, non-exhaustive primer on the things you should know to understand the geek world...or at least to be able to visit our world without falling asleep or cringing all the time.

Please understand that the term "geek" is very broad (and yet completely distinct from "nerd"--we'll have that conversation later). The following list will help you with the most common breed: the sci-fi/fantasy geek. Although geek types frequently overlap, this list will not be as helpful with computer geeks, techno-geeks, math geeks, physics-and-other-hard-science geeks, history geeks, or any other form of "useful" geekery.

1. Watch the original Star Wars trilogy. Original theater edition is preferable, if you can find it.
         a) Although you are not required to have an opinion on the matter, know what it means that Han shot first.

2. Familiarize yourself with some form of Star Trek. Preferably TOS (the Original Series) or TNG (the Next Generation).
         a) You are not required to watch more than one episode or movie, but you should be able to recognize (by name or face) at least 3 crew members.
         b) Watching the new Star Trek movie is acceptable (because it's awesome), but assume that conversations about Kirk, Spock, etc. are speaking of the original series, unless otherwise specified. If you, for example, say, "Spock and Uhura are so hot together" without specifying the context, you will be known for a fraud.
         c) Actually, just avoid stating opinions in general.

3. Know your comic book superheroes:
         a) The origin stories of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
         b) The identifying powers/features of the aforementioned superheroes, as well as: Wolverine, Cyclops, the Incredible Hulk, Punisher, each of the Fantastic Four.
         c) Although you should see Nolan's new Batman movies (again: awesome), do not assume the original Batman ever trained as a ninja. Though he should have.

4. Watch or read the entirety of LORD OF THE RINGS. Reading is preferable but, dude, it's 1,000+ pages. We understand.

5. Watch every episode of Firefly. (NOTE: This may no longer be relevant in 5-10 years, but for today's geek it is a necessity).

6. Know what anime is.
         a) Know the difference between "anime" (Japanese animation, which includes many different styles) and "anime-style" (non-Japanese animation that looks like it).
         b) Know the difference between dubbed and subbed.
         c) Never, under any circumstances, assume or imply that because something is animated, it is for children.

7. Watch one or more of the following, preferably subbed:
         a) Neon Genesis: Evangelion
         b) Vision of Escaflowne
         c) Cowboy Bebop
         d) Naruto (one season is acceptable)
         e) Dragonball Z (the cartoon, not the live action movie; one season is acceptable)
         f) Any film by Hayao Miyazaki (e.g. Laputa, Nausicaa, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.)
         g) Avatar: the Last Airbender (this is not anime, but I think it counts)

8. Play one of the following RPGs for at least one hour:
         a) Dungeons & Dragons
         b) World of Warcraft
         c) Any Final Fantasy game

9. Know the following terms:
         a) Saving throw
         b) Red shirt (from Star Trek)
         c) Orc
         d) d20
         e) Klingon
         f) Mech or Mecha
         g) Skynet
         h) XP
         i) Grok
         j) Holodeck

10. Memorize some obscure piece of trivia related to any of previous items. Example: "Did you know Neil Gaiman wrote the English dialog for Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke?" (true story).

I know that seems like a lot of work, but nobody said being a geek (even an honorary one) was easy.

Also understand there are many, MANY things that could adequately replace items on this list. If my fellow geeks were to make similar lists, they would all be different and would include things even I'm not familiar with.

So to you: Do you know everything on this list? What would you add/replace for someone who wanted to understand the geek world?

How to Use

TV Tropes is a fantastic site, collecting every story trope humanity has ever done, along with examples. If you've got a spare month or two (not a typo), I highly recommend heading over there. If you've never been, let me give you some tips on how to use the site.

1) Let it depress you. Start with some trope you're writing, say air pirates. Follow the links to all the interesting, related tropes--especially ones you thought were original--like cool-looking airships or the villain's airborne fortress that threatens to rain cannonballs on the goodguys. Come to the realization that there is NOTHING original in your story AT ALL. Quit writing.

2) Let it encourage you. After you've quit writing for a few years, realize that nobody ELSE is original either. That makes unoriginality okay (within reason). The goal in fiction is not originality, but to take what's been done and make it fresh and interesting again. To make it YOURS.

