On Recommending Fantasy Books.

Recommendations?

Recommendations?

It used to be that Fantasy was a much narrower, and smaller, Genre. I could get away with recommending my personal favourite fantasy novels and not have to worry about leaving someone out. If someone didn’t like one of Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Ursula K. Le Guin, or whatever you might be reading at the time, they probably would not be spending much time with the genre.

Since I started reading, fantasy has exploded as a genre, forming distinct sub-genres, mating with others genres, and branching out beyond medieval and classical world backgrounds. What this means is that people have far more to choose from, and I feel that I can no longer safely recommend just what I enjoy.

Fandom is a strange beast. A true fan often feels so passionately about their favourite obsession, that they will recommend it to everyone. As an author this works to my benefit, since word of mouth drives sales, and more importantly it refreshes me when I talk to people really enjoy my work. However, not every work is for every person. This is a difficult lesson to learn for some. When I was young, I simply assumed that people who did not like what I liked were lacking in some fashion. I liken it to pop culture in high school: people who have not developed their own personal sense of taste enough tend to gravitate toward the popular. This later acts a springboard into more specific likes. One might start with Justin Bieber or Britney Spears and end at Mozart, Led Zeppelin, and/or Sinatra. Not a perfect view of the process, but you get the idea.

True fans often forget that others do not have the same tastes as they do. You might absolutely love and understand every little bit about The Gardens of the Moon, or The Name of The Wind and defend them to the hilt, but they are not for everyone. People who don’t like what I like are not (necessarily) deficient: they simply have their own tastes. Fantasy is now diverse enough as a genre to accommodate a diverse readership, some with very different tastes. So how does one go about recommending a book without being boorish? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple Suggestions:

  • Recommend my book: I had to try.
  • Recommend your favourites, but qualify: If you are really enthusiastic about a book, by all means recommend it. Just don’t force it on someone. Don’t tell them they have to read it if they like the genre. Instead tell them why you like the book. Don’t go into too much detail, but try to capture the essence of what you think makes the book good. Are the characters interesting? is the plot engaging? is the World-Building especially good? that sort of stuff. While you are discussing the book, the listener will pick up on clues and keywords on their own and see if your description matches with their tastes.
  • Dot not attack their tastes: Often I see people putting down books, games, and other media that they dislike in order to promote what they like. This is a sales technique, and a fairly tacky one as far as I am concerned. If you are recommending to someone, and you care about being polite, don’t slap them down by saying your tastes are better than yours. Try to make your recommendation in a positive fashion.

Complex Method (step by step):

  1. Find out what books they enjoy: This is my preferred method of recommendation. These days fantasy is such a rich genre than you can usually recommend books based on similarity to other books. Even if those books are outside the genre, I can often recommend based on similarity to sub-genres of fantasy. For example fans of thrillers are more likely to enjoy the Dresden Files than Tolkien, at least to start.
  2. Delve deeper: Find out what the person likes about their favourite works. Do they enjoy strong, upright, moral characters, or do they favour assassins and bastards? Do they like a particular historical time period? are they looking for action or intrigue? Do they want a book with Dragons or Zombies?
  3. Find out what got them interested in Fantasy: Some people may not have book interests that can be easily related to fantasy, for these you have to discover what sparked their interest in the genre. Some will come from games, while others might have watched Game of Thrones on TV. Once you have established this you can go through steps 1 and 2 again.
  4. Remember that you live in the information age: There are plenty of helpful sites and lists out there that will help you find the right book for someone. Amazon has an also-bought recommendation section, Good reads has listopia, and so on. These can spark  your imagination if your are having difficulty.
  5. If they are new and nervous, start with something simple: Don’t throw Gormenghast at people new to the genre,, who are just looking to test the waters, it will only discourage them.

Above all, remember that the genre is big and growing, and with that diversity it is more and more likely that you will find something suitable and maybe even discover a new book that you might like along the way.

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The Antagonists of my Dreams: The Wolf of Wall Street, Rob Ford, and Dark Lords in Fantasy

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Poster for The Wolf of Wall Street with DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.

This gets political, fair warning.

So, I must admit I really enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street [Spoiler Alert]. In some ways I feel that it was a movie made just for me. You see I grew up in the eighties, and even at a young age I was very aware of the direction that rampant capitalistic excess would take our society (scoff if you wish, it seems pretty obvious to me). Now that I am an adult, living in the ongoing aftermath of the latest hangover of the ongoing orgy of greed, I find it gratifying to see a major film-maker who so obviously shares my disgust with people like Jordan Belfort, the narrator of the Wolf of Wall Street.

