Category Archives: Fantasy

The Faceless Ones (Skulduggery Pleasant #3)

The chronicle of my retirement life continues with a short review of The Faceless Ones by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Teleporters are being murdered. (These are people who can do what a Star Trek transporter does but without the transporter.) Who is killing them and why are the questions skeletal detective Skullduggery Pleasant and his teenage assistant Valkyrie Cain tackle in this third full length novel in the series. Given the title, I don’t suppose it’s a spoiler to say it all has to do with bringing about the return of the Faceless Ones.
This, like the others I’ve read so far, is an enjoyable adventure. It has lots of witty banter and loads of “action” (i.e. superpower hand-to-hand fighting). The characters are distinct and pleasantly quirky, and the plot makes about as much sense as any other fantasy story. It’s a good, quick read. I quite enjoyed it. So, on to the next book in the series….

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Playing With Fire (Skullduggery Pleasant #2)

I spend a lot of my retirement reading, so, it’s time for another book review. My copy of this one is part of a 9-book boxed set that I bought recently. I think I got a very good deal. It originally sold for £71.91, which equates to about $90.00 US. I paid $58.83. I’m not sure why I’m sharing that, but I do love a bargain. (It’s probably not healthy, but I base a fair amount of my diet around what’s on BOGO sale (buy one get one free) at the supermarket.)

Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The skeleton detective and his teenage apprentice are back for their second adventure together. This time, they need to stop a sorcerer from bringing back the Faceless Ones (like a bunch of evil gods). Unfortunately, he has minions, magic armor, and possibly an ally (or at least an informant) in the local magical law enforcement organization. The good guys are fun. The bad guys are thoroughly despicable. There’s lots nasty villainous types, loads of witty banter, and several (sometimes too prolonged) superpower fight scenes. This series doesn’t pretend to be great literature. Actually, it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, which I quite appreciate. My taste in fantasy leans heavily to the light side. This doesn’t have the kinds of insights or real world relevance you often find in a Terry Pratchett novel (for example), but it’s still a quite enjoyable read.


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The Library of the Unwritten

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been said that everyone has a book in them, a story only they can write, and although the vast majority of these remain unwritten, all are shelved in a library in Hell. Claire is spending her afterlife as its librarian, presumably for her sins. It’s become something of a routine job for her until an unwritten book escapes and she goes to Earth to retrieve it, and she is then confronted by a fallen angel who mistakenly assumes she’s there for something else entirely, which turns out to be true, although she didn’t know it at the time.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable tale. It reminds me of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch in that it’s fairly witty, imaginative, has a certain charm, and features mythological characters from the Abrahamic religions and gives them a bit of personality. I found it to be a very good read.



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How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (The Thorne Chronicles, #1)How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.

It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.

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The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Bedouin girl comes down with a mysterious malady, and her father brings her to an unscrupulous magic maker with hope of buying a cure. Centuries later, an unlikable man wants a wife, so he goes to an unscrupulous magic maker to have one made out of clay. . . . Although not necessarily in that order. These events, relayed in flashbacks, provide the backstory of a meeting between a golem bride and a jinni in New York City around 1900. The jinni has no memory of how he got there, or of anything else for the last thousand years. The golem was born only a few days ago. Each is trying to find their place in this strange new world when a chance encounter evolves into a strange friendship between them.
The golem’s plight is especially engaging. She essentially has to invent what she is on her own, figure out if and how to interact with others, and decide on a course for her future. I found the jinni character less interesting overall, but he has his moments. I’m not a fan of flashbacks, and there are a lot in this book, but they’re handled well, providing essential background without confusing or disrupting the flow of the main story (much). Pacing is good, for the most part, although it bogs down a bit in the middle with more emotional turmoil and soap opera angst than seemed necessary. All in all, a good story.

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Book Review – The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

SerpentVeniceTitle: The Serpent of Venice
Author: Christopher Moore
Genre: Fantasy

This is a fun, irreverent comedy about a fool (jester) caught up in political/commercial intrigue in a fantasy version of Venice of the late thirteenth century. The story is based (mainly) on various Shakespearian plays. With this as a starting point, one might expect some sophisticated humor. This is not what Moore provides. In some ways, this is refreshing because one need not be an English major or historian to enjoy the book, but it does tend to reach fairly far down to appeal to a baser audience. The characters, without exception, have the emotional maturity and self-restraint of hormonally supercharged adolescents. Their juvenile antics make them funny in the same way some people find clowns funny, but it is a superficial kind humor, which, in this case, relies on vulgar language, sex, a few fart references, and boob flashes. It’s crude, but it manages to float (just) above the shallows of the metaphorical comic cesspit.

I can’t say this book is for everyone, but it should appeal to readers who enjoy humor of the South Park or Family Guy variety. Although I am not much of a fan of these (or TV in general), I enjoyed it.

More on the Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF-Fant2I wrote my original post on this subject in April 2012. At the time, I realized that some people were hazy on the distinction between these two genres of speculative fiction, but I had no idea it was controversial. I’m still not sure it is, but the question can certainly lead to some heated debate if you stray from the main subject far enough. This is what happened in a Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club member’s chat entitled, innocuously enough, Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Who knew such a question could be so divisive?

The Goodreads discussion began on December 8, 2012 with this innocent enough distinction:

  • Fantasy – magic and/or supernatural creatures and/or a made-up world
  • Science fiction – advanced technology (usually set in the future)

That was over ten months ago, and the thread briefly returned to sanity the past weekend after a few months abroad, although I fear it may reverse course yet again. The discussion continues. It is now the length of an epic novel. I’m not kidding. By copying and pasting one page to Word and having it count the number of words, and then multiplying that by the number of pages, I estimated there were over 126,000 words in the posts that are still showing. Depending on the font and page size, this could be as much as 500 pages in a novel, and it does not count the posts written by one of the more active participants, which he afterwards deleted (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In general, the above definitions provide a fair generalization, and most people agreed on the basic distinction between the two genres. Participants in the discussion offered quotes and aphorisms both famous and obscure, such as:

  • “…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” ~ Isaac Asimov
  • “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction: the improbable made possible; fantasy: the impossible made probable…”  ~ Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
  • “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” ~ Robert J. Sawyer
  • “A true SF writer is allowed only one unexplained scientific ‘miracle’ per story. Beyond that, SF becomes Fantasy.” ~ A few people participating were familiar with this or something much like it, but no one was entirely sure where it originated.

But wait a second. Don’t those definitions reflect a Western bias toward science (as one participant suggested)?

I don’t personally think so. Science may not be the only method of understanding the world we live in, but it works better than reading entrails, trying to see portents in the positions of stars, prophecies of various kinds, and all the other stuff people have used. This may seem like a cultural bias, but it’s just a recognition of what has worked reasonably well (so far) and what hasn’t. But that’s not really the point. Science fiction implies the use of science. That’s what makes it science fiction.

There seemed to be no violent disagreement over this, so why did the discussion go on?

Well, one of the problems soon becomes obvious when you try to apply the definitions to actual books. People brought up examples of stories they suspected might exist in a gray area between the two. There may be a reasonably clear academic difference between science fiction and fantasy, but it is often difficult to assign one label or the other to a specific story. This is because authors mix genres. One work of speculative fiction may include both science fiction and fantasy elements (along with romance, history, and other things). In cases like this, what genre best applies?