3) Let it inform you. Now that the tropes are no longer soul-crushing, find your favorite trope to see how it has been handled before, how it's been subverted, and how famous the examples are so you know what you can get away with. Come up with subversions of your own, or mix it with other tropes in new and interesting ways.

4) Let it inspire you. Stuck for ideas? How about the origin story of a Judge-Dredd-style adventure hero and his possibly-insane sidekick facing an evil tribal circus in the African jungle. If that doesn't work, just hit the TV Tropes Story Idea Generator one more time until you find something you DO like! And if it sounds too lame or familiar, just add ninjas (or samurai or pirates or mecha or whythehecknot all of them). Because it's AWESOME.

Are any of you even still reading this, or did I lose you like 15 links ago?

Books I Read: Elantris

Title: Elantris
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006
Content Rating: R for action violence

It used to be that men and women were transformed, seemingly randomly, into nigh-immortal, magical beings. When this happened, they and their families moved to Elantris, the city of the gods. Ten years ago, the magic died. Elantrians lost their power and beauty, becoming like the living dead--unable to heal, enduring pain and hunger so severe that most succumbed to insanity.

When Raoden, beloved prince of the kingdom, becomes one of the fallen Elantrians, his father covers it up, telling the kingdom he has died. Sarene, his bride from another land, arrives in her new home a widow. Meanwhile Hrathen, high priest of the enemy's religion, intends to convert the entire kingdom, because if he doesn't, his god will annihilate them all.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of the three main characters. I admit, I wasn't always interested in all three points of view (most of the time I found Raoden's the most interesting, though the political and religious tension were usually on Sarene and Hrathen's side). Also the novel felt like it started slow to me, but then it's epic fantasy. I understand Sanderson has a world he needs to reveal (and it wasn't infodump-slow, just slower than I wanted).

But by the end, I loved it. One of my favorite things about Sanderson (having read two of his worlds now) is how he reveals the complexities of his world through the story. Not by hiding things from the reader, but by revealing secrets as the characters figure them out. In both Elantris and Mistborn, the characters initially believe the world works a certain way. As they try to save their world, however, they discover there is much to it than they thought possible.

It's that aspect of Sanderson's fantasy that is starting to make him my new Orson Scott Card (no disrespect to Card--Ender's Game is still my favorite novel of all time). If you like fantasy, and you've already read the Mistborn trilogy, try this one out. You might like it.

Is that your Fantasy Trope Smashed and Bleeding on the Floor?

Today is the day! (Well, yesterday, actually, but you get the point). Cindy Pon's novel, FURY OF THE PHOENIX, is out in the world, and to celebrate I'm giving away two copies here today.

The first copy, by random drawing, goes to....

J.J. Debenedictis!

And the best bad dialog--winner of both FURY OF THE PHOENIX and the prequel, SILVER PHOENIX--is the one that not only mocked As You Know, Bob sequel dialog, but it tore apart every single fantasy trope at the same time.

Seriously. I have to rethink my own WIP now.
        "Let's go. We must hurry to Mount Sin."
        "Varen, you mean so we can find out you if you are not really the son of your father who is a farmer but may in fact have royal lineage flowing in your veins, and your mother died because she kept you secret because the evil Lord Goranthianolian received a prophecy from a wandering gypsy who said a child with a glaring star birthmark on their forehead is the only thing that could destroy his evil empire at the solar eclipse sixteen years hence, which just happens to be this summer, but your fake mother, who is actually your mother's nurse maid who ran away with you on your real mother's order to save your life kept this great secret from you for unknown reasons until now, and we only know about it because of Moira, who we thought was a boy but is a girl who was dressed as a boy so she could avenge her father's death and whose death may be from the hands of Lord Goranthianolian's most trusted war leader and chief commander, Tim, and is only exceeded in evil by the great lord himself, and for a little bit we thought she was related to you, but that turned out to not be true, which is a good thing for you, and now we have to travel across hundred of miles to Mount Sin and seek the wisdom of an old shaman woman who lives on a volcano for no apparent reason and see if you truly are the star child of the great prophecy, and we have to do it before the month wears out so we still have time to assemble an army, make new friends, probably pick up a talking cat, and a couple of side quests along the way to deter us, oh, and Moira will probably be kidnapped at some point as well and we will have to rescue her, and do it all in a logistically impossible short amount of time, and save the world?"
        "Yes, exactly. Saying it like that makes it sound horrible. Please don't ever say it like that again."
        "Yes, young possible lord."

