Too many characters?

Lovereading.co.uk once wrote that they love epic books with swathes of characters creating a wonderfully complex plot, but asked rather plaintively:

“Sometimes is it all too much?”

They produced a wonderful infographic about books like Shogun, Bleak House, The Stand, Game of Thrones.

You can see the infographics at the link below, but first I decided to look at a few of my own books as to number of characters.

The Secrets of Jin-shei:

Eight protagonists, or nine if you count the ghost, and several times that number of named characters. When asked about the writing of it, I sometimes suggest that if I ever have a similar idea for another book with so many major characters, I plan to go lay down until the impulse passes.

Embers of Heaven:

The sequel-that-is-not-a sequel to the The Secrets of Jin -shei — it takes place in the same world but hundreds of years later — has only two major protagonists, but more than twenty named characters.

Abducticon:

On the other hand, my science-fiction romp has an entire SF/fantasy con of named characters and ensemble protagonists, at least half a dozen other important named
characters and four time-traveling androids.

Empress coverEmpress:

 

My newest book has two main protagonists,                         at least four secondary “important” characters                   with agency on the plot, and more than twenty              named characters

The Were Chronicles:

It is a series and thus tougher to count. There are three MAIN protags, one per book, but each one also features as characters in each other’s books, so it’s hard to know if you’re counting them twice. And numerous other named characters, of course

Worldweavers:

There is only one main protagonist in this four-part series, unless you want to count Coyote The Trickster and other characters from Native American mythology —  along with 25+named characters, some of them from other worlds.

Midnight at Spanish Gardens:

There are five protagonists, or perhaps six counting the enigmatic bartender named Ariel, and several other named characters, although they are less importance in the scheme of things.

You can find ALL my books HERE

Check out the Lovereading infographic HERE

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Children of a Different Sky

Children Title banner

The fantasy anthology, “Children of a Different Sky”, is a collection of stories which illuminate the lot of the lost, bewildered and abandoned refugees and immigrants of our time.

If you wish to help, and don’t know how, pick up a copy of this book, both for the inspiration and insight the stories will give you, and the material aid you will offer by your purchase. All profits go to aid groups.