(The discussion did not unfold as linearly as the following account may suggest, but it remained civil… for the most part… at first.)

There was some discussion about what should be considered ‘science’ in science fiction. Some argued that FTL (faster than light) vehicles, time travel, antigravity, and other highly speculative technology should be considered fantasy because they are probably impossible. These, they claimed, were no more ‘scientific’ than hobbits, demons, or dragons. A related point was that since our understanding of reality is imperfect, we can’t know for sure what is possible.

Someone suggested the concept of a continuous line between science fiction and fantasy, that many speculative fiction stories fall somewhere between the two ends, and therefore could be placed in either genre. Others disagreed. They insisted that it is simple to make a clear call by being stringent about the exclusion of fantasy elements in science fiction. It seemed to bother no one to have a fantasy story include science-like elements, but some people argued that once an element of fantasy entered a science fiction story, that story should be considered fantasy, rather the way adding one red towel to a wash-load of white towels turns everything pink. Such stories could, however, possibly be labeled in a subgenre of fantasy such as ‘science-fantasy.’

There was some talk about the relationship of science fiction and fantasy to other genres, including romance, horror, comedy, and even history and religion. Once religion entered the discussion, all hell broke loose (figuratively speaking). One participant (the one who originally brought religion into the discussion and who later deleted all of his posts) said a plot hinging on divine miracles should not make a fictional story fantasy because many people believe in them. I think that was the point he was trying to make, anyway. It was never clear to most of us, but he did succeed in diverting the conversation onto religion for a long time and ended up repeatedly insulting a number of other people. Finally, a moderator intervened and he went away. That was a few days ago. The discussion became far more sedate after this, but he returned on Tuesday and things got lively for a while. The moderator intervened again early Wednesday morning. The poster deleted all his new posts and the moderator banned further references to religious texts from the discussion.

I think part of the problem, as someone in the forum pointed out, was that different people were using the same words but held different ideas about what they meant. That made sense to me, so I provided the following definitions from Wikipedia: (It’s not a definitive reference source, but it’s the first one that came up, and I felt that the definitions I found there would suffice.)

‘Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.’

The same source defines fiction as ‘the form of any work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not real, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author.’

At the time, I did not feel it was necessary to define fantasy, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll do so now (again using Wikipedia). ‘Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.’

I did not participate in any way in writing these definitions, but I do consider them a fine place to begin. Judging from recent experience, I suspect some people may find them controversial. I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything, no matter how straightforward, that enjoys universal agreement. Be that as it may, a word means what people agree it means. These definitions seem common enough, and I think they provide a way to better define what can be considered science fiction and, by exclusion, what can be considered fantasy.

First of all, I want to stress that the two things we are differentiating are categories of fiction. They are made up. They aren’t real. Some confusion may have occurred in the Goodreads discussion because the word ‘fantasy’ is also used as an antonym of ‘reality,’ and so, by implication, science fiction should be more ‘real’ than fantasy. The question we were attempting to answer wasn’t about fantasy as opposed to reality, though, but fantasy as a genre of fiction. While it is true that science fiction must be grounded in science whereas fantasy can float free of any anchor to mundane reality, this does not imply that everything in science fiction must be possible or that everything in fantasy must be impossible. Both are fiction. They both tell stories about people and things that do not exist, things that may not even be able to exist. This is true for both genres. (Yes, I’m disagreeing with the late great Isaac Asimov on this. It’s not something I do lightly, but I have a reason.)

To define science fiction, it’s important to understand what science is and what it is not. Science is not a collection of known facts. It is a process for revealing facts about the cosmos, or at least for identifying things that can be regarded as true. The popularity of an idea or the number of believers it has is irrelevant. That’s not how science works.

The defining characteristic of science as opposed to other ways of trying to understand the natural universe is the concept of systematic observation and testing, the scientific method, and this, I think, can provide the key for a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy.

If, within the context of a story, it is stated or implied that all the fantastic things described—spaceships, androids, warp drive, whatever—came about using the procedures of science, it can be science fiction. In the world of the story, these things are natural (as opposed to supernatural) and explicable to science. Science fiction requires an anchor in this world, but to insist that everything in science fiction should be possible, some even argue probable, is far too restrictive, I think.

Fantasy, on the other hand, can include anything—magic wands, dragons, mystical powers—anything, without any implication of how they came to be or how they relate to the world the reader calls home. In this sense, science fiction is more restrictive than fantasy.

But this allows things that are clearly impossible to enter science fiction. Surely that can’t be right, right?

Remember, this is fiction. Impossible things happen all the time in all genres of fiction, and we may not even notice. Take, for example, a car exploding after a crash. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. But you’ve seen it in fiction. In the real world, a car might catch fire, but unless there’s a bomb (or explosive chemicals or the like) inside, it’s not going to explode. The probability of the events described in a speculative fiction story happening in the real world is irrelevant. The story doesn’t take place in the real world. But the rules of science must apply within the context of the fictional story for it to be considered science fiction because those rules are science. Without them, the scientific element of the story does not exist and it’s not science fiction.

But this leads to another point. Not all science fiction is created equal. If something in a science fiction story violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s almost certainly bad science, which means it’s probably bad science fiction, although not everyone is going to notice, just as they don’t notice that cars don’t explode on their own outside of stories. Sometimes a bit of scientific implausibility does not hurt. If an author wants to include dragons of the big, fire-breathing and flying variety in a book, and provides techno-babble to explain how this is possible, many readers will let it pass. An aeronautical engineer probably won’t, but that does not mean it’s not science fiction. It may even be a great story. But take the example of clockwork robots winding themselves (or one another for that matter). I’ve actually seen this in a couple stories. The fact that this is scientifically impossible does not, by itself, mean that the story is not science fiction, but it does suggest that it is not good science fiction. It goes from scientifically implausible, which I’m willing to let pass for the sake of an otherwise good story, to scientifically impossible, which I’m usually not, with one notable exception. If the science fiction story is intended to be funny or intentionally absurd, then I’m Okay with scientific impossibilities for the sake of humor. Scientifically impossible things in a humorous novel remind us that the story is just a story. It doesn’t take itself seriously and neither should the reader.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, two short proposed definitions:

  • Fantasy is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes forces or entities for which no natural and testable explanation is implied within the context of the story.
  • Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes creatures or technologies of a speculative nature that are governed by natural laws based on those of the real world and which are scientifically explicable within the context of the story.

What I tried to do here is separate the two genres, making the application of science the key differentiating point while still allowing for highly speculative and varied worlds to be included in the realm of science fiction. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I am sure this won’t end the discussion.
 

Related Post: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

 For Further Reading: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? (by David Brin)

Book Review – Gaspar the Thief by David A. Lindsay

Gaspar1Title: Gaspar the Thief
Author:
David A. Lindsay
Publisher:
David A. Lindsay
First Published:
2012
Genre:
Fantasy Adventure

This is not so much a single novel as it is a series of related adventures centered on the thief, Gaspar; the lovely Marna, a fellow thief and Gaspar’s volatile love interest; and their ‘spellbroker’ associate, Hubris. Their escapades (most often not as successful as they hope) and misadventures provide the basis for the ten chapters of the book.