It also may be the single longest sentence in the history of bad dialog. Anyway, congratulations Heather Zundel! If the winners could e-mail me at with a shipping address, I'll have their prizes shipped straight away.

As for the rest of you, are you sad you didn't win? A bit jealous, maybe? Well get your own copy! You know you want to.

Quick and Dirty World Building

They say you should spend a lot of time crafting your world--the history, traditions, cultures, language. I think that's true. The more detailed your world is, the more it will feel real. But do you really have to flesh out everything?

The correct answer is yes. Yes, you should. So don't tell anybody that I sometimes use the following tricks to speed up my world-building process.

Have you ever noticed how fractal geography is? You can zoom in on any part, and it generally looks like any other bit of land. To use this to your advantage, go to Google Maps, find a relatively obscure bit of geography (i.e. don't use Long Island or the SF Bay Area, or anything) and zoom in until it looks like something you can use. Take a screenshot, change the scale, and voila! One fantasy continent.

If you can tell me where in the world these maps are from, you win a custom sketch. Not even joking.

It turns out history is just as fractal as geography: zoom in on any point, and you can find something to use for your world. Need a war? Take your pick. How about a revolution or a realistic-but-obscure form of government? Wikipedia (and the internet in general) is full of stuff like this. Just change the names and dates, perhaps a few key details here and there, and you've got your own semi-original history.

The same thing applies to creating a civilization. Do a little research on some unknown people group, then mix and match their traditions and values with some other culture you're into. Choose a technology level, flesh it out by asking how, why, and what result, and pretty soon you have a viable society with relatively little work.

Does this sound unoriginal? Like plagiarism? It's not, really. Stealing from our own world's history, geography, and cultures is no different than creating characters by mixing and matching attributes from yourself and the people you know. Just like making up fantasy languages, the trick is obscuring your sources.

And I'm not suggesting you build your entire world this way. Use this as the foundation, then tweak and twist things as you go. Ultimately the parts you care most about will be the parts that are most originally you, while the rest of the world still feels fleshed out because it has a strong, realistic base behind it.

Anyone have any other quick-and-dirty tips on building a world? I'd love to hear them.

Fury of the Phoenix Giveaway!

Cindy Pon's latest book, Fury of the Phoenix, is due to come out next week. I love the ancient-China-like world Cindy has created, and I really want to know what happens after Silver Phoenix! From the website:
When Ai Ling leaves her home and family to accompany Chen Yong on his quest to find his father, haunted by the ancient evil she thought she had banished to the underworld, she must use her growing supernatural powers to save Chen Yong from the curses that follow her. Part supernatural page-turner, part love story, and altogether stirring, Fury of the Phoenix further heralds the arrival of Cindy Pon as a stellar author of paranormal romance and fantasy.
Want a copy of this book? Here's what you have to do.

TO WIN 2 BOOKS: Fury of the Phoenix and it's prequel, Silver Phoenix, you must write some bad sequel dialog in the comments. See, when an author writes a sequel, they have to somehow catch new readers up on what came before. Clearly the best way is to have the characters talk about the prequel for the reader's sake. For example:*

     "You remember that time the evil Dr. Shiv nearly killed us all with his plan to clone razor-toothed marsupials?"
     "Oh yeah! We would be his slaves now if you hadn't discovered your latent ability to cause animal shedding just by singing Bad Romance. Thanks, by the way."
     "No problem. It's too bad I never figured out who I love more: you or your twin brother."
     "I know, right? I was meaning to ask you about-- Hey, is that Dr. Shiv on the news?"

The one I deem funniest will win. Length is unimportant (though you know: brevity, wit, etc). The sequel in question can be fake, as above, or for an actual novel, whether a true sequel exists or not. Heck, even for a movie, I don't care.**

Alternatively, TO WIN A COPY OF Fury of the Phoenix, all you have to do is comment on this post, and I will randomly choose a winner.