Although the movie is based on a book by Jordan Belfort about his own life, and many scenes in the movie are based around videos that he recorded (some of which you can see on youtube, interestingly) the movie drips with contempt for the main character:

  • Belfort is never shown as doing anything remotely good with his money in movie. It all goes to excess and self indulgence, most of it buying drugs, women, cars, and other material possessions. While he loves to throw a good party, he never seems satisfied, not does he do anything really worthy with all that cash.
  • Belfort is unequivocally shown as getting his money by duping others. He has nothing but contempt for his “clients”. The key scene here is when he is teaching his new employees how to lie to sell certain stocks by sticking to a particular script. The whole time he is talking to the client while demonstrating this method he is giving the phone the finger and mocking the person who he is taking money from.
  • Belfort’s first wife is the type of woman ‘real’ men dream of. When he loses his first job she is willing to support him 100% while he gets back on his feet, even taking extra shifts to do so. In fact she helps him find the job that gets him back on his feet. He repays this woman by cheating on her with a woman who was somewhat more attractive physically, but has the personality of a greedy cheese grater and shares Belfort’s bottomless desire for material gratification. He offers his supportive, wonderful first wife no explanation of his behavior and she simply disappears from his life when she learns of his cowardly lack of faith. He never seems to realize he has done something wrong. Utterly disgusting.
  • When things go south with wife #2 he hits her. Pretty pathetic.
  • Belfort endangers the life of his child by kidnapping her while messed up and crashing his Ferrari (again) almost killing both of them.
  • Belfort shows more loyalty to his cronies than anyone in his family. His relationship with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is such that even when Donnie screws up his life in a failed bid to hide money, Jordan goes out of his way to warn him about the FBI sting, passing him a note that says he is wearing a wire. He shows more loyalty to this jackass than anyone else, even though it costs him time and time again.
  • The drug use. Belfort’s endless addiction to drugs might seem like “paying the cost to be the boss” initially, but in the movies climactic scenes it reduces him to a laughable, helpless idiot who is only able to function because he is rich enough to cover it up and pay for lawyers who keep him out of trouble for driving while high and so on. DiCaprio’s acting is beyond brilliant here; if you’ve ever been the sober person at a party where everyone is obnoxiously drunk, you know what I mean. Belfort’s drug use seems childish by hour three.
  • The Misogyny. Belfort and his cronies treat women like whores and trophies. Not only that but they encourage their female colleagues to do the same. Belfort is never shown having a normal conversation with a woman, even his wisecracking assistant after his first wife leaves him. He views women mostly as objects. This is beautifully demonstrated when he meets up with his second wife’s aunt so he can get her help hiding money. Jordan is so incapable of relating to a woman as a human being that when aunt Emma strikes up a fairly normal conversation with him he thinks she is hitting on him.
  • Naturally he shows contempt for the law, but that is not necessarily a bad quality in a protagonist.

The only positive quality that Belfort demonstrates is a desire to succeed at all costs. The costs of his actions are hinted at throughout the movie, and directly shown in the brutal subway scene where we see the FBI detective who works like a mad fiend to catch him sink back into his seat looking at all the tired working class people around him, shaking his head at Belfort’s prison sentence.

Yet this ruthless ambition, combined with his success, attracts followers for Belfort, like moths to a candle. These, the director seems to show, might be the real problem, willing to support such men even after they have been revealed to be frauds, cheats, and scum in the hopes of gaining wealth. Instead they are just feeding the cycle, and deep down Belfort probably sees them in the same way that he saw his previous clients — his current source of cash.

I love this movie because I love to hate people like Jordan Belfort.

The whole story reminds me a great deal of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his supporters. Drugs, Booze, outright lies, and even misogyny. Yet Ford enjoys a core of fanatical support even now because of the bravado he exudes and his apparent success. Some people are willing to swallow his lies, even though he seems comically villainous to others, like a villain from a bad storybook. It is the same with Silvio Berlusconi and so on. I’m sure these people all have stories that justify their behaviour; I’m equally sure it doesn’t matter. Their actions paint a picture that overshadows any potential sympathy from sources outside their cultish followings.

All of this leads me back to Tolkien and Sauron, and other so called Dark Lords. Much of recent fantasy has been a meditation on villainy and the motivations of black-hearted anti-heroes. Tolkien often gets bashed for creating an opaque caricature of a villain in Sauron, generally by people who haven’t read deeply enough. Then again in a world where people idolize Rob Ford and Jordan Belfort do you really need justification for Sauron and his army of orcs. And doesn’t that have some ugly implications…

I think so...

I think so…

Spoiler Alert: Smaug, Bilbo, Thorin, Legolas, and Peter Jackson’s Mary Sues.