The characters are engaging, but not exactly likeable. Their highest goal seems to be to abscond with as much loot as safely as possible, with little compassion over the fate of the loot’s current owner. Gaspar and his companions aren’t murderous rogues, but they are clearly rogues.

Written from a limited omniscient point of view, the prose, grammar, and vocabulary in this book are a notch above the norm that I’ve personally found in light fantasy. The characters are uncomplicated but not stupid. The world building is quite good and creates a believable fantasy setting full of dirty cities, filthy gutters, crumbling castles, guilds, inns, taverns, and the occasional bawdy house.

This book is not so much comedy as it is light fantasy. The setting and characters reminded by of the Thraxas books by Martin Scott (AKA Martin Millar) — kind of a late Medieval world with personality-flawed characters, magic, and mythical creatures.

I can’t say this book is innovative in any way, but it is an enjoyable read. I recommend it for readers of light fantasy.

Book Review – The Adventure Tournament by Nicholas Andrews

Adventure TournamentTitle: The Adventure Tournament
Author: Nicholas Andrews
Publisher:
Stray Pubishing
First Published:
2011
Genre:
Fantasy Adventure

This is a Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy with a team of adventurers competing with others to overcome monsters in a series of contest events. A unifying thread of political intrigue and even a touch of romance provide the plot.

The heroes are likeable and the bad guys have motives beyond just wanting to take over the world (Mwa-ha-ha). The name of place where the story begins, Foeny Balognia, adds to the sense of comic adventure, letting the reader know this is not to be taken too seriously. There is nothing deep about this— no cultural satire or philosophical insights, but the prose, editing, pacing, and other technical details are done well, making for an enjoyable, light read.

My only issue is that serendipitous events, such as finding a ladder or a jar laying around just when such things would come in handy, or happening to be on the right rooftop that just happens to collapse at the right time, strained my ability to suspend disbelief. Other than that, this is a fine story. I can recommend it.

Book Review – The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

ThursdayNext8_usacover

Title: The Woman Who Died A Lot
Author: Jasper Fforde
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

It always takes me a while to get into a Thursday Next novel because the setting is so odd. It’s a world, well, a couple of different, overlapping worlds actually, in which the line between fiction and reality is much blurrier than it is in our mundane world. If you wish to know more about these, read the earlier Thursday Next books. Now, on with our review.

This book is set in Fforde’s alternate England. It is not as strange as the book world setting, but even here fiction affects reality in a very, well, real way. Opinion and belief can change what happens and even what exists. For example, in this book, belief that an asteroid will impact Earth and cause human extinction changes the probability that it will occur. The more people that think it will happen, the more likely it is that it really will. When children create imaginary friends, those friends actually have a separate existence. When people believe in a vengeful god, it reveals itself and begins smiting.

This happens in our world too, of course. Fiction can change reality here, but it does so far more subtly. In Fforde’s alternate version, the effects are direct, obvious, and calculable.

The unique settings of Fforde’s books especially appeal to me. It makes them different. It takes a little more mental gymnastics to bend my mind around a Thursday Next story than it does with most others, and a good mental stretch always feels great.

As with the previous Thursday Next novels, this one includes literary references, some of which I’m sure I missed. These are like special gifts to the bibliophiles who read his books, and from what I’ve seen in other reviews, they are duly appreciative.

As for the plot, well, it sort of has one. It’s about Thursday and what she does Next (sorry – lame pun). Actually, this book is more of a series of threads. There is the mystery of the alternate Thursdays (Not every other Thursday — fake Thursdays that sometimes replace her.) There is the underlying question of the Dark Reading Matter and what it is. There is the lingering mind worm that makes Thursday believe she has daughter she doesn’t actually have. There is the suspense surrounding a scheduled God smiting and the question of whether or not Thursday’s daughter can get the smite shield working in time. There is the thread about the evil Goliath Corporation and its intentions. And then there is the human story of Thursday getting old and feeble and her kids growing up and leading their own lives. I suspect the story takes this form because it is intended primarily as a way of setting up the next Next novel. It hangs together well enough on it’s own, though.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable read. If you are a Thursday Next fan, this one is a must. It ties up some loose ends, sets up some new characters, and foreshadows yet another odd setting — The Dark Reading Matter.

Book Review – Spell of the Witch World by Andre Norton

This is an anthology of three short stories, Dragon Scale Silver, Dream Smith, and Amber out of Quayth. I read many Andre Norton books years ago when I was in high school, so when I saw the free Kindle promotion for this one, I grabbed a copy.

These are typical sword and sorcery stories, and, quite honestly, they were just all right. I remember staying up late into the night reading Andre Norton books as a teenager, but the stories here did not tempt me to do that. I don’t think it’s the stories, though. I’m quite sure my tastes have changed.

The stories are predictable, the prose adequate, and the characters unexceptional. The Kindle version of this book appears to have been hastily assembled. I found several typos caused, I suspect, from relying on an optical character reader to digitize the book and inadequate proofreading.

As a freebie, this collection is a fine introduction to Andre Norton’s fantasy books, but I cannot recommend spending $2.99 for it. There are several better novels and short story collections available for Kindle in that price range from both old favorites and new authors.

Book Review – The Wonderful Visit by H.G. Wells

First Edition Cover courtesy of Wikipedia

First Edition Cover

In a parallel dimension, creatures of myth and fantasy live their magical lives without care, or pain, or need of food. One day, a rift opens, and one of its inhabitants falls through into late Victorian England. It’s an angel. It’s not really much of an angel. Its only miraculous ability seems to be an unnatural talent for playing the violin, but it does have wings and other angelic features.

The local English vicar, Mr. Hilyer, hears rumors of sightings of a large, strange bird in the area, and, being an amateur ornithologist, he does what all good naturalists of the time would do. He grabs his gun and heads out to bag the beast to be catalogued, stuffed, and added to his collection. The scene in which Wells describes this particular series of events had me cracking up. (This is one area in which I think modern society has made some progress.) Of course, Hilyer ends up shooting the angel and injuring its wing. After that, what’s a Victorian vicar to do other than apologize politely and invite the mythological winged gentleman to be his houseguest while he recovers?

First published in 1895, Wells does here what he is well known for — satirical comment on Victorian society. The angel, coming from an alternate reality that knows nothing of human culture, provides an outside perspective from which to examine it. Wells allows him to do so, and Mr. Angel’s innocent and nonjudgmental observations can be quite charming. At one point he asks, insofar as people do not like pain, why is it that they keep inflicting it on one another. Good question, I thought.

Biases about race, gender, and social class are dragged out for dry ridicule, as are such things as clothing styles, beliefs, values and other attitudes. In one scene, Wells, as narrator, pops in briefly to apologize to the reader for making a servant appear too much like a real person and promises that he’ll make sure they’re portrayed more accurately as mindless stereotypes in some future story. This cracked me up, too, but I suppose I’m easily amused.

