Yeine, Concept Art

Hi, all! I suppose I’ve never gotten around to posting an official policy on fanworks, mostly because a) I’m a n00b author and never had to think about it before, and b) it’s not like there are scads of people out there just waiting on tenterhooks for me to bless their Nahadoth-Hosts-The-Muppet-Show multipart AU crossover, so it didn’t matter. But in general I’m pro-fanstuff so long as it’s created in the spirit of sharing and not profit — though for legal reasons I don’t read fanfiction. I can’t draw a straight line, though, so fanart is less of a problem. I won’t send it to the folks at Orbit so they’ll use it on my next cover or anything like that — they’ve got perfectly good artists on staff, and I like those folks’ work — but if I have time, I’ll look, and if I like it, I’ll say so.

Anyway, I’m sharing this because it’s something a little different. Nubia Palacios is a professional artist building her portfolio of fantasy concept art, and she asked me if she could use the Inheritance Trilogy characters as the subjects of her latest work. I liked the result so much that I asked her if I could share it here. So here’s her depiction of Yeine!

Yeine as drawn by Nubia Palacios

Click to biggify. If you like it, visit her site and check out her other stuff, and maybe send her some kudos. (Artists love kudos. We eat them up, like potato chips.) And stay tuned; she says she’s working on Nahadoth next!

Attack the Block vs Cowboys & Aliens

Went to see two movies this past weekend, in my gleefully between-deadlines free time: Attack the Block (redband trailer, note — profanity and violence), and Cowboys and Aliens. Both were movies I’d been anticipating like whoa; both were movies that promised to hit all my usual sweet spots: alien invasions, action, cleverness, stuff blowing up, Daniel Craig’s lovely ass. (What? I’m not saying that’s the only reason I went to see it.) And though I’ve been hearing good things about Attack the Block for months, I went into both movies expecting to like Cowboys and Aliens better. Because, I mean, Indiana Jones and James Bond vs aliens. What else could a girl wish for?

Total upset, though: Attack the Block was phenomenal. I cheered when it was over. I’m now begging, telling, ordering everyone I know to go see it. But Cowboys and Aliens? Meh.

I’ve been processing my reaction to these films since I saw them, and realized that the difference is simple: AtB broke every film cliche I could think of, and C&A’s entire plot was practically a paint-by-numbers adherence to cliches. I can’t really go into either film’s surprises (or non-surprises) without dwelling on spoilers, but let’s just put it this way. Within 5 minutes of C&A I could guess the entire plot, right down to who would die heroically and stereotypically for the sake of everyone else. But within 5 minutes of AtB I knew I was seeing something I’d never seen before. I had no idea where it was going, but I could tell I was about to enjoy the hell out of the ride. AtB actually made me glad I’d spent $14 to see the film in theaters. Whereas C&A made me think I probably should’ve waited to Netflix it. (Then at least I could’ve paused on a shot of Daniel Craig’s — WHAT. STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT.)

So please, if you’re in one of the handful of US cities where AtB is playing, go see it. Then go see it again. Vote with your dollars for more stuff that breaks the molds, and maybe Hollywood will finally get the message that audiences crave something different. The theater was only about 1/3 full when I went to see AtB, because the film’s distributors haven’t advertised it at all, so word of mouth is going to have to do the job. This is me doing my part.

And somebody please just give John Boyega an Oscar already. This kid’s going places.

TENFECTA

To the list of awards nominations I posted awhile back, I now have a new addition: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

That’s ten. Ten awards nominations. Ten.

::feels a little lightheaded::

The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy (and everywhere else, but for now, fantasy)

One of my favorite manga is a shoujo (girls’) comedy serial called Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge (YNS), sold in the US as The Wallflower. Now, the Japanese title has a more complex meaning than a phrase like “the wallflower” can encompass, in part because it’s referencing a phrase that’s fairly esoteric to Japanese culture — the idea of quintessential Japanese womanhood, or the yamato nadeshiko spirit. But the story itself is fairly simple: four hot guys are offered the chance by an eccentric millionaire to live in a stunning mansion, rent-free — but in exchange, they have to transform her ugly-duckling niece Sunako into a “real lady”. This is Sunako:

Sunako, the protagonist of Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge; image shows a depressed-looking girl in a tatty sweatshirt, with long unkempt hair that hides her face, and no expression.

