Notes On “Alla the Hunter” @ NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS Wrapping Up

Wow, feels like it’s been a while since I’ve been here.

The last entry in “Alla the Hunter”, the latest serialized fantasy story at my casual fantasy fiction hub NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS is now up, bringing that story to an end.

It’s weird, I started this one completely-differently than how I did the original “No Grave…” story, which took a lot of work and preparation, which definitely created something more in line with how I sometimes tend to write short fiction, which is off-the-cuff. I didn’t really intend to this time, because I really liked how the prose worked in “No Grave,” (even though in hindsight there’s so much pre-production that went into that short story) but hey, that’s how things work.

I’d fully-planned to do the same thing, with a ton of notes and sketches for self-reference for “Allah the Hunter” and I think some of them are around, but besides one I don’t think I ended up using any of them, worried too much about overthinking things and forcing a particular type of writing mindset to match what I’d done previously.

However, I knew that I wanted to write about someone trying to find their way, but not a typical fantasy-style “journey” or “quest,” instead someone just figuring out in a more real or immediately-tangential sense, of wanting to go somewhere, but missing where you were from, still knowing you needed more, but then struggling to express what that more is. If that makes sense.

Alla was supposed to be a side character from something else, but the idea of a hunter, someone who isn’t a warrior or almost “typical” fantasy and RPG-style character (who seem to be plaguing fantasy a lot, at least it seems that way to me), but someone in that position of fighting and using a bow to just live. It was also important to me she wasn’t using a sword, because swords are for soldiers with the money to afford them or the experience to salvage them from someone dead on a battlefield, but a bow and axe? I’d been reading about the 100 Years’ War and the concept of the yeoman archer, and I think form there is where this came from, of someone who owed a level of their prosperity to war but not as a professional soldier or knight or a “mercenary,” or had a tie to that. It’s fascinating in that reading about yeomen and citizen archers in English armies in the 14th through 16th century essentially becoming a (very) small-landowning “middle class”  of farmers and property managers who could be called upon, and who would respond because it let you have a crack at making some quick cash (stripping and looting bodies).

At least that’ what I think about when I think about fantasy settings and fantasy fiction.

Anyway, there’ll be more at some point at NO GRAVE, maybe something serialized, maybe something more one-off, we’ll see. No promises, I’m actually sorta busy. Who knew?

Chapter 1 is here.

You can read the entirety of it here.

Stay safe and sane out there, everyone.

Introducing “Alla The Hunter” At NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS

So the site for NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS, the serialized fantasy story I was writing and publishing weekly, is now going to be a hub for similar writing from me, either also a weekly serialized story, or one-offs. The newest story is something I’ve been working on for a while, called “Alla The Hunter,” and I hope you enjoy it. I’m enjoying working on it and flexing writing muscles doing fantasy, so please, let me know what you think!

The first chapter is up now.

Also, there was honestly no need, she thought. Crops had been good this year gods bless, and the forests were teeming. She couldn’t see them as she waited, but Alla knew that the other hunters like herself were stretched out around here in the woods descending on the clearing, their dark brown and green clothing, the smoke of the fires, and the dirt and scraps one found in the woods rubbed into their clothing, they were invisible to the herd. The one big stag was on edge, she could tell, slowly pulling back, and reminding herself not to knock over the backup arrow stuck in the dirt next to her foot just in case. It was risky on a hunt like this to fire a backup arrow quickly, because you might hit someone else, but she was confident in her second shot to take the risk. And if enough first shots got enough deer, she wouldn’t need it, she reasoned. The fletching of the arrow was to her cheek, and a loud “Now!” was barked, and she let fly.

The second arrow was on the notch and she took two quick steps forward further towards the clearing, as the big stag and two older does fell. Alla swivelled left, where she knew only one other hunter would have been, seeing him duck as she sighted the other buck taking off, and tracked him looping through the woods behind them, suddenly bolting back towards them in the panic of a cornered beast. She let loose and it brayed and wheezed while she jogged back fast as it fell to the ground, the arrow in its neck, the big antlers tangled into the grass, the buck wheezing. Alla and someone else, Milo she thought, were on it in a second though, her weight on its thick neck while Milo’s knife cut the main vein, and the buck wheezed one more time, not suffering anymore.