From an outside perspective, these Victorian conventions all seem somewhat arbitrary, if not silly, but perhaps no more so than our current ones. (I’m sure you can imagine a few examples.) The point Wells is trying to make, I think, is one that cannot be made too often. Question your assumptions. Question your values. Do they make sense? What do they say about you? This advice is as good today as it was in 1895.

I suppose I could pick on a few things to criticize about the book. It could have been funnier; the satire could have been sharper, but somehow I think Wells was intentionally trying to be, if not subtle, and least not blatantly offensive. His audience, after all, included people who held the attitudes he was holding up for ridicule, and you don’t want to upset your readers too much. They might stop buying your books.

Both the beginning and the ending leave questions unanswered. How did the rift between dimensions open? Suddenly the angel simply appears here with no understanding of how. It leaves, presumably returning, in the same way, possibly taking with it a human housemaid, which it was previously explained does not happen. No one new ever shows up in the angel universe. No one is born, no one dies, and no one visits. Except for this, we don’t know much about the parallel dimension that is home for angels and hippogriffs and magical beings of other types.

That’s about as critical as I’m prepared to be. I found this book humorous and charming. Insofar as it is readily available free as an e-book, it is well worth the cost. (I snagged a freebie Kindle version from Amazon.) It is also worth the time it takes to read. I highly recommend it.

 Applicable Links:
The Wonderful Visit (Wikipedia entry)
The Wonderful Visit (Free on Project Gutenberg)

Book Review – Princeps by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

This is the fifth book in Modesitt’s Imager series and continues to follow the exploits of the imager/soldier/princeps/scholar, Quaeryt. (That’s his name. Don’t ask me how it’s pronounced.) In this book, he adds a couple more jobs to his resume, but to say what they are would be a spoiler. In fact, all I will say about the plot is that it is driven by strategy and tactics both political and military. Other than that, I’ll just mention a few things I liked most and least about the book.

(Note: The cover art on the left, which comes from the publisher, TOR, is slightly different from the hardcover version I read. The thing in Quaeryt’s right hand is a loaf of bread. In the hardcover edition, the loaf is wider and much shorter. I think the change was a good idea because, at a quick glance, a juvenile mind might think he’s holding something different on the one shown here.)

What I liked most:

  • The world building is great. There is attention to detail that makes the setting come to life. Political and economic systems are described well enough to make one feel as if this world could really function.
  • The main characters are vivid and distinguishable, and I liked them well enough to care about what happened to them. This is actually my number one criteria for fiction. If I don’t like at least one of the main characters in the first sixty or so pages, chances are, I’m not going to care what happens to them and may not finish reading the book. Quaeryt (however it’s pronounced) is likeable enough. He’s reasonably intelligent, honest, and has integrity. His wife, Vaelora, is less so. In fact, I found her a bit grating in places, but since she’s clever, young, normally thoughtful, and obviously smitten with Quaeryt, this can be forgiven.
  • The magic system is internally logical. As with all magic, one must suspend disbelief to accept it, but once you understand the principles and underlying assumptions, this one makes sense.

What I liked least:

  • I’m sure the systems used to measure time and distance also make sense, but as they are unfamiliar, they cause a drag to the story. When it is said that a ‘glass’ or a ‘quint’ passed (time measurements), I found myself pausing to try to remember how long that’s supposed to be. (I think a ‘glass’ is about two hours, but I could be wrong.) The measurements for days and months are less unfamiliar, but the names given to them sound like mock-French, which also causes the reader to pause to try to remember where in the week ‘Samedi’ or ‘Lundi’ fall, for example.
  • There is an overly large cast of characters with names, many of them unpronounceable. I understand that some of this is to make the world feel both strange and real, but between the number of characters and their names, it’s easy to get lost.
  • The prose and dialog tend to be a bit stiff, formal, and humorless for my taste. This is typical for epic fantasy adventure, though. If these novels were people, I’d say they are taking themselves far too seriously. Although I read almost as much fantasy as I do science fiction, this is one aspect of the epic fantasy subgenre that I don’t particularly care for. This is simply a matter of taste.

This is a long book, 496 pages in hardcover, and it does drag in places where the political intrigue and backbiting gets down into the weeds. The characters and story make it worth persevering through these rough spots, though.

I also noticed a few typos that slipped by TOR’s professional editors. That always happens, and in a book this long, it’s not surprising. I only mention it here because I’ve seen reviews where the number of typos and similar errors are mentioned as a sign of ‘unprofessionalism.’ This is especially true in reviews of self-published books, and I just wanted to mention that these slip by even traditional publishers, of which TOR is, in my opinion, one of the best.

Overall, the book is a good read, and if you’ve enjoyed the others in this series, this one won’t disappoint. Based on the ending, I would expect that Princeps will not be the last Imager novel.

Book Review – The God Engines by John Scalzi

This is a quick read by one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, but it’s not science fiction. It’s a space fantasy. At only 136 pages in hard cover, it can be easily read on a rainy afternoon, which is what I did. It is set in a universe in which gods have replaced science. Things people once did for themselves using technology have become the purview of gods. If you want to communicate across distances (like radio), you pray for it to happen. If you wish to travel to another planet, you compel a god imprisoned by your god to move your starship. Everything on the starships, communication, life support, engines… is god-powered. Nothing happens without the direct intervention of some god, and they are not doing it to be magnanimous. The gods do not serve man. Man serves them in their competition with other gods for believers and the faith that gives them power.

This book differs much from everything else I’ve read by John Scalzi. In addition to being fantasy rather than science fiction, it’s darker. The characters lack the ineffable charm that I’ve come to expect from Scalzi’s creations and there are few if any smiles invoked by the book. It includes a fairly detailed sex scene and graphic violence. I imagine it is intended as a social commentary but I can’t say the message it is trying to convey was clear to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed many of Scalzi’s other works including his ‘Old Man Goes to War’ series and ‘Fuzzy Nation.’ I’ve ordered ‘Redshirts’ and eagerly await its arrival. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this particular story much, but the setting and characters were interesting, and the art between the chapters of the hard cover edition are a nice addition. It kept me reading, but I much prefer Scalzi’s science fiction.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a brick and mortar bookstore near you, you are likely to find science fiction and fantasy grouped together in the same section of the store, probably labeled (logically enough) “Science Fiction / Fantasy,” and although they share some characteristics, there is, I think, a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.

Fantasy may be as old as speech. From the time we, well, not us specifically, I mean our ancestors, could communicate more than simple facts, people probably made up stories to explain the inexplicable, like where rain, thunder and babies come from. I’m talking about our earliest ancestors here, not those now living at a ’55-or-older’ community in south Florida, although they probably made up some good stories, too. The people I mean are those who first discovered that they could chip flint to make sharp points to put on the end of long sticks, which they then used to hunt for food and intimidate their neighbors who had wild cave-painting parties late into the night or played their music too loud. I can easily imagine them huddled around a fire, once they got around to discovering that, telling tales filled with imaginary creatures and mystical forces, which remain the defining characteristics of fantasy to this day. Fantasy is as old as mankind.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a relative upstart, a form of fiction that has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Science was an element in fiction as early as the Seventeenth Century, included in works by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis 1617), Johannes Kepler (Somnium 1634), and Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moone 1638). The term ‘science-fiction’ wasn’t coined until 1851 by the English author, William Wilson. The first known reference to ‘science-fiction’ appears in Chapter Ten of his book A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject, but it did not come into common use, apparently, until the 1930’s. I’m not quite that old, so I can’t say I have any first hand knowledge of this, but I have it on good authority that this is true (see references below).