Winners will be announced next Wednesday, March 30. An entry to the 2-book package is automatically an entry to the random drawing (though you can't win both). Contest is open internationally. Spreading news of the contest is encouraged, but not required.

I can answer any other questions in the comments. Have fun!

* The nature of this contest is in no way related to actual Fury of the Phoenix dialog (I haven't even read it yet!). I just thought it would be funny.

** If you do write fake dialog for an actual sequel, keep in mind that I might not have read the books in question. I'd hate for a great joke to be wasted just because I never read Pride and Prejudice or something.

The Pillar of Skulls

Near the gate between the first and second layers of Hell, there lies a grotesque monument of the damned. It towers over a mile high, howling and writhing with eternal torment--a terror to match any other in the Nine Hells.
It is the Pillar of Skulls, and it seethes with the frustration and hatred of a billion souls, moaning and wailing in endless, hopeless agony.

But it is also the greatest store of knowledge in all planes of existence. Among the Pillar's eternal prisoners lie great thinkers, world leaders, teachers, scientists... the entirety of the world's lore and experiences can be found within.

Once in a great while, a knowledge seeker will brave Hell itself to speak to the Pillar. Should they survive--through the charred wasteland, past endless legions of Lord Bel's devils, beneath the watchful eyes of the five-headed Tiamat--they must still contend with the Pillar itself.

Whenever a visitor comes, the billion skulls fight each other to make themselves heard. The surface of the Pillar billows and pulsates, one skull appearing--howling unintelligible obscenities--then disappearing to be replaced by another.

And should the seeker find the right one--a soul who has the information they are after--there is always a price. For every skull on the Pillar, every soul doomed to live out eternity in the Nine Hells, wants only one thing. "I'll tell you what I know," they say. "I'll do anything you ask. Just, please, take me off this pillar. Please, I...

"I just want to be published."

The Kitchen-Sink Story VS. The Rule of Cool

The Kitchen-Sink Story: A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.

The Rule of Cool: Most readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for something that is totally awesome.
-- TV Tropes (intentionally unlinked because I care about you)

Yesterday I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:

Most of the responses were combinations. Steampunk ninjas. Jumper elves. The most common response, though, was all six: elven ninjas with Jumper powers, driving steampunk mecha in a genetically perfect waterworld (possibly fighting dragons).

It sounds great, largely due to the Rule of Cool stated above. Take two cool things, slap them together, and nobody cares how impossible the outcome is BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME!

But the fear, then (well, my fear), is being accused of writing a Kitchen-Sink Story. "You're just throwing in ninjas because you think they're trendy, not because they add anything to the work!" "Mecha don't make sense anyway, but in a world covered entirely in water?!"

At first glance, it sounds like these are two different sets of people: the SF geeks (who love ninjas) vs. the erudite literary heads who Take Fiction Seriously. But the SF geeks who find all this stuff awesome are also the folks who will nitpick your story to death. They want the cool stuff and a world they can dig deeply into (I know, I'm one of them).

Fortunately folks like me are willing to accept any explanation you can give them, provided it's consistent. So I think I'll do what I always do. You can feel free to follow suit:
  1. Ignore those who Take Fiction Seriously. Much as I'd love to win a Hugo, those guys aren't my target audience.
  2. Pick the elements I want, figure out why it makes sense later. It worked with Air Pirates, after all.
  3. Apply the Rule of Cool where necessary. Giant mecha don't make sense, neither tactically nor physically, but who the heck cares? They're awesome.
  4. Ensure whatever I make up follows its own rules. Sufficiently strange technology, or elements that don't exist in the real world, is treated like magic. State the rules, then follow them.
I don't know what I'll actually decide (depends on the story, I guess), but I'm definitely going to lean on the Rule of Cool rather than be afraid of the Kitchen-Sink Story. What do you think?

Oo, KRAKEN! Those are definitely going in the waterworld.

Books I Read: Favorites of 2010

I know it's a bit late, but here are some of my favorite books I read last year. A few I've talked about before. Those have just a brief summary and a link to my original post on the topic, but there are a couple here outside my regular genre(s) that I wanted to point out.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Mark Haddon, 2003, Mystery/Literary
An autistic teenager investigates the death of the neighbor's dog and ends up learning secrets about his parents he was never meant to know. Read more...

Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner
F.X. Toole, 2000, Short Stories
A collection of stories drawn from the author's experiences in the world of boxing. Now I don't like boxing, and I don't normally like short stories, but I really enjoyed this book. The trainers and fighters in this book are smart, showing that boxing isn't just about hitting the other guy until one of you drops. It's about strategy, timing, knowing where and when to do the most damage. As Toole put it, "Boxing is like chess with pain."

Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins, 2008, YA Science Fiction
Do I really need to talk about this book more? It's awesome. Worth all the hype (the two sequels are pretty good too). Read more...

Mistborn trilogy
Brandon Sanderson, 2006-8, Fantasy
In a world where the nobility exhibit super powers just by ingesting metal, a small band of thieves sets out to do the impossible: start a revolution among the commoners, and overthrow the immortal tyrant known as the Lord Ruler. Read more...

Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment
Ella deCastro Baron, 2009, Memoir
A collection of stories, poems, and essays that serve as an ironic resume of experiences one wouldn't normally tell a potential employer. Ella is a first generation Filipina American who writes about her struggles with faith, prejudice, eczema, death, miracles, and more. I'm biased, as Ella is a good friend of mine, but there is a lot here to make you laugh and to make you think. I was most moved by the story of her friend Emilia who died of cancer, and Ella's struggle to trust a God that didn't answer our (because I was there too) repeated prayers for her to be healed.

 So tell me, what were your favorite reads of 2010?

Poll: How Do You Feel About Maps?

Everyone has their own opinion on maps in a novel. Some people despise them, considering them a cheap form of infodump. Others will buy a book just because it has a pretty map, regardless of what the book is about.

Of course it depends on the quality of map and how (or whether) the story uses it, but in general how do you feel about maps?

Personally, I LOVE them. I can't read Lord of the Rings without flipping to the map every time a place is mentioned.

But because of that, I'm kind of a map snob. I'm disappointed if the book takes place in a single undetailed location, or in places that aren't even on the map (I'm looking at you, Name of the Wind). I get upset if the map is wrong (it's happened!). And while I do love flipping back to the map, I don't want to HAVE to.

My favorite maps do four things:
  1. They are not required to follow the action (i.e. they can be skipped).
  2. They include most important locations mentioned in the book.
  3. They don't include too many places that AREN'T mentioned in the book.
  4. They enhance the experience for those who want to study them.

I have a map for Air Pirates (I don't see how you could write fantasy without one), but I don't show it to my beta readers. So far only two have asked if there was a map, and nobody said they were lost without one. I take that to mean I'm doing a good job. Though if this thing gets published, you better believe I'll be pushing for a map. I mean, assuming I get any say at all.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) maps? Why?

Sketch: Phoenix Fan Art

If you haven't heard, Cindy Pon got a box of ARCs for Fury of the Phoenix, the sequel to her debut novel. Now she's holding a contest to giveaway at least one of those ARCs. I read Cindy's debut last year and really enjoyed it, so I had to do my best on this one.

So what do I love about Silver Phoenix? The action, yes, but mostly the Asian setting and mythos (I wanted to draw the gods or immortals, but this scene was hard enough as it was).

I don't know why, but rice fields make me happy.

I tried a lot of new things with this (I really want that ARC!), so I screwed up a lot of things too. But watercolor pencils? My new favorite. I found a pack (Disney brand?) with the stuff that came with our four newest kids. They don't know how to use them, so I figured I'd learn.

They're so cool. Like painting, but without the abject fear that I'll get it wrong (because I can pencil everything in first). If I keep fiddling, I'm going to have to get my own high quality pack.

Anyway, there you go, Cindy. Congratulations on getting not one, but two novels published, and thank you for writing them. If any of you guys want to get in on the contest, there's still time. It doesn't close until December 1st (and you don't have to draw to win).

Books I Read: The Graveyard Book

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: YA Horror/Fantasy
Published: 2008
Content Rating: PG for scary situations

An orphan grows up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts, but is the man who killed his family still after him? (This, by the way, is what we call a high concept novel).