…Yeah, so it’s a challenge for the guys. Each episode pretty much consists of the guys attempting to change Sunako — a socially awkward and terminally shy goth who doesn’t give a damn about makeup, clothes, or any of the things girls are “supposed” to like — into something she doesn’t want to be. Their efforts usually backfire spectacularly, often resulting in the guys themselves ending up in some kind of mortal danger from which Sunako — who also happens to be a world-class chef, a deadly martial artist, a master of disguise, and freakishly strong — has to rescue them. (It’s utterly cracktastic, and highly recommended.)

I like Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge because it’s about a girl coming to terms with one of her culture’s most powerful gender paradigms. What the story gradually makes clear is that Sunako already embodies the virtues of yamato nadeshiko perfectly — not by adhering to the guys’ superficial stereotypes of what women are supposed to be, but by internalizing those virtues and expressing them in her own unique way. In comedic fashion, the series asks important questions: Why is it somehow unwomanly to be gothy, or to be a good fighter, or to wear something other than “pretty” clothing? What’s so womanly about being delicate and flighty if, well, you’re not? (A running gag of the series is that the four guys are delicate and flighty — but they all consider themselves perfectly manly men.) And by the same token, why is it somehow out of character, or “unrealistic”, for a woman who’s a martial arts master to also excel at cooking and keeping house? If Sunako were a character in an American novel, I suspect a lot of readers would label her a Mary Sue. I think this label is often misapplied to female characters who are not wish-fulfillment fantasies, but simply competent in too many ways.

These are things that most women in patriarchal societies wrestle with, frankly, across ages and cultures: superficial, externally-imposed conceptions of womanhood versus internalized, personally-defined conceptions of womanhood. If a culture for some reason depends on a clear distinction between men’s and women’s roles — maybe because men have most of the power, and society has evolved to justify that — then it becomes harder and harder for men and women to choose for themselves what “manhood” or “womanhood” means. Instead they’re forced to struggle within rigid definitions that don’t really fit anyone perfectly, often because they don’t make any real sense.

But not all of those struggles are as blatant, or as easy to name and shame, as the ones in YNS. Take, for example, the current paradigm of what constitutes a “strong” woman in most English-language fantasy.

Let’s put aside more technical definitions of character strength (like agency) and focus on gender roles. I see a lot of women in fantasy who are power brokers, good fighters, sexually assertive or dominant, technically/scientifically and sometimes magically competent — all good things. All in defiance of the kinds of stereotypes that have plagued women in America*. But I’m beginning to wonder if, along with rejecting the stereotypes imposed on women by society, we haven’t also rejected all characteristics commonly ascribed to womanhood — including those that women might choose for themselves. Why is it hard for a female character to be considered strong if she’s self-effacing or modest, for example? Lots of women who are trailblazers and asskicking heroes are modest. This is all of a piece with America’s ongoing devaluation of traditional women’s gender roles, like being a housewife. (Or a househusband; we also devalue men who chose “women’s work”.) I can’t remember the last American fantasy I read that starred a housewife. I’m hoping there are some out there — recommendations welcome — but offhand, I can’t think of any. But housewives can be great characters, if they’re written right.

Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.

And yeah, I’ve got a dog in this fight. It annoys me when readers think Yeine isn’t strong because she doesn’t stab enough people. Or that Oree isn’t strong because she gets by with a little help from her friends. (I’ve complained before about the way “rugged individualism” has been romanticized — and to a degree masculinized — in American culture. Sometimes solving problems needs to be a team effort, and being good at teamwork is an often-overlooked strength in fantasy.) I’m not saying these characters couldn’t be stronger; there’s always room for improvement in my writing, IMO. But I don’t see a lot of rants about Nahadoth being weak because he can’t control himself, or Itempas being weak because he broke under pressure. Nobody complains that Madding doesn’t smite enough people. It’s only my female characters who get held to these rigorous standards, and judged harshly for their failure to conform.