It may be hard for us living in the 21st century to imagine, but people did not always regard the scientific method, that is, empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation, as the best way to understand things about the world. In many societies prior to the Enlightenment, reality was what your tradition, king, or priest said it was, and you had a much better chance at living to a ripe old age of about 40 by not questioning them. (The average European life expectancy in the 17th Century was 35.)

According to my old and somewhat tattered copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (you knew I’d include a dictionary definition in this somewhere, didn’t you?) science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” In other words, science fiction relies on a scientific foundation for the speculative elements of the story. The tone of such stories was originally a positive one, supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about the possibilities science creates. Wilson’s usage of the term in 1851 is in reference to the laudable goal of using science fiction to popularize real science. The best of the genre, in my opinion, still does this.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.

Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything — magic wands, vampires, dragons, demons, werewolves, genies, talking rabbits in waistcoats with pocket watches, … well, you get the idea. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific, naturalistic, post-Enlightenment perspective. The magical elements must be internally consistent, but they don’t need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that cannot be supported with plausible sounding techno-babble in scientific terms, then it is fantasy. Well known examples would include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and (my personal favorite) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

There are, of course, books that fall into a gray area and even merge these two genres. A term that has been applied to these is ‘science fantasy.’ An example would be Star Wars, which is mainly a fantasy adventure with some science fiction trappings. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Star Trek, which is mainly science fiction but with some fantasy thrown in. One of the science fiction elements is super-luminal space travel, which the various series explain is achieved through a matter/antimatter reaction creating a warp in space-time. The fantasy aspects of Star Trek include such things as the scientifically unexplained psychic abilities exhibited by Vulcans and Betazoids.

Although there are many exceptions, science fiction stories also tend to take place in an imagined future or futuristic setting while fantasy tends to be set in an imaginary past, often a medieval type setting. This is not always the case, of course. There seems to be a growing popularity for fantasy that is set in current times with stories such as Harry Potter and a plethora of vampire and zombie novels. The possible combinations of settings and mixtures of fantasy and science fiction elements are extensive, and many subcategories of both genres have been identified. I won’t go into these here because they are beside the point of this post, but if you are interested, SF Site put together a good list (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm).

When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of mystery, science, and history but known mostly for his science fiction, replied, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm) Although I am a great fan and admirer of Asimov, I think this statement is presumptuous because it implies that we know everything that is possible. I’m inclined to believe we don’t.

A distinction I like better was provided by the Canadian science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who I had the honor of chatting with at the 100 Year Starship Symposium hosted by DARPA in 2011. He said, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” (http://www.sfwriter.com/2007/08/difference-between-science-fiction-and.html) To expand on this just a bit, I believe he is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we can’t begin to explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present at least some backstory for how such things could exist and at least imply a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. Where did they come from? How might they work? What allowed them to evolve the way they did? Works of science fiction don’t need to answer such questions in any detail. They don’t require elaborate explanations in the stories, but the reader must feel that scientific explanations for them are possible. Somehow, the fictional marvels that are components of the plot or setting must link back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.

This is the key distinction. Fantasy does not require such things to have a basis in known science. Science fiction does. Science fiction, in the original sense of the term, is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. In this respect, it is almost the antithesis of Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, positing the existence of things science cannot explain or, quite possibly, deal with.

To appreciate the distinction between the two genres requires some knowledge of science, of course. Without it, the reader has no foundation for distinguishing between ideas that are plausible, unlikely, or almost certainly impossible from a scientific point of view. You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t need to have a firm grasp of general relativity or quantum mechanics (I certainly don’t), but you must have some familiarity with the major findings of science and an appreciation for how science approaches questions about the world through careful observation and experimentation. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” (Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979)

 This, I believe, may be the major cause of confusion about these two related but distinct genres. Scientific literacy, especially in America, could be better. If readers believe an opinion is the same as a theory or that intuition and insight are as likely to provide as reliable an answer to a question as controlled testing, then they will not be able tell the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Regular science fiction readers may be more scientifically astute than the general population and therefore more likely to understand the difference, although I know of no survey or study that has been done on this. I do know, at least from anecdotal evidence, that many current scientists and engineers were inspired by reading or watching science fiction when they were young, so at least in that respect, there is a connection.

But even people who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that telepathy is as likely as reliable cell phone coverage can read and enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking, mind stretching and evoke a sense of wonder. Both can take us to strange and fascinating worlds. There is a difference between the two, but you don’t need to recognize it to enjoy the tales. Personally, I would imagine they are more enjoyable if you do, but this is just my opinion. It’s not science.

 

Related Post: More on the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy (15 Oct. 2013)

 Select References:

(This article is cross-posted on 1889 Labs – The Future of Fiction: http://1889.ca/2012/04/the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/)

Announcing the Paperback Release of The Warden War

The Warden War

The Second Volume of Defying Fate

by
DL Morrese

 

His nation is headed for war, his father thinks he’s imagining things, and his mother still regards him as a child. How can Prince Donald convince the king that the real threat to his kingdom comes from his most trusted adviser? The young prince has only his wits, his courage, and his friends, including two ancient androids, one of which has four legs and barks.

~*~

Book Details:
Word Count: 85,500

Page Count: 335
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Paperback available from Amazon.com
E-book available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, & Smashwords

 The Warden War continues the quest begun by Prince Donald in The Warden Threat. His father, King Leonard of Westgrove, has been told that the neighboring kingdom of Gotrox has discovered a magical means to animate a mysterious and gigantic ancient stone warrior, the Warden of Mystic Defiance, which it plans to use it to spearhead an invasion of his country. Donald is convinced this is a hoax carefully crafted by his father’s chief adviser to bring about a war to gain control of Gotroxian resources. Donald is determined to thwart him. It will not be easy. Chief Adviser Horace Barter has resources, connections, influence, and the almost unquestioned trust of the king. Donald, sadly, has none of these.

He is not without some resources, though. Although he does not realize it, two of his friends, well, one of his friends and the dog that recently seems to have adopted him as its new master, are androids. They were left behind by an ancient commercial enterprise established on the planet centuries before and have now decided to assist humanity, starting with the prince. The best way to help, they believe, is to reactivate the almost omnipotent artificial intelligence that once ran the now defunct alien business project. This could be risky. One of the reasons it was shutdown two-thousand years ago was that it was quite insane, dangerously so.

~*~

Technically science fiction, the first two Warden novels are almost anti-fantasies, which poke a fair, or perhaps an unfair amount of good-natured fun at the serious tone and dependence on magic common to many epic fantasy adventure genre novels. Because they are loosely based on the U.S. buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they include elements of political and cultural satire as well. With their charming and truly likeable characters, witty, intelligent humor, and prose style blending humorous science fiction and epic fantasy elements, they are a fun read. I believe they will appeal to readers of these genres who may be looking for something fresh and different.