Coins Tossed/Swords Crossed

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I’ve been craving fun in my media recently, in particular in the media that I consume in my downtime for no real reason. You know, entertainment.

We recently watched THE MANDALORIAN, the Star Wars live-action show (I loved it, so did Chontel, and I’ve got something about it coming to Patreon soon), but watching that also made me think about watching THE WITCHER, the Netflix adaptation of the Polish fantasy novels and sorta partially the video game series.

Now, the creators of the games treat elements of the games as sequels to the novels, but both the novels and the video games are, confusingly but also not, considered separate entities by the author of the novels, who has spoken out about his enjoyment of the Netflix show, which isn’t the first TV or film adaptation of his novels as well, adding interesting layers on top of the ways in which we can view adaptations and sequels of or to other works overall in a multilayered sort of sense, a wafer of various works within a larger framework of the idea…but anyway.

While a lot of  talk was made about this show appearing in the wake of the end of the long-running TV show GAME OF THRONES (the adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series A Song Of Ice and Fire), I was confused because THE WITCHER so obviously NOT that, but rather reaching further back towards more classic fantasy epics, the kind of fiction I loved as a kid and still have an intense appreciation for. I half-jokingly referred to it as “hella anime,” mostly because it reminds me on a surface level of the Vampire Hunter D franchise (a mutated lone monster hunter with a weird attachment to his horse, silver sword, white hair, hated by people yet needed…need I go on?), but at the same time I’m serious in that it’s a swashbuckling action story with humor, brief overlays of worldbuilding to hint at more to come, and a primary focus on creating a cast of characters that reflect different approaches to action (brute force power, mental/magic and guile, and feral cleverness).

I think though what drew me to THE WITCHER a lot here was the fact that it’s action-forward and fairly straightforward overall as an action story, whereas the lesson that many took about genre from Game Of Thrones was that active and conscious deconstruction of r2luphazy1831fantasy was necessary to make it palatable, but also it had to function in direct opposition to what it was about the genre that drew some people to it (even without whatever problematic aspects that people find about or find in fantasy fiction, many of which can be actual legitimate ones that reflect actual bias and issues but that’s another talk for another day).

I want action, I want swords flailing as a hero battles and hacks their way through a battlefield or whatever. I’m not interested and able to, at least mentally these days, nonstop immerse myself in what sometimes feel like hackneyed and heavy-handed attempts at complex and nuanced reflections of modern-day problems through the lenses of genre fiction or just dramatic fiction in general. While that isn’t necessarily a bad approach or way to create fiction-slash-media, it’s just annoying that I can’t find or have immersive and “fun” action-adventure as much in the genres I enjoy without them having to be eye-winkingly self-critical in the worst possible way, which to me, strips the immersiveness out of them.

It’s something I struggle with in film in particular (since we’re initially talking about a fantasy TV show here) where straightforward action that isn’t immediately framing itself as intensely serious just feels…lacking. But THE WITCHER, despite being presented as this “grim” and serious work of fiction in a setting full of monsters and prejudice and suffering, has moments that simply revel in the action and the visible shows of how, in that moment, that power in the hands of a heroics character can make you feel good. It might feel temporary, it might feel fleeting, but it’s a moment to hold onto and grasp. Geralt is a good character in this series because more and more it almost feels like he slips into the role of the straight-man rather than the antihero character framework, because he contrasts with so many other elements in this world that make me laugh. The “fuck” joke (that it’s one of two things he mostly says) as a response to what would in other contexts could lead to dramatic responses or silence is such a great example of that, an everyman response to any kind of inconvenience, large and deadly, or small and annoying.

“Fuck.”

Also, I love the looks and feel of various things in this show, of buildings and clothing and the roads and layouts of rooms and castles. The depth of small things like that (I I guess we’d call it world-building, though I’d think of it more as populating) ads a lot to me in terms of immersion into a story.