I think there’s a simple way to fix this problem, though: more variety. Writers need to craft female characters who range across the full spectrum of women’s roles and behavior — and we need to find a way to depict the strength within these women regardless of how “feminine” they are, or aren’t, on the surface. By the same token, readers need to stop embracing only superficial examples of strength in women. We need more than ice queens, or femme fatales, or feisty gun-toting redheads juggling harems of men, or mighty-thewed chainmail bra-wearing Conanettes. We also need librarians and nurses — or loremistresses and doulas, if you prefer. And women who are surviving abusive relationships, and women who can’t have children or don’t want any and aren’t defined by either, and mothers who aren’t perfect. Women who are crooked-but-well-meaning politicians, women who are underappreciated lab assistants, women who start their own businesses and fail, and women who are thaumaturgists by day and kindergarten schoolteachers by night. Women who like dressing in men’s uniforms, and who can wield a chainsaw like a Ginsu knife, and who think anatomy and physiology is the coolest subject evar, and who can cook and sew and give a roomful of thugs a beatdown… Basically, we need more women like Sunako, whose strength comes from something inside her. I want to see female characters who are judged strong based on their choices, their determination, and their refusal to be limited by what others think — not what they look like or do for a living/hobby.

This isn’t too much to ask, is it?

* Using American here because a) it’s what I know, and b) we’re talking about English-language fantasy, and the bulk of that is published in the US

Think Galacticon

Just recovering from a whirlwind weekend in Chicago for Think Galacticon 3, a self-described radical leftist science fiction con, for which I was one of this year’s Notable Guests. (The other was community organizer, activist, and all-around cool chica Adrienne Maree Brown. Y’know how you get that instant “friend” vibe from someone? Yeah, that was us.) This was my first time doing the guest of honor thing, and it was a nice way to cut my teeth on it — and fascinating, to get exposed to concepts I haven’t before, like anarchist organizational development. (Yes, anarchists can organize — quite effectively, too.) The panels were good “thinky” stuff, which I love — frex, I ran a panel on Servitude in Fantasy, partly using the enslaved gods of 100K as an example. Also, it was right in the middle of downtown Chicago, which was a real treat! So in a couple of years — it’s a biannual con — check it out!

Also, this is the text of my Notable Guest speech (cutting for length). It’s my first-ever guest speech, so apologies for its ramblyness. The folks at TG seemed to like it okay.
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Curious Cabinets, Steampunk Mammoths, and Galactic Thinking

Stuff happening in Noraland lately:

-The Thackery T Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is almost out! This unusual anthology furthers the mythos of the good professor, which some may recall having visited before. There’s work in this one by China Mieville, Minister Faust, Charles Yu, and many, many more — and of course, Yours Truly. Preorder today!

-Another forthcoming: The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, for which the ToC has just been released. My story The Effluent Engine will be in it as a reprint. And there’s lots more cool work therein, by many cool authors. Woot!

-And this weekend, I am in Chicago, at the small-but-mighty Think Galacticon, for which I am one of the Notable Guests. I’m having a lot of fun so far. Just gave my first con speech! They do day-memberships, so if you want to come tomorrow or Sunday, you still can.

Locus Roundtable on, er, Me

Locus, that nice magazine that just gave me a big shiny award, also does other cool things. Who knew? Like, they have a series called Roundtables, in which they ask a bunch of writers, reviewers, and other literary folk to chat about a particular work or topic. And — starting before the award, actually — they decided to talk about me.

Disclosure: I’m on the Roundtable list, but I obviously bowed out of this conversation. So a couple of the folks there have met me in real life, one (Rachel Swirsky) knows me quite well, and the rest I only know online — but I do know. Regardless, they didn’t stint at applying a critical eye to my stuff, though they also praised what they liked. They even introduced me to some ideas I hadn’t considered (like a New York fantasy novel… hmm…). It feels kind of like being in a writing group of people who’re critting not just a single book, but everything I’ve ever written.

For. Six. Pages.

::stares at monitor for a moment::

::comes out of catatonia::

…Anyway, go read it. It’s good stuff.

Nebula Awards Interview

I didn’t win at the Nebs this year, but they’re the gift that keeps on giving nevertheless. SFWA’s got a lovely interview posted with me that I did while I was in France. An excerpt:

In writing Book One, what was the hardest part? The easiest?