I love Neil Gaiman. Love, love, love, love. He's got this gift of turning the mundane into something magical, while simultaneously making the fantastic seem perfectly reasonable. So even when the climax felt slightly predictable -- essentially each element of the boy's life came into play to help him win -- it was so much fun I didn't care. (Besides which, the resolution mattered more to me than the climax. It's not like I ever thought Bod would lose.)

I'd recommend this to pretty much everyone. I'm even going to read it to my kids, but... probably not until they can handle scary better. I'm still having trouble telling the Passover story in a "this is scary but it's okay" kind of way.

Books I Read: Graceling

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: YA Fantasy
Published: 2008
Content Rating: R for sex (this surprised me actually; though it's written in such a way that if you didn't know much about sex, you might have no idea that's what they were doing)

Graced with an unnatural ability to kill, Katsa has been her royal uncle's thug and assassin since she was little. Over the years, she has grown to regret what she has become and begun to work against some of her uncle's bullying. On one such mission, she meets a Graced fighter named Po, and gets drawn into a rescue on the far side of the world, against a man with a more frightening power than any the world has known.

At first, I was a little jaded by this book. Katsa seemed a lot like Katniss from that other book I read -- both of them killers who don't want to be killers. Both of them beautiful, but totally oblivious to their beauty. (I realize this comparison is totally unfair, as these two books came out within a month of each other, but you have to admit their names are really similar). Where it got interesting for me was when Katsa started spending time with Po, and they began learning more about each other's powers.

The climax was less...explosive than I expected, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. In contrast, the resolution felt long, but it was exactly what I wanted, plus a twist. (Maybe what I wanted was a book about Po?).

But my favorite, favorite thing about this book was the dialog. I laughed out loud so many times at the dry, clever humor of Katsa, Raffin, Oll, and Po. I'd read a whole book with nothing but Katsa's secret missions, just to hear the four of them take jabs at each other.

Overall, I thought this was a good fantasy adventure with a well-developed (if small) world and clever characters. I'd buy a sequel (or maybe the prequel).

Books I Read: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2004
Content Rating: PG (there are a couple mildly freakish bits, like a woman's finger in a box, or dead men brought back to life, but nothing I wouldn't let my (older) kids read)

In early 19th-century England, the great magic of Merlin and the Raven King has disappeared. The only magicians left are merely theoretical -- men who call themselves magicians, but are more akin to historians than anything -- until Mr. Norrell. He's a stuffy, controlling, arrogant little man, but also a practical magician. And he desperately wants to restore magic to England. He is moderately successful when Jonathan Strange applies to be his pupil. Where Norrell is academic, Strange is showy and charismatic, and where Norrell fears the most powerful kinds of magic -- that of the faeries -- Strange believes that is who they should learn from most.

My friend who gave this to me characterized it as "Sense and Sensibility and Sorcery". What shines about this book are the two main characters and their relationship, both as friends and enemies. The story is as funny and charming as Strange, and as stuffy and academic as Norrell. By the latter, I mean that the story frequently tangents into vignettes of English magical history. For example, Norrell and Strange will be arguing about whether the Raven King is really gone forever, and Strange will say something like, "There are stories of people having seen him. What about the conquistador, the farmer in Yorkshire, or the girl in Manchester," and each of those will have a (sometimes very long) footnote relating the story he refers to.

These infodumps are very much part of the style of the book. They are very enjoyable, and they made the alternate history that much more believable, but there were times when I was tempted to skip them and continue with the story. (Oh, but you can't skip them. That's the secret.) This is not a thriller or a fast read (though it has a few exciting and frightening bits). This is a book to live in for a while, and to believe sometimes that maybe magic is real.

Books I Read: Mistborn Trilogy

Title: Mistborn Trilogy (three books)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006-08
Content Rating: R for action violence

Vin is a young street urchin who discovers she is an Allomancer, a trait which allows her to burn ingested metals giving her amazing powers. More than that, she is Mistborn, a rare breed of Allomancer who can burn all of the eight basic metals. In Mistborn, she joins a thieving crew to do the impossible: to overthrow the immortal tyrant known as the Lord Ruler.