Plus…and this is totally a shallow thing that feels incredibly gendered as well as person-specific, I’m a sucker for cool-looking medieval weapons and honestly, this is sorta my jam. It appeals to the little kid in me who read fantasy novels alone in his room or on trips, engrossed in stories about heroes and villains. It put power into concrete totemic things and I feel like that was important for a kid who struggled to find his own voice and find any power that they could have.

I’m excited for more seasons, and I might even go back and throw this first one on again just for kicks. We’ll see.

The Birthplace of “NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS”

In my continued cleanup of the work area, as “No Grave But The Fields,” the fantasy story that’s playing out week by week I wrote, trudged along and finished last week (this week the one-shot “War Grass” is published there). I’m slowly working on its follow-up (more on that in the future as I turn the site into a space for short and serialized fantasy fiction and some horror/spec fiction), and I found some original “production notes” from the start of this project in a notebook.

This was originally from a spat of enthusiasm to try making comics again. I’d initially wanted it to be a comic of sorts, first as a series of one-panel scenes, then as illustrations done as roughly and filled-in as possible with accompanying text and dialogue (to create an effect not dissimilar from the old ink illustrations that’d accompany the chapters of the old King Arthur tales book I had as a kid).

A lot of the beginning from the first few chapters are basically the same, you can see the roots of almost all of it here. I even wrote a script at one point, but soon realized that basically, I just don’t have the drawing chops to do the types of scenes I was writing. While I’ve always admitted that I’m an OK draftsman when it comes to laying out pages, and I’ve come to the sheepish admission of actually being a decent writer, I’m not a great artist. Not for something beyond simple stuff. So, getting back on focus with prose as an option for this (after I think a couple of months?) just made more sense, and honestly, I’m quite happy with how this story came out.

I think these last few were after I’d already decided on turning the script into a prose story. Still, I do this thing where I doodle what’s in my head to make it “real” and give it some semblance of a form, a shape, even if it looks like shit.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see how it came to life initially, at first in ballpoint ink and marker.

You can check out “No Grave But The Fields” in its entirety, as well as “War Grass,” here. There’s more to come.

Introducing “NO GRAVE BUT THE FIELDS”

I have a new fiction project going on, the weekly fantasy story “No Grave But The Fields”, which you can follow along at here!

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The one in the scarf and tunic, a boy, the old man realized, held an old crude knife, probably a kitchen tool, like a warrior’s sword in his arms, an approximation of a swordsman at the ready, and he softened his face. “I won’t hurt you, boy,” he said, leaving the food and moving back towards his spot by the fire, and motioning with his head to his sword against the log. “See? It’s over there,” he continued, and then sat back. “Stay if you want,” he said, and went back to simply watching the fire, ignoring the boy and, he realized, the girl, as they dug into a spot on the other side of the fire and watched him warily, eating the food quickly.

I’ll be posting a “chapter” (an entry, really) a week every week between now and when it’s done. If you’re not on Tumblr to subscribe, there’s an RSS link at the site, and you can follow along when I notify people on social media (Twitter, Facebook) or just check in every week at the link.

I hope everyone enjoys it, I worked really hard on this piece and I’m quite proud of it. Enjoy!

Eagles & Princes & Yellow Pages

Fall is approaching. Time to dig in with horror movies and funky-weird goth punk music.

“He made me important.” – Robert De Loungville, Rise of a Merchant Prince 

I snatched up some Raymond Feist novels form my brother to re-read. I’ve been so immersed in work recently and besides the crime fiction I have around (I’ve been doing a bit of an incompletely and unofficial Elmore Leonard re-read as I worked on something about him for The Means At Hand) that I wanted something comforting, and Rise of a Merchant Prince was one of those re-reads. The pages are slowly yellowing, the paperback still in good shape, but definitely showing its age and its use from re-reads.

This scene, where (spoilers I guess) drill sergeant of the Crimson Eagles, “Bobby” De Loungville, lies dying in his protege Eric’s arms in an ice cave on a foreign continent, his lungs pierced by a broken rib. All the character can do is declare the importance of their leader, who lies burned and injured himself, the man who started the Crimson Eagles army, Calis the half-elf. It’s a bit meant to illustrate the character Calis as being vital to the mission and to the overall story of the books, but also, to me, what makes it so emotional is that it’s an illustration of the importance he had to these other characters. It’s an expression by De Loungville about just what Calis means to him. He raised him up from lowly soldier about to be hung into a man with responsibilities, with duties, with others who looked up to him for guidance. De Loungville was living before, but now, he had a life.