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The Return of the Elf

I watched the Hobbit today with my Girlfriend and her seven year old son. I enjoyed it for the most part. The action was superb, the casting was excellent, and despite the insane length (2 hrs, 41 mins), it kept everyone’s attention. All things considered I would say it is worth watching, especially if you have children who are fans of the series or are budding geeks. On the other hand if you know any Tolkien purists, do not go to the movie with them — they may explode.

Aside from its prodigious length, the series has a few issues which were exacerbated in this film. The vaunted and feared addition of Evangeline Lilly actually did not really spoil the movie, at least for me. To discuss my feelings about Mr Jackson’s latest Tolkien film will require me to withdraw into spoiler alert land. Do not read them until you have watched the movie.

I would recommend the movie to any fan of epic fantasy who is not a Tolkien purist.

>>>>>SPOILER ALERT<<<<<

The heart of the novelization of the hobbit is a series of three conversations. Bilbo and Golem with the riddle game, Bilbo waking and encountering Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo and Thorin at the end of the book. Mr Jackson’s screen adaptations have done an excellent job on these thus far. The riddle game was awesome. If anything the interaction between Smaug and Bilbo is even better, perhaps because Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have worked together before. That chemistry really shines through despite the fact that Smaug is not only computer generated, but his facial features aren’t human either. If Mr Jackson can manage to clinch that third conversation in the last movie I will find it impossible to hate his adaptations.

Unfortunately Thorin is, thus far, poorly written and wrongly directed. I don’t place the blame on Richard Armitage here; I know he can be charismatic when allowed. Unfortunately Thorin comes off as petulant and unlikable, especially in the scenes that Jackson adds. I feel that Mr Jackson is trying to go for an Aragorn vibe with Thorin, but he ends up being too gruff and not showing enough heart. If the dramatic finish to the movie is to have any real power then Thorin will have to be better in movie number three. It all hinges on those few words between Thorin and Bilbo at this point, at least for me.

Mr Jackson adds a lot of fluff to the series in this second movie. I feel he stretches it too thin, even with the epic action scenes. Very little happens that justify a two hour and fourty one minute movie that ends in a cliff-hanger. However, since it was action, and gave me some fun ideas for games and writing, I can forgive this.

Some of Mr Jackson’s visualizations really annoy me. I really hated his version of the giants throwing rocks in the mountains in the first movie, for example — it reminded me of a theme park attraction rather than the myth-building moment that it was in the books. I’d rather more care be spent on giving each dwarf a bit of personality than a unique look. Still, I feel those crazy visualzations were toned down in this second instalment — you don’t need to go overboard for colossal action when Smaug is on the prowl. The only offenders are run-on action scenes. An improvement I’d say.

Some of the embellishments are just plain wierd. Instead of the black arrow being an actual arrow passed down to Bard by his forebearers, that the archer regarded as lucky, it is now the last ballista bolt for an anti-dragon weapon  built by the dwarves for the men of Dale long ago. I can see that Mr Jackson is trying to add a sense of drama here by having Bard’s forefather using the previous bolts (er black arrows) creating Smaug’s weakspot, and then never getting time to take the last shot. Bard is out to redeem the family name. It felt unnecessary. Bard had plenty of motive for killing Smaug in the books, and I like that Bilbo found the Dragon’s weak-spot and the thrush told Bard. The worst part about this whole scene is how Thorin comes off as an utter asshole, actually using Bard’s story and his family’s legacy of failure against him at one point. Not a good addition. Thorin needs to be more redeemable.

Mr Jackson’s character additions remain the worst part of the series. Evangeline Lilly, although a classic Mary Sue, was an exception to this. She kicked ass, but was not a scene stealer. She also added a feminine presence to the movie and the action scenes, something that was arguably lacking in the original tale. I didn’t even mind her romance with Kili, which may have to carry the third movie if Mr Jackson can’t get that key interaction between Thorin and Bilbo down. In fact, alone out of all of the add-on characters in this movie, she helped make one of the Dwarves, Kili, seem more interesting and dramatic. The other additions all flew screaming into fan fiction territory. I will deal with them in order.