Probably the political intrigue was hardest, because it interested me the least. I’ve written stories whose focus/purpose was politics, and when that’s what I intend, I enjoy writing it — the forthcoming Dreamblood novels are all politics, all the time — but in this case my purpose was to play with mythological archetypes. I suspect some readers wanted the opposite — more politics, less myth. But I wanted to write something inspired not by oh, George R. R. Martin or J. R. R. Tolkien, but by the myths and epics of old: Zeus’ tragicomic love affairs with mortal men and women; Nephthys, the Egyptian goddess who caused the Nile to flood by screwing around with her sister’s husband; the endless adventures of tricksters like Anansi and Loki and Coyote and Inari; the moon goddess Chang’e, who got turned mortal as fallout when her husband killed nine of the Jade Emperor’s sons… there’s just so much cool stuff there to play with. How can mere politics compare?

I was jetlagged and entranced by the French countryside while I answered these! So enjoy.

BEST FIRST NOVEL

LOCUS AWARD
LOCUS AWARD
LOCUS AWAAAAAAARD

Never Judge a Book By Its… Title.

A friend sent me this link to an article at the Awl in which four literary writers talk about their reactions to editorial title changes. An example, from author Suzanne Morrison re her book Yoga Bitch:

A lot of writers think their editors are crazy when they try and change their titles, but I didn’t. I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I had been worrying about the same thing. In writing the story as a book, deeper themes emerged that hadn’t been present in the play; fear of death, yearning for faith, the hunt for something real. I was as worried as my editor that these more earnest aspects of the book would confuse or disappoint readers looking for a light, edgy, sardonic tale. I imagined a woman in skinny jeans and halter top reading about my secret yearning for God and faith and throwing the book underfoot to poke holes in its cover with her stiletto heels: I was promised bitchy! This isn’t bitchy!

::waha:: I have to confess, I had the same worries about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — which, As You Know, Bob, was once called The Sky God’s Lover. Back when I first came up with that title (12-ish years ago), I was worried. It was meant to be a double-/triple-entendre (there are two sky gods, and three lovers; it’s a reference to the Gods’ War being a lovers’ quarrel), but I feared that it would a) make SFF readers dismiss it as romance, which would be easy since even my full name could do that, and b) make romance readers angry because it wasn’t romance. I imagined a woman in practical flats throwing the book underfoot and declaring, I was promised a lover! What’s this polyamorous shit? And why do two of the lovers hate each other? And so on. I imagined the stomped-upon book then being sniffed at by a sneaker-wearing man who wouldn’t even bother to pick it up: Oh, my. I believe that novel might be… girly. He’d then walk off in a huff.

Still, it was the best title I could come up with, so I ran with it. The original titles of all three novels were The Sky God’s Lover, The Bright God’s Bane, and The Broken God’s Get. And I’d labeled the trilogy as a whole a somewhat hippieish “Earth and Sky”, though I was waffling between that and “the War of Earth and Sky” because I thought fantasy trilogy titles needed more words. (OK, not really. I was actually just trying to capture the feel of old-school epics, a la “the Epic of Gilgamesh” and “the Sundiata Cycle”. But also, I thought it needed more words.)

When the book sold (the first book was finished when I sold it; was still working on the next two), my editor let me know they might need to do a name change, for the exact reasons that I’d worried about: the title made it sound like something it wasn’t. I wasn’t privy to the discussions about the title between Orbit’s folks; I gather it was a joint discussion among several people. But then my editor asked me how I felt about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which had been suggested by Orbit’s publishing director, Tim Holman. I fricking loved it; it solved so many of the problems of the old title! But it also carried some baggage of its own. I pointed out that the story wasn’t really about the kingdoms, after all; there was a reason I wanted the gods mentioned in the title. “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is just the name of the world — a la “the Entire” of Kay Kenyon’s “The Entire and the Rose” quartet, just a grandiose name for “everything under the sun” — which readers would only realize once they started reading the book. I also worried that the new title would obscure the breadth of the tale, making it sound more small-scale than it is: a story about the kingdoms of humankind, rather than the way humans navigate in a universe of gods. I envisioned a reader of indeterminate gender stomping on the book with cherry-red Doc Martens and shrieking, I was promised kingdoms! Where are the other 99,998?