It’s an incredible way to express platonic adoration and relationships, in that small way that we never expect to hit us so hard when we read about relationships between men. It’s an honest admission of the root of friendship, devotion, and love, and it’s so painful to watch someone dying (even in fiction) thinking only of someone else, the man who means everything to him, because he gave his life purpose.

I love this scene. It makes me tear up every time.

I’ve been finding a lot of good nonfiction to read online actually, which feels rare;

I’m sure there’s lots of good nonfiction out there, it might just honestly be I’m tired of the same six or so I re-read a lot because I teach them. This latest batch is refreshing and I might incorporate them into what I assign.

The piece I mentioned above about Elmore Leonard went up at The Means At Hand and I’m proud of how it came out, and I’m also excited about both what I’m working on for Patreon as well as a possible other fiction thing. More on that as I get closer to an idea of where it’s going.

I’m trying to get writing done even with a bunch of teaching and grading, but I’m trying had to keep the balance as well as maintain some personal sense and personal space for movies and time with my loved ones. I keep meaning to do a list of all the movies we’ve been watching and rewatching, but I’m trying to watch more movies and less TV so we’ll see how that goes.

Kim Shattuck of the Muffs passed away and in a just and righteous world, the Muffs could have been and should have been bigger than Green Day.

So I guess it’s National Poetry Day, whatever that means, go read some poetry. That’s it for now kids, I’ll be seeing you around.

“A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'” – JRR Tolkien

 

Swords, Sorrows, Satire

ByChanceOrProvidence-1I love fantasy novels and comics. I talk about them a lot, probably not as much as I talk about horror or crime writing or punk rock, but I love it. It’s such a deep-rooted part of me, back to the beginnings of my love of reading. As I’ve said, before punk rock and horror, fantasy was there, and it’s always stuck around in some way in my life.

It’s kinda weird to find any these days though to me that I can genuinely enjoy because of how a lot of it, to me, comes across. So much of modern fantasy fiction seems to fall into one of two extreme camps these days, either being “A Game Of Thrones” grimdark or satirizing the genre in a humorous way, which bothers me. Here’s this great genre wish so much flexibility and muscle in it treated as either a bad video game or a joke about DnD.

I know that the good stuff, the groundbreaking work is coming out as we get new and fresh voices more and more unafraid to push boundaries (I’m trying hard to get to that work and get back in the loop), but I feel like signal-to-noise when it comes to what I grew up on VS what doesn’t interest me is overwhelming.

Maybe I just don’t look hard enough?

Which is…fine. It’s fine. I mean, a genre should be flexible, should be reaching to far ends of the spectrum its on in terms of attitudes and whatnot. To be bound to the absolute middle of the whole thing is a dangerous precedent that creates the limited and arguably conservative mindset that can ruin a literary genre and make it an unfunny and unfriendly sort of place. Fantasy (like a lot of genre work) already can be an unfriendly and conservative sort of place, so the pushing of those boundaries outwards is welcome.

Still (and I say this primarily as a person who knows the privileges of representation in his fiction and all that entails when he talks about enjoying more “classic” or traditional genre fiction), sometimes the work I see in fantasy these days is JUST at those two ends, with the middle being almost immediately dismissed as too conventional or conservative (something I’d wholeheartedly disagree with). There’s such a huge range that fantasy can and pull from (re-reading Raymond E. Feist’s “Serpentwar Saga” recently definitely made me think about fantasy fiction being used to discuss the impacts of war on non-“special hero” types and surrogate families coming together in really interesting ways), and that includes horror. Real deep bone-hungry horror, something from the edges of the world that you barely even knew one stalked the land you now lived in. So much fantasy is set in pre-industrial and historically-influenced settings, and I think those sorts of things can have amazing approaches to scary stories. It’s frustrating

Part of it is probably the critical  literary desire to say that great work rises above the genre it’s in when in fact saying shit like that does a disservice to the work and to the genre itself. After all to act like something is “too good” for the conventions of genre (horror has the same issues) basically spits on the genre as well as making a lot of assumptions about the work of the author.