  • Azog the Defiler: Azog keeps becoming more and more important. I don’t see why. He has no personality whatsoever. The only thing that distinguishes him from other orcs is his unique appearance and combat prowess. In the first movie he kicks the crap out of Thorin. In this movie he challenges Gandalf — seriously? Azog adds nothing to the movies. Why give the orcs faces and names if they all have the same personality? Azog is another potential problem character in the third movie — I suspect he will deliver the fatal wound to Thorin, a feat which he is not worthy of. Azog is a kind of villainous Mary Sue — an invention of the director placed in another author’s works who seems to get more and more powerful, bashing down established characters. People often feel they can beat Tolkien in the villain department, and Azog is a spectacularly visual enemy, but rather hollow as a character.
  • Bolg: Azog is called to muster, so he sends his Lieutenant, Bolg, to deal with Thorin. Bolg is another orc with a unique appearance, but no personality.  In everything but appearance he is exactly interchangeable with Azog. He hates dwarves, but so do all the other orcs. He does kick ass though, rampaging through the Elven Part of Mirkwood and living to tell the tale and also going toe to toe with Legolas and actually surviving to escape. He is actually the only character in the series to make Legolas bleed a bit, something that apparently deserved a closeup and some screen time. Again, another super-powerful character added by the director for no good reason beyond visualization.

The worst character addition in the second Hobbit movie is actually an old favourite from the Lord of the Rings series: Orlando Blood returning as Legolas. In the first trilogy Legolas is a scene stealer, but this is forgivable since he is part of the story and presented as quite awesome. Last time I checked however, Legolas wasn’t in the Hobbit, and he certainly wasn’t the main part of the action. Stealing a scene you are supposed to be in is one thing, stealing scenes you aren’t mean to be in is an egregious offence on the part of Mr Jackson.

  • The barrel escape from the elves turns into a running action scene in the movie as orcs attack the barrels in the river. The Dwarves show great resourcefulness and wonderful teamwork in the first part of this scene, in what amounts to a creative and fun fight scene that lets the dwarves shine as a company. Sadly it is immediately overshadowed as Legolas shows up and makes the whole group of dwarves, who seemed awesome a heartbeat ago, seem like lackluster amateurs. At one point he even fells a squad of orcs while standing on the faces of two the dwarves as their barrels race down the river, which more or less sums up the whole scene for me. Legolas steals scenes at the expense of the Dwarves. I hate this. I disliked that Jackson reduced Gimli to comic relief in most of the first trilogy, I hate that Legolas outshines the Dwarves in their own story, which he is not even supposed to be in. 😦
  • Legolas in the Hobbit movies is a terrible kind of Mary Sue. He is not an avatar of the writers or the director, however he is an insertion that excels at everything he does, and really steals every action scene he appears in. In the Rings movies his prowess was countered by the fact that Mr Jackson was *mostly* held to adapting scenes that were actually in the books. Not so now, where he gets scenes written more or less for him! I really dread what Mr Jackson in going to do with him in the final adaptation. Again, this not Orlando Bloom’s fault, if anything a bit of age has made him a better Legolas — it is the way the character is inserted into the script at the cost to other characters that were originally there. Mary Sue, Mary Sue, Mary Sue. Bard was supposed to be the archer of this set. UGH!

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is this. When we left the movie, the young lad I was with was leaping off snowbanks, shooting his imaginary bow and arrows at imaginary orcs. No doubt he was like Legolas firing at Azog and Bolg, in his imaginary mindscape. But I had to agree with my girlfriend when she thought it was sad that he wasn’t pretending to be any of the dwarves.

What I get out of this is that if you have to add characters to modernize or expand a great work, fine, but don’t do so at the cost of the characters that are already there. Inserting your own characters, and having them outshine the characters that already exist, is a kind of Mary Sue authorship — it may not be a direct author avatar, but it certainly has that same feel to it. Perhaps showboating would be a better term.

On the use of “Red Tape” as an obstacle or enemy.

Using defensive spells? Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class? I do not wish to criticise the way things have been run in this school, but you have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class, very irresponsible indeed – not to mention, extremely dangerous half-breeds.“—Dolores Umbridge, teaching defence against the dark arts, from the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.

Dolores Umbridge, a great modern villain. She might not be strong, but who needs strength when you have the law on your side?

Often in Fantasy novels and especially in Fantasy games the main characters simply overcome every obstacle they encounter through magic, stealth, or force. It simply makes for an engaging read when characters take direct action against any threats and bumps on the road they might encounter. Expediency is naturally important when the world is in danger.

Red Tape is, by definition, is the enemy of expediency. Excessive bureaucracy, overbearing formal rules, and rigid adherence to “by the book” conduct in the face of extenuating circumstances are all examples of Red Tape. Instead of explaining in detail I will illustrate with a few of my favourite examples.