The Well of Ascension continues with the events that occur after the Lord Ruler's fall. The Empire is in political chaos, but worse than that are rumors that the mists are killing people and the koloss -- who made up the Lord Ruler's most terrible armies -- are rampaging across the land unchecked.

Finally Hero of Ages pits Vin and her friends against a dying world and a god named Ruin, whose opposite -- Preservation -- seems to have disappeared entirely. It seems an impossible task, and it really is, but in the end... let's just say I really liked the end. Everything makes sense.

Don't let those summaries fool you. These three stories build one on top of the other. What I love about this trilogy is the way secrets are constantly revealed. Brandon Sanderson has created quite a world, and he takes you into it gently. By the end you know (almost) everything.

I also love the action. Allomancy is a really unique way of doing magic. By burning different metals, Allomancers can push or pull on metals, affect the emotions of others, or increase their own strength and perception. The result are Mistborn flying or tossing each other through the air, metal objects whirling towards their enemies, super-powered leaps and punches...

Gah, I'm not doing it justice. The action is awesome guys, just trust me. And that's just with the basic metals. Turns out there's more to Allomancy than eight metals, and there's more to magic in this world than just Allomancy. Seriously, if you like fantasy, adventure, or action, pick up the first one and see what you think.

Fantasy Slang: How to Not Scare Off the Reader

You know where slang comes from. You've built a dictionary for your made-up culture. Now how do you teach the reader this new slang without overwhelming them? Also without resorting to cheap tricks or boring exposition? Here are some guidelines I use.

If the meaning of the slang is obvious from context, no explanation is needed. Don't give it. Seriously, the reader doesn't need every phrase explained. Often context is enough:

"I'm sorry. About... about what I said..."
Sam waved it off. "Nothing. Birds in the wind."

If the meaning is unnecessary to following the story, don't give it. Have you ever read the poem "Jabberwocky"? Half the words don't make any sense at all. A couple you can figure out from context (frabjous, galumphing), but most you just don't need to know (slithy toves, borogroves, tulgey wood, and pretty much everything else). And that's okay. You can understand the story fine without them.

If the meaning is not necessary yet, don't give it. Not every term has to be explained right away, even if it's important later. When it becomes important, the reader won't mind you stopping for a paragraph to explain it. In Air Pirates for example, the word 'jacks' is introduced on p. 15 (see excerpt below):

B'Lasser flashed a foot of sharp steel.

“Oy, oy, oy!” Dean came running out from the back, hands waving. “No blood! You gotta fight, you take it down the road. Else I call the jacks in here.”
There's a little context, but the full explanation doesn't come for another 25 pages. Yet nobody's ever complained.

When you finally do need to explain it, there are a number of ways you can do it -- more than I list here, certainly:

1) Include a character who doesn't "get" the slang and needs it explained, or who can at least identify with the reader's confusion:

Hagai looked around. "What did you do with my friend?"

"Easy, lad," Sam said. "I just showed him the way out. I didn't pack him either, if that's what you're flailing about. 'Sides, man like him, float in the dark he would."

Hagai didn't know what that meant. "So... you didn't kill him?"

"Nay, Gai, I didn't kill him." Sam's smile mocked him.

2) Use context. You know that first tip, where if the context is there already you don't need to explain it? It works both ways: if you need to explain it, add the context. For example, "grubbing":

Normally, if Sam wanted a snack, he would've just grubbed it off the shelf while no one was looking. But Crike Cappel, who'd been grubbing a lot longer than Sam had, taught him that he had to establish “legitimacy.”

3) When all else fails, tell. You don't want to do this often, but don't be afraid of it either. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Fitch came back a few minutes later with the keys. As he opened Sam's cell door, Sam said, "Where's the guard?"

"Sleeping," which meant he was unconscious.

I know I've been talking about slang, but these modes of introduction work for any made-up terms in any genre. (Though obviously speculative fiction will have more of it).

What else? What other methods have you used or seen to introduce foreign terms without being intrusive?

DON'T FORGET! There's still a contest going on for a free book. Link to the contest post for a chance to win. Read Pawn's Gambit to improve your chances. Contest ends Thursday at noon!