Anyway when I was in Canada a few weeks ago I bought this and recently got to read it finally. I read Becky Cloonan’s collection By Chance Or Providence, collecting her haunting and emotional historical fantasy comic shorts like “Wolves” and they’re so amazing while still easily-recognizable as “fantasy fiction”. Ancient gods and swords, but also the sweat of a man in a horror story, of a woman at the end of an unholy bargain. It’s horror, but also drama and doomed romance. And yet, those are all things that can be in the overall umbrella of “fantasy” and I don’t really know just how rare this is in fantasy. Arguably, a lot of Tolkien is almost Lovecraftian horror (his elves are eternal eldritch beings of frightening nightmares, no matter what anyone says about ethereal beauty and all that), but most of the time when horror and fantasy cross it tends to, again, go back to that “grimdark” viewpoint of horror (the literary equivalent of gorefests or torture porn, I guess), Cloonan’s work is more haunting that scary, in that it’s trying to evoke a sense of low constant dread.

Also, the balance of outright fantastical and grounded in her work, which yeah, feels very manga-influenced but is also working hard to humanize flawed and malleable characters (they feel like the flesh they’re made of, rather than the adamant we feel these types of characters sometimes seem to be), with dirty armor, notched sword blades, and fatalistic attitudes that don’t rely on heavy-handed and nihilistic life outlooks. There’s a weight to the world, to the stories, but it’s not an overbearing one.

A thing from my childhood that I loved, Marvel’s big black and white THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (hell, most Conan stories, actually) touched on something from fantasy that I don’t think, post-Tolkien, we really use much, which is the idea of worlds with no real overarching “mythology.” That is to say, places where there is no larger-scale of deities or curses or belief structures or myths tying it all together, simply a chaotic world full of monstrosities and nightmares held at bay, barely, by walls. Though the stories in this are obviously drawing on folklore and myth, the fact is that in the worlds where they happen, they JUST happen without too much (or really any) insistence on creating an elaborate and intricate mythology, is something I appreciate.

It’s very Howard-esque, basically, which is metal as all hell and very much up my alley. Despite Howard’s hack-heavy and hamfisted takes on writing (at times, arguably), his work and his impact on fantasy has always fascinated me, caring less about the complexity of the world’s mechanics and more on an immediate experience surrounding whatever the conflict or adventure he came up with for that particular point. Tolkien’s work is creation story, epic saga. Howard’s work is all forward action and motion, one immediate foot after another, sword or axe always at the ready to hack your way through a confusing and dangerous world that doesn’t care what you want to do, it just wants to kill you and eat you.

By Chance or Providence is a lot like that, in this overarching reminder that the world was ancient before we got here, and that under the surface of civilization, it’ll be here and ancient after we’re long-gone.

 

Buckles & Straps

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Parade Armor of Henry II of France, ~1554

In the heat, people get sweaty.

I’ve been reading Ordination by Daniel M. Ford (a Twitter buddy) and very smart dude. It’s his debut novel (followed by Stillbright and an upcoming third in his “Paladin” trilogy”), a fantasy story with some D&D and Tolkien-esque trappings that, so far, is very good. I’m loving it, especially enjoying the protagonist, a knight in full plate armor, relying on a hammer as his primary weapon, acknowledging he’s better with that versus a traditional knight’s weapon, a sword, mostly because it comes down to efficiency and ease of use.

Also, he sweats. A lot. It’s summer, and Allystaire, our hero, sweats in that full suit of armor and gambeson padding (basically a coat/shirt made up of stuffed quilt material) underneath, and Ford brings it up to emphasize the strain and lack of comfort that comes from wearing metal body armor. While it’s a protective shell that does turn him into a veritable walking tank, it’s A) not impenetrable because it’s meant to be flexible and wearable and B) a pain in the ass to put on, take off, and wear while sweat trickles down your body because you’re basically strapped into a microwave that adds 20 to 40 pounds to your overall weight.