To pre-order “Children of a Different Sky”, click on the book cover HERE

~~~~~
About me           Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

THEY CHANGE THEIR SKY

I wrote this piece nearly 20 years ago for the online journal Swans, talking about a different war, different refugees — my war, my refugees. So little has changed, nothing has really changed. And that’s the tragedy.

“They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.”

The words of Horace have far outlasted the Empire to which he belonged. Almost a millennium after it fell, Rome is memory and ashes—and yet many, many people are still driven to change their sky. There have always been refugees, but it’s only now, with the eyes of the world on them through an assault and battery of cameras, that their tragedy has become in-your-face news fodder.

Every day we see them, the exiled, the dispossessed, walking across borders, carrying children and old people with distant, terrified eyes, wrapped in threadbare blankets, barefoot in the snow. Some of them are taken into more blessed lands, deloused, debriefed, debugged, declared free of disease, and then often left to fend for themselves (once their initial newsworthiness and photographic cachet have faded) in a hostile environment whose language they often do not speak.

And these are the lucky ones. The rest frequently spend the remainder of their lives in mud and misery, learning to call tents or barracks or empty basketball halls home, bathing in barrels, often getting vaccinated with expired medications far more likely to give them the actual disease they are trying to prevent, drinking slop, eating tinned food ten years past its sell-by date sent by countries eager to slap a Band-Aid on their conscience.

The guerre du jour that shadows our television news has vomited thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of refugees. Many are not yet even aware that this is what they are, but soon it will be made clear to them. Those that are considered as worthy to be shown on the evening news get copious, often intrusive, coverage. Others, perhaps fleeing the same war and chaos, are not seen and not heard. ,

I have family who have tasted refugee bread. Their story is far from unique; there are thousands like them. But theirs is the story I know. Theirs is the story which will be the light that I can shine into the dark places of the world.

I have a cousin. We were both born in Novi Sad, the city on the Danube river; provincial capital but, despite that, a quiet sleepy place on a rich and fertile Wheatland plain – where the light has a special glow on hot harvest Sundays in July and where the snow glitters thick on the ground on remembered childhood New Year’s Eves when we wandered past the street stalls selling tinsel and Christmas cards. Then, in the year I turned ten and she was still only nine years old, we parted – I moved away, to spend the next few decades living far from home; she stayed behind.

She married, and in due time produced two lovely little girls—who knew the name of their auntie in distant parts of the world almost before they knew their own. On March 24 1999, my older niece was four months shy of four years old. The younger was days away from her second birthday. They had known only love and liberty until that date. They had a garden and four dogs and a cat and plenty of toys, and they lived in a peaceful town whose history had flowing blood in it but where, in their day, none were harmed and none harming.

They had no way of knowing what was happening when they were warmly wrapped and, together with their mother and two small suitcases, put on a bus heading for the Hungarian border even as the first airplanes with their deadly payloads were heading to Novi Sad.

They were among the lucky ones, if luck it can be called. I would live to see the numbers of fleeing women and children climb to tens of thousands; I would also live to see those tens of thousands ignored and sidelined by the media, denied even the protecting status of being called “refugees,” because they were the wrong nation, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe of Israel. These were Serb refugees fleeing the bombardment of a country whose sin was to stand up to the world’s great powers and deny them their will. And these women and children were paying the price for that country’s pride.

Being a refugee does not necessarily mean living in a tent with no running water. Being a refugee means enduring sleepless nights; waves of guilt at the people, the responsibilities, and the lives that had to be left behind; a complete inability to show your true feelings because your children think the whole thing is a pleasant holiday.

I have loved many a place where I have lived over the years; but nowhere was “home.”

But I did have a place that was mine alone. I held on to a quiet love for the old river that had flowed through my childhood—never quite the blue of song, the Danube, not this far down on its silt-laden and mud-churned journey, carrying the memory of Vienna and Budapest past my city on its way to the sea. It smelled of damp compacted leaves and wet sand and sometimes a whiff of diesel from the tugs that plied it; its banks were brown mud of the color and consistency of fudge, overgrown with reeds and young willows; white cruise ships and old, peeling, workaday barges all touched this river city’s welcoming quays.

He talked to me, old man river, in the whispered lapping of the water on the shore; it was in memory of these childish conversations that I would almost invariably burst into tears every time we went back for a visit and the family car that had come to pick us up at the main airport in Belgrade trundled across the old bridge on its way home to the remembered warmth of the family circle. The original bridges are all gone now. This is a place of ghosts. My nieces will never live in the same town that I spent my own childhood in.

Once, talking with a friend who himself immigrated here from a different country, I asked him, What color is your sky? It stumped him for a while, before he thought about it and understood: every one of us has a morning in our memory where a sky has etched itself into our soul—a certain light of dawn, a certain shade of blue, a certain golden wash to the clouds. This sky is yours, unique, a once-in-a-lifetime sight that connects you to a time and a place which otherwise would vanish like so many memories into the vast shadowy storehouse where memories are stored, perhaps never to be looked at again. This sky is your soul, a glimpse of the soul you carry within you, and that is the color of the sky which you will always think of as “home.”

My skies are a cerulean blue over golden fields. I haven’t seen them for years. But Horace had the right of it—”They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.”

I am a refugee. But I am a refugee who carries her home with her like a stone from beside her old hearth, a vial of holy water from her river, a piece of blue from her sky. I am very far across the sea from where I began… but despite the changing skies that I have lived my life underneath I have never let go of that piece of my soul in which I carry my home.

All of us, all the refugees on this tired and beaten and churned-up world, share that characteristic. We may run, for a million different reasons—but the gift in that is to know, because we are preternaturally aware of our world and our surroundings far more than the watchers of the news in comfortable suburban houses across the planet, exactly what color the sky should be when we lift our eyes to it. The price of being aware of one’s unchanging soul is the eternal longing to return, even when that return ceases to be practically possible, to the place where the exiled soul belongs, knowing that there is a Promised Land and, like Moses, to only be able to glimpse it from across a river with no fords.

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Children of a Different Sky

Children Title bannerThe fantasy anthology, “Children of a Different Sky”, is a collection of stories which illuminate the lot of the lost, bewildered and abandoned refugees and immigrants of our time.

 

If you wish to help, and don’t know how, pick up a copy of this book, both for the inspiration and insight the stories will give you, and the material aid you will offer by your purchase. All profits go to aid groups.

To pre-order “Children of a Different Sky”, click on the book cover HERE