1) Lord of the Rings – The Entmoot: The Entmoot is a classic example of well meaning adherence to a formal structure as an obstacle. Marry and Pippin want the help of the Ents, or at the very least to be on their way. The Ents need to identify these trespassers on their land and decide what they want to do with them. The Ents are portrayed sleepy, docile creatures who prefer to deliberate very thoroughly before taking action. The problem in this case is that events are moving quickly and their long discussion presents a serious time commitment that the two Hobbits can ill afford. In the end I enjoyed the presentation of the entmoot in the movies, with the Hobbits circumventing the moot’s decision by luring treebeard to a place where Saruman had destroyed part of Fanghorn, confronting him with evidence that the Ents could not ignore.

2) Lord of the Rings – Wormtongue: Wormtongue would not make an interesting combat obstacle. He was never a worthy foe on the field of action. However his plotting and conniving paralyze Rohan, paving the way for Saruman to grow in power and then overcome the Kingdom. Using his position, Wormtongue prevents the horsemen of Rohan from joining the wars against the orcs. He engages in a campaign of denial about the attacks going on throughout the land. He stifles any opposition to Saruman through legal means and gradually separates king Theodan from any useful advisors who might be able to coax him into action. Interestingly, Wormtongue is so effective at this that he is only overcome by the appearance of Gandalf the White, who uses a combination of guile and force to cut through the red tape. Of course, by this time, Wormtongue had nearly crippled the kingdom already.

3) Arthurian Myth – Mordred : Mordred uses the ties of kinship and the laws of hospitality and chilvary to survive and prosper. In particular he uses the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere to cripple the round table. T H White has the best account of this, reasoning that the affair between the two had gone on for years and yet only Mordred’s rigid use of the law forced it to a head, thus sundering the round table. Mordred also uses the laws of chivalry and kinship to survive against his peers, pretty much everyone knows he is bad news in all accounts, but they are never able to pin anything on him because he acts in accordance with the system of laws and kinship that governs them.

4) The Name of the Wind – The University: Patrick Rothfuss uses the rules of the University as a very interesting set of obstacles for K’vothe. The admissions exams are a prime example of this (spoiler alert), with Kvothe being forced to justify his actions and his greatness or have his tuition be set so high that he can no longer attend. In fact, the entire structure of the University acts as an obstacle to K’vothe’s quest to find the Chandrian and gain enough power to challenge them. The University (rightly) desires to keep dangerous knowledge out of the wrong hands. K’vothe is thus forced to spend years navigating the systems and structure of the University to find the knowledge that he is seeking.

5) Harry Potter – Dolores Umbridge: (spoiler alert) Umbridge is perhaps the best example of a person using the rules to crush and abuse her enemies. She never really gets violent in the same way that the Deatheaters do, but instead relies on occupying positions of power where she can use regulations to her advantage. In her own way she is as vile as Voldemort, and provides a villain that is much more realistic to the modern experience than a dark lord: someone whose every act is tinged with viciousness, but whose actions are supported by the law. In a way, our complacency in the face of people like Umbridge, who infiltrate our places of power and turn them to their own ends is the underlying villain of the whole Harry Potter series. Most of the magic community wanted so desperately to denie the return of Voldemort, to the point where they allowed people Umbridge into positions of strength to reinforce that denial. Had they been willing to confront him earlier, the cost would have been far less — a rather profound statement for a “children’s series”.

Armed with these examples, we can see that Red Tape can be a passive obstacle to be overcome, such as the Entmoot or the University in The Name of The Wind or a weapon to be wielded by the likes of Wormtongue, Mordred, and Umbridge. Characters who rely on force, but are essentially good, are constrained by their respect for the law when dealing with this kind of obstacle. A Conan or an Elric would make short work of ol’ grima, but Lancelot cannot simply gut Mordred without upsetting the social order he is trying to defend. (Which gets me thinking… maybe grimdark really isn’t that stifling if it allows us to fantasize about casting off the rules… but that needs more analysis.) In the end the Red Tape challenge is worth including, especially if it is paced well, in any modern tale because all of us have come in conflict with the rules of our workplaces, governments, religions, and so on in our daily lives and can understand how these can be serious obstacles. The key is to make the reader feel the protagonist’s frustration; our instinctive dislike of those who use the rules as weapons against us compels our interests in them as villains.

Classic Characters: Aragorn, the King in the Cloak

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.” Lords of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring.

Strider picture by Matthew Stewart.

When criticizing Tolkien, certain critics point to lack of character development as a means of dismissing the books. Another criticism also linked to that is that the characters seem to have too rosy a view of life and aren’t harsh enough to survive serious villainy. My view that Tolkien not only understood that view, but he refuted it with the character of Aragorn. Aragorn begins as Strider, a harsh rogue-like figure of questionable repute who is forced to emerge from the comforts of the shadows to assume a great responsibility in a time of turmoil, becoming the King who leads the united armies on Pellinor Fields.