I know the SCA and LARPers/cosplayers can debate the pro’s and cons of the flexibility and historical accuracy of certain types of armor until the fucking cows come home in the field they’re all playing dress-up in (I kid, sorta)

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The kinds of illustrations I remembered as the root of visuals for fantasy fiction as a kid.

It’s a little thing, really, but, it’s true. It reminds me of this scene from TV’s Game of Thrones, about the realization you can’t get out of armor to piss. I know that the root of the show (and the books, which I have mixed feelings about) is in adding a level of realism to fantasy worlds and storytelling, but that tends to get lost, I think at times, in the show’s overall drama and “dark fantasy” elements (which is fine, as a TV I really like it). Still, Jorah Mormont talking about being bolted into his armor for most of a day and that his main thought was how he realized he couldn’t get out of it alone is a funny moment. This, more than anything in the books or the shows or the culture around both, encapsulates to me what that whole series is about. Realistically, medieval wear and battle sucked, they were full of screaming and dying and people either running around in terror or plodding up and down a field for hours at a time, wishing they could piss while dust choked out the sky.

I’ve been diving back into genre more and more for pleasure reading, (including a re-read of William Gibson’s work, but that’s another story), thinking more and more about the limitations but also the flexibility of fantasy (in stories, games, etc) to range from completely bonkers-out there to almost boringly realistic. The visuals of fantasy as a kid, to me, were almost rigidly-antiquated, pulling straight out of my history books, as well as influenced by the outlandish looks on the covers of the books I read. Some of them, like early editions of Tolkien’s books or the versions of CS Lewis’s Narnia books I had as a kid, would have spot illustrations within that helped you create a visualization, just as the King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood stories I read did (which would be more historical fiction to me, but I’m digressing). Then of course the illustrations from Magic: The Gathering cards and card packs, Warhammer promotional imagery came into play as well, which helped too.

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Googling “fantasy book cover” gets…a lot of washy tones/colors.

That was where i got my mental images from. Those years, the mid-1990’s to early 2000’s were when I was fully immersing myself into genre, are, arguably, a bit of a flux for fantasy. Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate II (2000) were popular games at the time, though the visual differences in character designs between the two is a little shocking, and then of course there was 2001’s first LOTR movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Baldur’s Gate II and LOTR were definitely a bit of a visual shift at that point in in fantasy, changing the overall aesthetic of the “field,” so to speak. The armor was drab and everyone, even people who technically could afford better-looking or brighter stuff, didn’t wear it.

Everyone’s drab, everyone’s in variations of the same three outfits regardless of social status, with little regard for “fashion,” a thing that really would have been a concern. Raymond Feist, for example touches on this in Talon of the Silver Hawk when the titular character talks about a style popular amongst men in a particular kingdom, a glorified arming jacket cut to be purposely worn half-on, half-off, supposedly so that you can draw a sword easier. It’s such a dumb-sounding thing that no matter how many times I’ve read that book I still can’t completely picture it. The LOTR films also arguably influenced a lot of other little things since then, from the looks of protagonists (I’m gonna say it, no one ever really does “elves” right, though Tolkien’s Galadriel is arguably the closest in her perpetual near-Lovecraftian otherworldliness) to the way we depict “bad guys” and otherworldly/nonhuman villains as having distantly non-Western or non-human (but still weirdly vague) “tribal” looks, with rough armor, body painting and armor, and piercings. Their exoticism is always painted as outward signs of their villainy, but that exoticism is smoothed-over, giving it a bit of a generic feel.

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This is what comes up when you search “modern DnD rogue” and…OK? Is he a ninja? Is that Egyptian armor he’s wearing? Is that a sword on the back? How do you get to that? Looks badass, I guess.

The new vibe is one that puts a lot of effort into making characters, visually at least, seem “badass.” I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the leaps and bounds that art seems to have made and with art for fantasy no longer just relying on traditional medieval/historical recommendations and inspirations (which, to be fair, can be stifling and a little racist). Overall fantasy fiction (as a genre) is one that is trying really hard to change and show a level of interesting growth, but in doing so sometimes it feels like it’s continuing this odd tradition of not really going anywhere at all. Heroes are still somehow magically pulling swords from over their shoulders in one fluid move, everyone’s a sniper with a bow and arrow, and no one ever needs to take a piss in the middle of a battle but can’t because they’re basically bolted into their metal pants.