~~~~~
About me      My Books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

When the world goes mad

An Ode to Summer Delights

I have frissons of existential fear every time I wander past the news headlines these days. There is only one explanation for what is going on today – either the world has gone mad or I have gone quietly insane and I’m the one hanging by a thin thread, gibbering into the void. The words “hell” and “handbasket” come to mind. Frequently.

But then, I went to Joe’s Garden.

We were introduced to it several years ago by friends who smugly knew what a treasure they were introducing us to. We’ve been in the orbit of this place for years and years and years.

You walk into the little building between their fields and their greenhouses, and you fall into punnets of flowers, into ranks of tin pots holding handfuls of scented bouquets of sweetpeas and daisies and lavender, you walk with an expression of silly ecstasy past tables bearing zucchinis twice as big as their puny brothers in supermarkets, past heads of lettuce still damp from their last watering and barely out of the ground, past stout heads of garlic and three different kinds of onions, past carrots which are just imperfect enough to let you know that they haven’t been factory-produced, past punnets of blueberries and strawberries and blackberries and strawberries, past (when they are in season) the best apples ever grown (the Gravensteins), past shelves of hand-bottled honey, of free-range eggs.

You walk past peaches which bear signs that say “Don’t squeeze me, I’m perfect!”

There is a story here, because this place is on the way to Hospice House, where my father spent his last days, the place where he ate his last perfect peach of the last days of his last summer, taken from these luscious piles of summer fruit straight to his bedside. This was, perhaps, his last taste of life. I do not forget this, I never can.
But life goes on, even after that. And then, today, there was a large tabletop above a sign that said “REAL tomatoes!”

And oh, there was a pile of them. And oh, they were.

Real.

Pile of summer tomatoesThey smelled real. They were ridged and misshapen and not always completely and uniformly red like their gas-ripened cousins always are. But oh, oh, oh, the smell of them.

Just smell that,” I said to a complete stranger standing beside me staring at the bounty on the table.

And she, holding a tomato, brought it up to her nose and inhaled, and we exchanged a blissful smile.

I bought more tomatoes than I probably need because I could not bear to leave any behind. My eyes devoured them way before my teeth could sink into them, before my taste buds could swoon, before the juices ran red and sweet in my mouth.
I brought them home and I sliced into them and we ate them, fresh and red and sweet and ripe with the sun of summer.

And for a little while I could close my eyes and let my soul unclench. It is summer. In this mad whirling world there is still a summer. And it existed in the bright slices of REAL tomatoes which reminded me that sometimes it’s just okay to take a moment… and live.

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Refugees of war

Wars, refugees and the twilight of the spirit

Wars seem to come naturally to our species. Too naturally. I once read that we and a handful of species of ants are the only creatures on earth that actually WAGE WAR upon others like ourselves, for whatever reason – booty, territory, the not-us syndrome, the if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us syndrome.

I don’t know about the ants. Maybe they have their own problems. But us humans… we’ve always fought, with something, with somebody, against some “foreign” idea or some person who looked different from ourselves. It’s always been easy to pick a fight, and even easier to roar defiance in response and accept a challenge flung – and off we all go again chasing each other with increasingly lethal weapons.

Wars began with armies. You had a Battle of [Something], and places gained fame throughout history by being associated with particular locales. You will recognize them. Agincourt. Hattin. Culloden. Crimea. Gettysburg. Khyber Pass. Passchendaele. The Somme. Gallipoli. The Western Front.