Strider does not inspire much confidence in the Hobbits when he first appears. He wears the standard gear that I see frequently on the covers of Fantasy novels. Leather, blades, long cloak with a hood hiding his features. In another story he could easily pass for an assassin, a smuggler, or a bandit scoping out prey at the inn. He is, without a doubt, introduced as a rogue (not character class, sheesh). Frodo is nervous about him and Sam feels defensive. On my first reading, to be honest, I was apprehensive about the character when they met him in Butterbur’s Inn. His actions are vague and menacing when first introduced, and while this is easy to overlook after the fact, in any other series most readers would be guessing his allegiance. Interestingly, as part of my research I read a little blurb that Tolkien initially did not know what to do with Strider when he first wrote him.

Even after he is established as trustworthy, Strider is harsh, often criticizing the Hobbits. He seems to find them naive and burdensome, if amusing. His words to Frodo in particular are quite pointed, letting the Hobbit know how much danger his behaviour causes and how foolish his friends act. His only initial praise is reserved for Sam, who shows courage in standing up to him. In fact I would go so far as to say that Strider, early on at least, views the Hobbits with the same disdain that many of Tolkien’s critics do. It takes some time for them to win him over.

It is not until he faces down the ring-wraiths with a burning brand that we get a real glimpse of what is under the hood, so to speak.

After the Fellowship is formed, Strider emerges from the Shadows a little. He is referred to as Aragorn more and more, but the Hobbits still often call him Strider. We learn a bit about his past. He is still overshadowed by others in the Fellowship, and by people they meet like Elrond and Galadriel. He shows himself to be extremely capable, but is never really the “best” at anything in the group. Legolas shoots better and can walk on snow. Gimli is tougher. Boromir is stronger and more warlike. Gandalf is wiser. Frodo is more important. He does not really stand out among the Fellowship. Aragorn is revealed to be of noble lineage, but it is a troubled past. His ancestor, Isuldur, is the one who failed to destroy the ring, and is is significant that Aragorn is not offered a chance to atone for this directly; His lineage is great but tarnished.

And yet, when Gandalf falls in Moria, it is to Aragorn that he passes the mantle of leadership. Here is where the man who once hid his face in hood in Bree, not even revealing his true name, begins to shine. Aragorn shows leadership, keeping the fractured fellowship together as they flee from Moria. Significantly, he refuses the temptation of the ring, which shows him to be wiser than Isuldur. But, ultimately he fails at keeping the fellowship on course: Frodo and Sam part ways and Boromir is killed. Still after this failure, he does what any good leader does and picks up the pieces and moves on. He leads the defence of Helm’s Deep. He reforges the sword of his ancestors into Anduril. He assumes the mantle of Kingship, showing the banner of Gondor, his Kingdom, to the Dead Men of Dunharrow and holding them to their ancient oath. With each test passed he becomes a better and better leader. His final act in the war is to lead his army to the Black Gate to distract Sauron, risking his own life at the height of his power to aid Frodo and Sam in their own task. Interestingly as the bright king, he is using his light to help others find cover in the shadows he once traveled in, a point that deserves deeper analysis.

As Strider, Aragorn begins as an ambiguous figure. He is mysterious, and harsh, acting from the shadows and preferring stealth. He seems pretty grouchy about having to deal with the Hobbits, acting gruff and harsh. He slowly emerges from the shadows over the course of the trilogy. By the time he assumes centre stage in Return of the KIng he has assumed responsibility for not only his own actions but those of his people and his ancestors, calling upon ancient oaths and leading armies and helping right the wrong that Isuldur committed, He emergence from the shadows is based around his assumption of responsibility, in this he is presents a far different idea of the assassin-character or a shadow-knight like Batman who remain in darkness and hide from the consequences of their actions.

Aragorn, from the movies.

Public Domain World-Building

Linked to the artist's site.

(By Mikhail Rakhmatullin) Zombies for guilt free mayhem.

I was listening to a friend of mine, Eric Lang, chat about certain themes and IPs that seem tremendously resilient in the board-game industry. To loosly paraphrase he was impressed that despite a glut of games with Zombie and Cthluthu themes, new products using these ideas were able to fund and gather fan attention and seemed as popular as ever (if not moreso).

For a writer of genre fiction, especially Fantasy, world-building can be an important part of the process. I can really tell when an authors has invested time in creating a world that has a life beyond the story he or she is telling. A well-crafted world often has a sense of history and a feeling of events unfolding outside the narrative. Often these worlds are original creations of staggering detail, developed over years. The thought and craft that goes into such a world is worthy of a long series of articles. The world-builders reddit  and Fantasy-writers reddit are interesting places to check out to get a feel for how some people approach this. Some prominent masters of the genre, Tolkien and Martin leap to mind, are superb world-builders.