Fantasy as a genre’s always struggled to avoid falling into the traps of genre (catering to the same slowly-shrinking fanbase, not unique to fantasy alone but a rampant nerd/subculture thing in general) and, overall, I really think that it’s overall done a good job in terms of making itself both appealing to traditional or long-term fans as well as having ins for people who want to jump in. I’ll rag on everyone having tribal tattoos or the same-looking “exotic” armor on the cover of something, but in a way if that’s the trade-off to get more people and more different types of people into fantasy, then it’s a trade-off I feel like is OK to make.

Complaining about the covers seems small and in the long run, like I just said it’s a not that big a deal compared to the strides in terms of representation with characters, story, and readership. Also I recognize how much of this is also tied into my own nostalgic attachment to fantasy fiction as a kid who was absorbed by so much of it, nose buried in pages to escape.

Sometimes I think we still lose sight of the actual realism in our more realistic but also visually-interesting (arguably?) fantasy. You sweat in armor.

Trash(y) Fantasy

fqtragz4bz4bud7yu9y0It’s sort of part of the package, really. Punk rock, comic books, science fiction and horror movies, and fantasy novels/games. It’s the stuff that gets thrown into the soup that creates guys like me. At least that’s how I see it, that weird wishlist of things from the backs of comic books put into human form with black t-shirts and too many thoughts about owning a sword.

Still, despite the fact that I really love the genre and definitely consider it a huge part of my web of influences, I didn’t actually read that much fantasy as a kid, when I think back on it.

I read Tolkien, but I didn’t really like it, too caught up in the language. I read and enjoyed C. S. Lewis, weirdly, I don’t know why, but I had all of his “Narnia” books, reading and re-reading them religiously (pun intended). Of course there were comic books, an inherited stack of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian and The Savage Sword Of Conan from the 70’s that blended the no-man’s land nihilist fantasy of Howard’s creation with pulp insanity. I read King Arthur stories in a ratty Penguin Classics paperback a lot (I had a bunch of those, but that’s another story). I read a lot of Raymond E. Feist, who I randomly stumbled upon in an English-languae bookstore in a foreign country randomly (I still consider him a master and constantly go back to his work for comfort reads.) Through Feist, I found Janny Wurts and a few other people, but for the most part I didn’t fall as crazy into so much of the genre (which is vast, wide, and deep with both great stuff as well as a lot of shit) as I feel like a lot of others who are avowed fans of the genre did. I never read “Dragonlance” stuff, I never read any “Shannara” or “Wheel Of Time” books (gasp! I know, I know), and I never heard of any of the “A Song Of Ice And Fire” books until the TV show (I’ve since read them and they’re alright, but the TV show actually works better).

It’s weird to think of fantasy novels as intrinsically a huge part of me because of that, like I’m a poser in a weird subculture for a subgenre that catered to people who forever felt like posers. Still, they kinda are, and I think it’s because I think back on how some of the first forays I took into reading work that pushed me away from just male authors and cliched stuff was in fantasy, in particular the work of Robin Hobb, Jeanne Kalogridis, and Jacqueline Carey. Those three (Hobb and Carey in particular) were instrumental during my late teens/20’s as fantasy writers, authors I searched for.

Hobb’s “Farseer” trilogy was amazing, a perfect turn on conventional fantasy tropes in an arguably better take that Martin does (in particular the whole “bastard of nobility” thing). I vaguely remember seeing ads for the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, in the back of other books I had, and reading her books about Fitz and his world, a complex world that led to dumb broken messy endings and broken people who don’t mend, who suffer and have to live with consequences, something that fantasy (and fiction) at that time, in my experience, hadn’t really exposed me to in that type of escapist writing, the kind of stuff I craved to help calm down my brain. Fiction was always about wrapping up loose ends for a story to finish in a grandiose fashion, and leaving those ragged ends frayed and unable to be incorporated into an ending acts leaves a heavy impression on someone who is constantly used to those types of complete endings. I loved, and still love, that there are no heroes in Hobb’s books about her character Fitz. The heroes are other people’s stories, hers are about the others, the people at the fringes with messy lives and no grand plans or huge endings. They’re about real people, as real as they can feel in a world with dragons and magic telepathy.