Announcing the Paperback Release of The Warden Threat

Great news! After several months of intensive effort and coordination, The Warden Threat is now available in paperback!

The Warden Threat

by
DL Morrese

 The Kingdom of Westgrove faces a grave threat, but is it the one the king’s advisers are warning him of?

 Prince Donald, the idealistic third son of the king of Westgrove, believes he may be the only one able to protect his country from an invasion spearheaded by an ancient and massive magical stone warrior known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. Donald, unfortunately, is woefully unprepared. His only real understanding of such things comes from his reading of adventure stories. When he finds an ancient scroll he believes may allow him to take control of the mysterious Warden, he eagerly takes on the task. He dreams of saving the kingdom and becoming a hero like those in his epic adventure stories. To his dismay, his quest turns out to be nothing like he imagined. He finds the stories in his library seriously understate the complexities and hardships involved. He also soon realizes that the real world can be much more confusing than fictional ones and that the hero is not necessarily predestined to save the day.

This ‘laugh-out-loud’ parody is a unique book. Technically science fiction, it is almost an anti-fantasy, which pokes a fair, or perhaps an unfair amount of good-natured fun at the serious tone and dependence on magic common to many epic fantasy adventure genre novels. With its charming and truly likeable characters, witty, intelligent humor, and prose style blending humorous science fiction and epic fantasy elements, The Warden Threat is a delight. It is sure to appeal to readers of these genres who may be looking for something fresh and different.

 Book Details:
Word Count: 85,500
Page Count: 340
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Paperback available from Amazon.com
E-book available from Amazon.com & Smashwords

 Review Extracts:

  • The Warden Threat: “it’s laugh-out-loud funny”
  • “the grammar is refreshingly precise and the vocabulary, well, scrumptious”
  • “The characters are believable and well-rounded”
  • “the whole book is filled with little gems”
  • “shows the influence of Terry Pratchett in style and current events … easy to read, but hardly simplistic.”
  • “a lighthearted epic fantasy parody with a science fiction twist that kept me engaged and entertained from page one.”

Relaunch of the Warden books is a go!

The revised editions of the first two Warden books are out now in e-book formats. It’s been an educational experience and an enjoyable one, for the most part. Okay, there were a few times when I wanted to bang my head on the keyboard and more than a few times when I swore at some of the software for having less than intuitive interfaces. In those cases, I got peeved when the programs did what I mistakenly told them to do instead of what wanted them to do. I believe I’ve conquered them all now or we’ve finally come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Basically, this amounts to me not asking them to do anything terribly complicated and them not annoying me.

I can’t say how often I went through each of these books. It has been a few dozen times, at least. I would love to say that I have caught and mercilessly squashed every typo, misspelling, and grammar and punctuation error. I will tell you I’ve eliminated all of those I saw. However, I have come to suspect that such things are both sentient and malicious and reproduce once I close the document because they have a mysterious tendency to reappear. I did catch one error in one of the dictionaries I was using. The word is crenellated. Yes, it does have two Ls. The dictionary provided with Open Office has it with one, and it is WRONG!

With the revision of these books, I’ve updated a few other things. There are new blurbs and author bios for the books at both Smashwords and Amazon. Based on several articles and posts I’ve read, it I have finally been convinced that $2.99 is the appropriate price for them. Some suggest it should be higher, but I am resisting.

Another new feature with the relaunch is a dedicated page for each book on this website. You can find them under the “Novels” tab. Each of these provide a brief summary, pictures of the covers, some questions and answers, and the first scene from the book. There is also a tab called ‘The Warden’s World.’ Here you can find ‘wiki’ type information on some of the places and things mentioned in the novels, including maps, flags, and descriptions.

As for the books themselves, nothing is new and everything is better. The stories have not changed. All the great characters, insights, and humor that my first readers found so enjoyable remain. There is no change to the plot or the ending. What has changed is how the stories are told. The prose is tighter and more professional, and the manuscripts have been thoroughly edited and repeatedly proofread. The covers are also new, and I’d like to thank my son Alex for posing for the picture. He says he looks goofy, but I think he looks great! 🙂

My plan now is to make both of these available as trade paperbacks. I’ll post more on how that is going when I know.

In the meantime, I invite you to sample the first scenes, new covers, and other information I’ve provided here. If you’d like to see longer previews, they are available on Amazon.

Promotional copies are available for book reviewers. Please let me know if you are interested.

Cover Update

After spending far more time on this than I wished, I think I finally have a cover I can live with for the paperback edition of The Warden Threat. I thought I had this several times before, but I received multiple comments that previous versions looked too much like a Photo-shopped photograph (among other things). I hope this one overcomes that. Anyway, here it is. I welcome comments.

You may notice –how could you help not– that the title is in large font and bright colors. This is mainly so that it will show up well as a thumbnail, but it is also meant to convey that this book contains humor. The scene depicted, although not accurately, is one from about the middle of the book in which the protagonist, Prince Donald of Westgrove, is trying to animate the ancient and mysterious statue known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. It sits high in the mountains of the neighboring Kingdom of Gotrox in a crater-like canyon with silvered walls. He is naked because the “spell” he has found, which he believes is the means to bring this huge enigmatic artifact to life and obey the commands of the caster, specifies that a prince, “naked to the Warden’s love,” must recite it. After his first failed attempt, Prince Donald reluctantly concludes that this line must be taken literally.

In other news, my edits and revisions of this book are now done. I would like to do one more proofreading before it goes to print, however. Look for the revised ebook in the next couple of months and the paperback shortly thereafter. The cover for the ebook will be pretty much the same as the front cover of the paperback.

I’m in the middle of editing and revising the sequel, The Warden War. I don’t have a cover for this one yet but I’ve been corresponding with the cover artist, and I am optimistic about it. I sent some files to her yesterday for her consideration.

The first draft of my third book is complete and awaiting additional work until I’ve put the first two to bed. It is more Young Adult oriented with a younger protagonist. She is briefly mentioned in the previous books but this is her first appearance. Some of the characters from the first books appear in it as well though. The third book is more clearly science fiction and reveals more about the now defunct commercial enterprise established on this planet several thousand years ago by the Galactic Organic Development Corporation. I have not decided, but I am considering attempting to go the traditional publishing route with this one. Self-publishing may be more advantageous to authors, but it is a lot more work, and these extra duties take time away from what I really want to do, which is write more stories.

Book Review – The Snow Queen’s Shadow by Jim C. Hines

 My Rating: 4.5 Stars

This is the fourth, and possibly last, installment in Hines’ Princess series. I have enjoyed all of them and they remain as ‘keepers’ on my shelves of paper books. This one is a little darker than the others are, as some reviewers have pointed out.

I do not personally care for dark fantasy. I prefer more lighthearted, humorous, and satirical works, but the dark aspects in this are not overdone and there is still a hopeful and optimistic mood conveyed by the end of the story. It has a few smiles in it too, such as in the first chapter, in which the princesses are hunting down the witch-hunter, Hansel, who, we are told, first got into the business by stuffing some poor old woman into her own oven.