However, as Fantasy becomes a more prominent genre with a strong set of popular sub-genres, writers can actually draw upon the tropes of the genre itself, using an element their readers are already familiar with from other places in the genre. In shorter works, where detailed world-building might be unappreciated, using a familiar element can provide the writer with a sort of shortcut to creating a sense of greater detail. This, in itself, is another topic that could lead to a long discussion on jargon, archetypes and tropes, but I will save that for another day. These elements are extremely useful. Some of the most detailed and original seeming IPs out there begin as nothing more than interesting combinations of these familiar elements. A writer, especially a novice like myself, can use these elements to good effect when years of world-building are not in the cards.

Take Dwarves for an example. Dwarves are a fairly common fantasy trope. When I mention Dwarves to a fantasy reader a few images will immediately spring to mind. Short humanoids with elaborate beards, a penchant for mining and metal-craft, and a somewhat xenophobic attitude. By using the archetype I can bring all of these characteristics to mind very quickly and use those details for my own world, and making note of any key differences that might exist in my version. In my Domains of the Chosen series Dwarves follow the standard trope fairly closely. However, the Reckoning (a magical apocalypse) forced the surviving Dwarves to take shelter in the city of Krass and integrate with all of the other races. Thus they are more trusting of outsiders and often live above ground. In the years since the reckoning some Dwarves have made a conscious effort to reclaim their past, but all of that is done from within the framework of the empire. This creates a tension between Dwarven traditionalists and the more modern Dwarves who might appreciate their history just as much but don’t feel the need to go back to it. My Dwarves can also develop the Gift, allowing them to wield magic, which means some will end up as Gladiators.

Here are a few of the more common elements that can be woven in to just about any Fantasy world:

Zombies: I know people think Zombies are overdone, tapped out, etc. Yet, as I write this, World War Z, an adaptation that has many hardcore fans frowning has earned 500 mil at the box office. Zombies come in many flavours from shambling menace to sleek predatory runner to the fungus based “infected” of this years hit game “The Last of Us”. Commercially Zombies continue to grow. Of course, while most authors want a commercially viable product, they want to tell a cool, compelling story even more. Zombies offer a lot of options, here too. They fit in just about any setting, and work for epic stories as well as for small claustrophobic character pieces. Zombies can be used for apocalypses, sinister thrillers, and background window dressing. Being a totally made up it is easy for a writer to put their own twist on this element. I even have them show up in the arena in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and later in Bloodlust: Will to Power, where they are seen to have their own set of fans. I have even seen a few comics where the main characters are Zombies,

Vampires & Werewolves: Vampires and to a lesser extent, werewolves are popular elements, and show up in many fantasy settings. They work equally well as villains, heroes, and anti-heroes and have a common set of folklore than can work with most stories. Their respective themes can fit in to most plot-lines. 

Steampunk: Steampunk isn’t huge, but it is picking up momentum. As a sub-genre it is diverse and interesting with dedicated fans and a heck of a lot of wicked cosplay. The default Victoriana background adds a nice touch to the early industrial mad science. Steampunk elements, especially the technology work well when incorporated lightly into other settings. World of Warcraft tinkering is a great example of this. 

Arthurian Fantasy: Other than mythology, Arthurian Fantasy is perhaps the most enduring of the popular public domain elements in western literature. Before Tolkien it was the default fantasy setting, with many excellent revisions and versions written out over the years. It has everything one could want from pastoral fantasy: huge castles, grim enemies, giants, dragons, fearless knights, quests, religion and magic. It also works quite well for dramatic stories, and even those with a grim, philosophical bent, like the last books of T.H White’s excellent retelling.

Three Kingdoms: A great example of a Public Domain element from outside of the western tradition: the era covered by the Romance of the Kingdoms has spawned numerous games, television series, and movies. A grand drama based of history and deep literary tradition with characters that are as iconic as Arthurian myth, I expect this one to grow more popular in the west as a setting and a style. The combination of war, philosophy, and the epic clash pf personalities is just too good to pass up.

Untapped resources: Here are a few examples of elements that I feel are underused.

Pirates, Musketeers/Duellists, and Vikings: These archetypal elements are all popular and interesting, but not nearly used often enough in modern fantasy. They have a great set of associations and themes. I’d kill to see more new pirate fantasy after The Scar and Red Seas Under Red Skies.