Then for some godforsaken reason I ended up in a B&N browsing the “fantasy” section and, fucking Satan forgive me, I stumbled upon the work of Jacqueline Carey, a frankly bizarre alternative medieval Europe that delves heavily into espionage, queer-themed BDSM,  and anathema Christian theology. To this day I don’t know what possessed me to buy those first two books of Carey’s first trilogy of work, “Kushiel’s Legacy”, because I was probably mortified the clerk would look at me weird for buying what I felt was basically smut.

It kind of is, to be honest, like my exposure to Kalogridis’ work, which I felt was horror but looking back, is basically early vampiric smut that I threw myself into one summer when it was all I had to read (along with a dog-eared copy of Puzo’s The Godfather, which I found…weird, but that’s another story).

How the fuck did I read all this stuff, which borrows liberally from a long history of bodice-rippers and before 50 Shades of Gray introduced housewives to what BDSM actually meant?

Don’t answer that, the answers are a little to obvious and I don’t wanna admit that right now.

Anyway, going back to those books, these bodice-rippers, smut wrapped up in battles between Viking stand-in cultures and some sort of analogs for what I think are Lutheran warrior-priests, they’re…kind of groundbreaking, actually. Carey’s research kung-fu shows in a lot of the work, not letting what bogged down a lot of detail-rich fantasy happen where story suffers. Also, despite basically being softcore porn with swords and magic, there’s an interesting point to observe in her work, in that the offshoot of Judaism that replaced the rise of Christianity in her alternative-history world is a notably queer and socially progressive one, with a lot of thought (at least in my mind at the time) put into creating a faith that somehow put “have sex with whoever” at the top of “how we show our version of God we love him” list. And when I say “whoever,” I mean “whoever,” with same-sex relationships being a norm of her work, and you know what?

That’s probably the first time I saw that in genre work. It was in Carey’s trashy romance fiction that I saw it normalized, stripped of the “queer villain” or “foppish side character” tropes that fantasy fiction conventionally depended on. Interestingly enough there were also elements of queer nontraditional romances in Hobb’s work between the protagonist Fitz and another character (so not just some side characters), and while the world she created wasn’t the all-accepting fantasy land of Carey’s, it did deal with the fallout of that kind of “nontraditional” relationship and how others might see it, explain it, and care or not care about it.

Those two (three if you count Kalogridis and her “Diaries of the Family Dracul” series) were probably the last “straight fantasy” (no pun) authors I discovered just randomly pulling at titles on the shelves of a bookstore, a practice I don’t really do much anymore. They’re not even “old pulp” trashy as books, they’re just kinda trashy, and Cary and Kalogridis skirting dangerously close to the line “out” of the genre (something that actually helps those works stand out by not being bogged down by genre expectations). Well, Robin Hobb isn’t trashy like Carey’s “fifteen different words for bodices” trashy, but once you get beyond the stuff she does to advance and challenge her genre it’s still a whole bunch of other fantasy tropes, with fantastic stretches of magic and battles between grim swordsmen and plucky boys with wolf sidekicks.

Fuck it, I still love ’em. I love my trashy fantasy novels, the ones that, like so many other pieces of media, helped carry me through some weird times, a lonely childhood, and continue to be something I can go back to for a quick nostalgic fix, a form that I can slide into again like a sword into a scabbard.

I brought that original trilogy of Carey’s books from my parents’ house to our apartment recently, re-reading sections of it in bits and pieces. I re-taped the cover of one of the three books back together, the spine of the paperback long-disintegrated. Know what? It still holds up, in all it’s faux-porny romance goodness, complete with cliches about sword-fighting warrior priests and everyone wearing doublets, an article of clothing I constantly have to re-look up because I never remember what it is.