This is not a classic tragedy of death and failure by any means. However, it does take the reader on an exciting adventure full of soul-searching, discovery and sacrifice, and it has just enough of the old “sword and sorcery” action to keep readers who expect that kind of thing in a fantasy novel happy. I just wanted to mention that in case others were put off by reviews suggesting this is a dark fantasy. It is not.

The princesses are strong characters, likeable and even believable given a certain amount of suspended disbelief. I found myself sympathizing with Snow in her conflict with the demon that possesses her through her mother’s mirror, and I appreciated the intelligence Hines shows in her efforts to defeat it. But to say more on that would require spoilers.

I would recommend this book to those who appreciate positive fiction with admirable characters pursuing noble causes. You will find this installment of the Princess Novels more satisfying though if you read the others (in order) first.

Book Review – Hunting the Five by Maria Violante

 My Rating: 4 Stars

I should first point out that this is not the type of story I normally read. It starts with action and it barely takes a breath before there is more. It is about a gun-toting, formerly human demon who serves as a mercenary and assassin at the pleasure of a group that are called, logically enough, angels. This would normally put it on my “not my kind of thing” list because I tend to not like tales in which the protagonists use violence as their primary means of resolving conflicts. I don’t find anything admirable about such characters or anything interesting in that kind of conflict. It is normally simplistic and, quite frankly, uninteresting.

Hunting for the Five may be a rare exception because of how well written it is. The prose is succinct and fresh, almost poetic in places. The descriptions are vivid but not graphic. I saw only two or three typos in this self published novella, which are fewer than I would normally expect to see in a professionally edited and traditionally published book.

From the beginning I got the impression that the lead character, De la Roca, is a reluctant token in someone else’s game. I read on wondering who the players were and what the object of that game was. That question is not answered in this short novella. It seems to mainly serve to introduce us to the protagonist.

I can’t say I admire or identify with De la Roca. She is interesting though and I can sympathize with her. She has lost her memory and she finds herself in the middle of a conflict she does not fully understand, manipulated and blackmailed by one side of some grand conflict to seek out and kill agents from the other side. Her motivation is selfish though. She is hunting down and killing demons not to save the world or free mankind; she is doing it so that she can be released from Hell.

Her direct contact with whomever or whatever uses her in its game is simply called the Angel. It seems to be almost like her parole officer. It is an enigmatic but obviously magically powerful creature that shows up after each kill she makes to emotionlessly inform her of her next target. It never shows any personality and one wonders what this thing really is that has such power over her and is it really all that much different than the demons she is contracted to kill?

Of course a novella is far too short a work to do the kind of world building necessary to fully develop the obviously complex mythos behind this story. It is rich with magic and mythical creatures. Most are fairly interesting but we don’t get the chance to understand any of them well. One of the most interesting is De la Roca’s trusted companion throughout the tale, her horse, which is also presumably some kind of demon and can change between various equine forms at will.

I can see this story developing further. There are many questions implied in our introduction to this fantasy world. Will De la Roca free herself? Will she regain her memory? What is this cosmic conflict and who are the opposing forces? Will De la Roca ultimately rebel against those who have been using her or will she continue to serve them willingly? There is a lot of potential here.

If you like an action packed fantasy adventure with a strong female antihero, then I think you will really like this first episode of the De la Roca Chronicles. It is a real bargain as well for only 99¢ from Smashwords or Amazon.

Will The Discworld End? Should It?

  In December 2007, Terry Pratchett, the much honored and award winning author of the Discworld fantasy series as well as other books, publicly announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of his fans since then have wondered if Discworld can continue once Sir Terry can no longer write or if it even should.

I came across a discussion on this very subject a couple of days ago on The Morporkian, a Terry Pratchett discussion group on goodreads. The question posed asked how people felt about the Discworld series continuing on without Terry Pratchett. You can see the discussion here if you’d like: A Surrogate Pratchett?

I visit Discworld often and I actually dread not being able to look forward to the next new book but I have sadly concluded that there is only one Terry Pratchett. I have looked long and hard for other writers who can capture a similar tone and mood and I have found none – none at all.
Pratchett is unique and (need I say) my favorite author. I’ve mentioned him several times in my blog as both a writer of wonderful stories and as an inspiration for my own but I’m doubtful anyone I know of can do justice to the series. Pratchett’s ability to create believable and truly likeable characters in an unbelievable world and his ability to create entertaining and humorous stories while providing deep cultural insights is enviable and wonderful.
I won’t say that it is impossible to find someone to carry on. Perhaps there are writers out there who can and if Terry Pratchett names a successor, I will certainly give his or her books a try. Quite honestly, I hope he does. A round world without a Discworld to reflect the truly important bits would be a much sadder place.

A Discworld Update – February-2013

Book Review – Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help

Extended Edition [Kindle Edition] by Douglas Anthony Cooper
My Rating: 4 Stars

Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help is a charming and humorous tale of a schoolboy who befriends the ghosts inhabiting his school. Milrose, an intelligent if somewhat sarcastic young man, is a great nerdy hero — smart, proudly unathletic and fascinated by new and strange things–the stranger the better. Unfortunately he is less than circumspect in his conversations with his ghostly friends, who remain unseen and unheard by the school staff, and he is sent to receive Professional Help along with one other classmate, Arabella who shares his peculiar affliction. The Professional Help however seems far from either professional or helpful and Milrose and Arabella learn that people who are sent there are never seen again by either the living or the dead.

This is not a serious book nor is it meant to be, as evidenced by the host of wittily named ghosts who wander the corridors. If you’re looking for a scary ghost story, this isn’t it but if you appreciate a quick, light read with lots of smiles, this is well work the 99¢ price for the Kindle version.

Positive Science Fiction – Understanding Humanity

  In my last post, I concluded with the suggestion that a realistic understanding of humanity would cast us in a positive light and that this may be one of the reasons that fiction that conveys a hopeful mood is appealing to many people. Consciously or subconsciously they may understand that this vision of humanity is closer to the truth than that implied in darker fiction in which negative human traits appear to be the norm.

In our age of instant communication and information overload, it is easy to see why people can get a negative impression of humanity. The news headlines are full of accounts of horrendous acts perpetrated by people upon other people but the important thing we must remember is that these news stories do not represent normal human behavior. That is why they are news. We hear a lot about crime, but here in the United States crime has actually been falling for at least 20 years. You would never know this based on what you see in the news. Conflicts that are resolved nonviolently outnumber those that result in war or bloodshed but they get far less attention. The events that fill the media are the exceptions and when much of our understanding about the world comes from this source, we can understandably conclude they are the norm when they are not.

Taken out of their historical context, headline stories about individual psychopaths, violent extremist groups, corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, economic disparity, hunger, disease, war, and natural disasters can shock and disturb people. And they should. That shock proves our humanity and supports the idea that people, in general, are decent. If they weren’t, such stories would be entertaining rather than disturbing.

Now the philosophers out there (pretentious buggers that they are) will object that I am taking a culturally biased position. I freely admit that. In our culture, well, mine anyway, things like peace, mutual respect, individual freedom, fairness, honesty, and the like are considered “positive” and laudable goals. Violence, intolerance, and subjugation are thought of as “negative.” But this post is about speculative fiction and how it is seen as either positive or negative by people who share my culture, which is that of people prone to reading speculative fiction.