Amusingly, it did get that reaction from a few readers, though not nearly as many as I’d feared. Many more told me that the very reason they’d picked up the book was because of the title — not because it promised numerical kingdomy goodness, but because of its grandiosity and the implication of great scale. It’s impossible for any fantasy novel to focus on a hundred thousand kingdoms, or anywhere near that many — so most readers who picked it up seem to have correctly intuited that the story was about something more than just kingdom-level politics.

Retitling the other two books in the series was a given after that; the original titles had all been meant to go together, since they fit the whole “the something-god’s something” pattern. So since the folks at Orbit had hit it out of the park with the first book, I gave them carte blanche to come up with whatever they wanted for books 2 and 3. I did suggest some titles — trying to play on the “the something-number of nouns” pattern, I experimented with The Million Shadowed Streets and The Single Shining Star for books 2 and 3… but thankfully they didn’t use those. In retrospect, they’re a little cheesy.

Then I sold the Dreamblood books — a duology that, until recently, I’d been calling “the Tales of the Dreaming Moon”. Originally the first book was simply titled, Dreamblood — which, if you’re familiar with the world, was simply the name of one of the forms of magic used in the land of Gujaareh, based on the four humors of Egyptian/Greek/Roman medical/alchemical antiquity. Not so bad — but the second book was going to be called Dreambile, which some of my early readers declared “gross”. Eh, yeah, I could kind of see that. So when my editor decided to go with Reaper for the first book and Conqueror for the second — you’ve probably seen some mentions of that in the marketing thus far — I was pleased, because those were better. But still not quite there, somehow. So she sent me a list of alternate suggestions, but none of them leapt out at me. I sent some counter-suggestions; they were “meh” too. I felt kind of like Urban Waite, in the Awl article:

You wake up in the morning with a list of fifty titles next to your bed, and go to sleep with every one of them crossed off, while trying to think up the next day’s list. It becomes a process. It goes on for a month, this daily grind of panning for a title, hoping against all odds for just a small piece of gold.

…and after a few rounds of this I just gave up. I was tired. I had one book to write and another two to revise, and a hardcore day job, and family drama to deal with, and so on. Frankly, that’s why books have publishers: to do all the marketing-related stuff — titles are marketing — that authors don’t have the time or energy to do. (I don’t know if I’ll ever do self-publishing for that very reason; it sounds like a great whopping pain in the ass, when all I want to do is write.) I told them I’d go with whatever they chose. So eventually Devi sent me The Killing Moon… and I liked it. At more than “meh” level! But she was stuck for what to name the second book. So although I’d kind of written off the whole process, I sent back a short list of suggestions that I didn’t really care about, and appended, “Oh, and what about, I dunno, The Shadowed Sun to play off the pattern of the first book?” — since that book is set more in the desert beyond Gujaareh, and is a darker book than the first one, involving a plague of nightmares and cheery stuff like that. I didn’t think that one would work for her, honestly. I’d just sort of pulled it out of my ass. But to my utter and absolute shock, she liked it; for the first time, I’d picked a title that stuck. We had a duology.

I say all this to preface: I run into people all the time who ask me whether it bothers me to change the titles of my books. And the answer is: no. If naming the first book of the Inheritance Trilogy Penobscott, the Grzylwazl of the Stars would sell it, then so be it. (OK, I might be a little squinchy about it, but if it sold, I’d get over it.) I care more about titles with respect to my short stories, because short stories are so short that titles can and often do act as part of the narrative. But for novels, titles are just marketing. So I was glad to read this Awl article, in which fellow authors confide their own fears and frustrations and resignations, because now I know this is just part of being a published writer. You learn to care most about what you can control, attach your ego to the things that matter. You learn that the superficialities are just that.

So nowadays I’m always a little bemused when I meet readers who tell me how much they love (or hate) the titles of my books, or when they get up in arms about the presence or absence of kingdoms and lovers. I like the titles too, because the books are selling. I’m also bemused to think back on myself as a younger writer, who spent hours agonizing over how many words should be in a fantasy series title. It could be worse, I think at those people, at my younger self. It could be “Penobscott”.