First Nations: This is huge set of untapped myth and legends, as well a cultures and languages. It is rife with the problems of cultural appropriation, but the native peoples of the Americas are a vast untapped well of ideas than could find their way into literature. I personally have a great admiration for the Mohawk, one the last great warrior societies and great defenders of early Canadian sovereignty.

A Mohawk Warrior from a war of 1812 Wargame.

James Bond Complex

 “nihilists, anarchists, activists, Lulzsec, Anonymous, twentysomethings who haven’t talked to the opposite sex in five or six years.” General Michael Hayden

I hated him for this.

When I was a young lad, I discovered Fantasy. Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, Terry Brooks, and Willow fell right in line with my early love of history, Rome and the Renaissance. I was not drawn to Fantasy through a need to escape, but rather  a desire to explore, to stretch my mind around these unlikely visions.

At school I was often looked down upon for enjoying D&D, reading fantasy, and later on computer games. This is not an isolated phenomena. Gather a group of gamers around a table and one of them is sure to have a story about being accused of practicing devil-worship or witchcraft. D&D has frequently been banned from schools, as a danger to malleable young minds. Someone even made a movie about how gaming could turn teenagers into crazed maniacs; you’d be surprised who it starred. Reading Fantasy was a little more socially acceptable, but still seen as a genre for people who could not get a date or enjoy sports. It always amused myself and my parents that such harmless pastimes could elicit such a negative response, especially from adults. I’m glad the genre is considered a little less weird these days…

This was brought to mind when I was reading an article about a speech given by the former head of the NSA, general Michael Hayden, attacking whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Parts of the speech were remarkably juvenile, characterizing honest opposition to NSA surveillance as the province of fringe elements who were outcast losers and also, at the same time, akin to terrorists. The tone of the speech reminded me of the sort of misguided rhetoric used by the people who used to belittle gaming. As if the entire internet is somehow a fringe element? Politics aside, however, it did get me to thinking about an idea I like to call the James Bond Complex.

My parents are both avid readers, as are my Grandparents. My Father and Grandmother have a deep love for mystery and thrillers. I often wonder how I would have turned out if I gravitated towards the cold war and Robert Ludlum instead of the Punic Wars and Guy Gavriel Kay. Quite likely the only difference would be that I would be writing a different genre of book. However some people do latch on to the ideas presented in a single genre. In fantasy this is relatively harmless. You cannot mistake this reality for Middle-Earth. If you did, you would quite likely be remanded to a mental institution fairly quickly as you started running around the local subway shouting about Balrogs. I suppose it happens now and then, but it is pretty harmless,

But what if you were crazily into James Bond? Or should I say crazy and into James Bond, because most people who like James Bond are harmless, of course. Still it is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what kind of derangement would be caused when the line between cold war era spy fiction and reality becomes blurred to that sort of never-happen-in-real-life extent that we see in mazes in monsters. Let’s use Bond fiction as an example.

  • See the world as us vs them: In a Bond fantasy it is fairly obvious who the bad guys are. If fact, Bond almost always knows who the enemy is beforehand, and with the exception of the occasional traitor (more on that later) in their own ranks the sides seem to be pretty set. This would lead our crazy person to view everyone who disagreed with them as deranged at best, and likely dangerous. Meanwhile, every action taken by their side would be justified because after all, they are part of the team.
  • The Grand Struggle: In a Bond Fantasy the villains are everywhere and every single decision is one that is fraught with potential danger and great import. It would be a rather boring movie franchise otherwise. Most enemy plots in Bond movies result in chaos and destruction on an impressive scale. A person who mistook this for reality would place singular importance on the efforts of spy agencies, seeing them as the only thing standing between us and catastrophe, every day.
  • The Ends Justify The Means: What is a Licence to Kill? With so much at stake (and the enemy so clearly delineated) almost any action is acceptable, no matter how extreme it might seem. After all what are a few stray bullets compared to deadly moon lasers that will cut the earth in half?
  • Paranoia: Traitors on your team are far more dangerous than the enemy. The worst foe in a Bond movie is usually the traitor within, an agent of friend who betrays James. Someone who takes these things too seriously would be very worried about traitors on their own side. The problem is that people who view the world as us vs them, often see traitors everywhere,

I can see several groups around the world, agencies, institutions, and even corporations who might have a James Bond Complex. Who can say? Good spy fiction is often very realistic, after all.

This is why I prefer Fantasy myself. I expect my fictional realities to be internally consistent, but not realistic. I don’t really believe that people can cast spells or throw buses. Fantasy provides a place for us to examine complex issues or just engage in simple, fun escapism. It is a genre where only a crazy person would mistake what is written for non-fiction.