As another bow to the pesky philosophers, let me just clarify that I am using the term “culture” in this instance to mean core fundamental beliefs and perceptions that are held by a group of people. Different groups of people have different cultures (or perhaps we should call them subcultures). In the modern world, culture is less geographically homogenous than it was in the past and any one person’s culture may be closer to someone who lives 10,000 miles (16,000km) away than it is with their physical next door neighbor. But when all humanity is grouped and all the separate cultural elements are combined, we can talk generally at least about a human culture.

But back to the point, if one’s subculture regardless of where they physically live leads them to truly believe that the world would be a better place if people who do not share their religion, nationality, gender, politics or taste in music should be suppressed or even killed, I feel compelled to say that I think human nature and the flow of history are against them but I won’t try to argue the point. Chances are we won’t like the same books anyway.

The indisputable fact is that mankind has progressed over time and continues to progress both technologically and culturally. Whether your view takes in the last 40,000 years or only the last 400 years the result is the same. It is not steady progress or universal by any means and there have been temporary declines but the trend has been toward peace, prosperity, mutual respect, and discovery. I think this is because people are fundamentally builders rather than destroyers and they are capable of rational thought and decision making if they are free to do so. The reason why this has happened is secondary though. It has happened.

Statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’ existence. People alive today have a much lower chance of being the victims of violence than at any time in history, or probably even prehistory. Individuals regardless of their social class, beliefs, gender, or ethnicity are almost universally regarded as having the same basic rights. Think of things not only common but considered normal not all that long ago such as slavery, genocide, the burning of heretics, gruesome executions, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, foot-binding, torture, mutilation, animal cruelty, wars of conquest, colonialism, and subjugation. Now think about how such things are considered today.

The rejection of acts such as these, which I think most of us would see as barbaric, did not happen all at once. From a historical perspective it has been fairly rapid though and each of these cultural advancements has been built on those that came before it. We didn’t go from genocide to racial and ethnic equality or from the Inquisition to religious freedom in one step but we did get there. Humanity seen on the large scale has progressed and continues to progress.

We have also made significant advances in our understanding of the universe and have used this knowledge to our benefit. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate much on this point as it seems obvious. No one can seriously dispute that our achievements in science and technology have helped us to live longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives. Don’t undervalue things like indoor plumbing, electric lights, and microwave ovens. These may not sound significant but try living without them for a week.

People today are also more likely to survive childbirth and infancy, and recover from disease. Statistically, we are less likely to suffer from hunger, exposure, and even from natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes than our ancestors. These things still happen but we have learned to deal with them better.

What may not be as obvious is that there has been a significant cultural shift in the last few centuries that I think is likely to accelerate our rate of progress. We have learned how to learn, or maybe it is better to say that we have learned that we can learn. We no longer view the universe as a mystical and unknowable vastness that imposes its will on us. It is something we can study, understand and affect to better ourselves. This insight has led to us placing an increased value on widespread literacy, education, research, exploration and discovery. These types of things are valued now not just by an educated elite but by most people because their benefits are recognizable in our everyday lives. This paradigm shift is not yet complete but I think it is irreversible. We have learned that we don’t have to suffer whatever fate the universe has decreed for us. We can change it. We can make things better.

This doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable, just that it has happened and is still happening. This suggests to me that we as a species have an innate need to improve ourselves and that we are capable of doing so.

Can humanity digress? Can it return to increased violence and intolerance? Of course. This is not impossible. But the fact is that such things have decreased over the history of human civilization. If we are to extrapolate from this based on the logical assumption that the future will be like the past, we would have to conclude that we will continue to make slow and steady progress and will eventually be able to find ways to overcome most obstacles that are presented to us.

Much of current science fiction, if not fiction in general, seems to take the opposite stand, that continued progress is either unlikely or will lead to irresolvable problems. Despite the fact that history shows otherwise, these dark tales are often touted by critics as being more realistic. Clearly, they are not. Based on what mankind has accomplished and continues to accomplish, fiction that carries a positive mood and image of humanity is more realistic.

In my next post in this series, I will discuss why I think positive fiction is especially appealing to science fiction readers and why I think there should be more of it.


Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Positive Science Fiction – Emerging from the Dark

   I was cruising the internet a few days ago for book recommendations and I stumbled across a discussion on Amazon between people looking for science fiction novels that have a positive outlook on the future. These can be a bit difficult to find, which was why I was looking myself.

There is no widely recognized “positive” subgenre for science fiction or fantasy. I checked, which means I ran the phrase through an internet search engine, which might not pass muster for a thesis but I figured it was sufficient research for a blog post. I found some mentions of “positive science fiction” but the term is not well defined although several people seem to think we need more of it. I would be one of them.

I had a pretty good idea of what I meant by the term. I know what I like to read and so after a bit of I thought I concluded that the essential distinction between a work of positive fiction and one of negative or dark fiction is the mood it conveys.

It certainly seems as if most of the new releases by both traditional and indie authors tend toward the dark side (no pun intended). They often take place in apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings in which war, environmental collapse, starvation, disease, overpopulation, or alien invasion play a key role. Sometimes they are dystopian in which economic exploitation, intolerance, oppressive ideologies, and other curses of our past are resurrected to plague humanity.

The one thing most of these have in common, I think, is a negative perception of mankind. They imply that our species is not intelligent or enlightened enough to successfully address problems before they lead to some kind of catastrophe and we are forced to deal with disastrous consequences as best we can afterwards. They start with an unspoken and, I think, mistaken premise that most people (including nonhuman aliens) are, by nature, stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish, and that it is only the rare individual who can rise above these tendencies. The protagonists in such stories are often such exceptional people and the plots show how they struggle and possibly even triumph over whatever it was they are confronted with. But even when the protagonist wins, even when the theme of the book is obviously to serve as a warning, the mood (the prevailing emotion the reader is left with after reading such a story) is negative because the protagonist is the rare exception. When the reader turns the last page and arrives back in the real world, they are left with a residual impression of humanity that is depressing, hopeless or discouraging.

The mood conveyed by a piece of positive fiction is almost exactly the opposite. A word I found often when researching “positive science fiction” was “hopeful” and that is certainly one of the moods a work of positive fiction can provide. Others might include, fanciful, happy, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, optimistic, or even thoughtful. Positive fiction seems to start with a different assumption about humanity, that people in general are fairly decent. It is the antagonist in these stories who is often the exception. The protagonists in such stories may have some exceptional abilities or resources at their disposal but in most ways they are representative of mankind in general. They are “good” people.

This positive premise is, I think, more accurate, which may be part of the reason it is appealing, at least to me. Why it does not dominate the speculative fiction market is a different question and one I can only speculate about.

I can hear the cynics already. People are decent? Come on! Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know what the real world is like?

Yes, of course. That is precisely my point but it will have to wait in order to keep this post at a reasonable length. Why I think this positive view of humanity is more accurate will be the subject of my next and significantly longer post.

Related Posts:
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?

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