You declared a war; you got an army together and often made them wear ridiculous uniforms (red coats, anyone?); your opponent got an army together, and made them wear some other ridiculous uniform to differentiate them from your guys. And then, like little boys with their little tin soldiers, the generals would move their armies across fields, facing one another – deciding on who would lead the van, how the enemy could be outflanked, where the charge would be released.

The armies fought and died on those fields, man against man, using increasingly sophisticated weaponry – bows and arrows, swords and daggers, spears, lances, halberds, axes, muskets, rifles, bayonets, machine guns, cannon, grenades. But by and large, it was army against army, men killing other men upon orders of yet more men, nations resolving disputes on the battlefield by throwing the cream of their manhood at one another and abiding by the battle outcomes.

The collateral damage of these wars has always been present – when men fight there are always those who aren’t combatants but who get in the way. The women, the children, the old, the crippled and the disabled – the ones who get run over when armies fight. The ones who get left to starve after their menfolk vanish into the battlefield blood and mire. The ones who get abandoned alongside fallow fields they can no longer till, or in houses from which they are turfed out because they cannot pay the rent, or who have to run because their side lost and they are now behind enemy lines in enemy territory and they speak the wrong language or worship the wrong god.

The refugees, ones who flee, the ones who are driven to run without pity and who run without hope, they have always been with us. There are enough accounts of them, enough drawings of them, enough paintings, enough evidence remains.

But they were always the flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the tide, where the tide was the greater war.

Until recently.

When war changed, I am not entirely sure – but it became prevalent during WW2 when everyone began bombing cities filled with civilians, including women and children… and worse. Think of the horror that was Stalingrad. It was no longer a question of an army against an army with civilians suffering the side effects of the wa. Now it was no longer armies. Now war was being fought on the backs of those civilians, directly. People were killed or maimed, their homes, fields and livelihoods deliberately destroyed as a PART of war, not as unintended consequences.

Now… now we no longer need an army facing an army, a sword facing a sword, a rifle facing a rifle. Now we have other things. Now we have landmines. Now we have aircraft – the ones that strafe from above, and the ones who drop anonymous bombs which don’t care if they devastate an army on a battlefield or destroy a city – and even worse, we have drones “flown” by “pilots” thousands of miles away who kill as easily as if their targets are only pixels in a computer game . Now we have white phosphorus and napalm and depleted uranium. Now we have the looming threat of nuclear war – and we know about what that is like because one nation on this globe (and only one) has used nukes against cities and civilians already.

Now the refugees who flee all this are endemic. They are everywhere. They are no longer running to escape a war, because war can no longer be escaped – things are burning everywhere. Now they’re running to see if their ten-year-old child has any hope of seeing his eleventh birthday, or if their twelve-year-old daughter can escape being raped and murdered by the wayside. Now they run with no more than the hope that they might end up somewhere that is better than the place they leave behind – now they run because the places they leave behind are being obliterated as they leave them.

Not only is there nowhere to run, these days – there’s nowhere to run from, because as soon as you turn your back on your home and your past it somehow ceases to exist.
Human beings are being driven into a twilight of the spirit – there are more and more of these refugees every day. Some leave literal dust and ashes behind; others run because there is no longer a way to coexist with others who happen to be holding power in their home and who no longer wish to take the time to talk to anyone, not when they can throw a bomb at them instead.

Some end up hopeless and apathetic in refugee camps across the globe. Others radicalize and return to get revenge. They in turn will displace other refugees. It is a vicious self-perpetuating spiral, and it leads down into more and more human misery and human despair.

I have never fled from actual rubble and fire – never been hungry – never been forced to deny my history, my family, my culture, my name, if I wanted to accept help which is sometimes offered conditionally. But I know people who have. I think the world is getting to a place where most of us know someone like that, or know someone else who does – I don’t think there is a greater gap than those two degrees of separation.

Some of us who have been born into a quiet and peaceful place and who have lived in comfort and safety all of our lives will find it hard to even begin to understand the mindset of somebody who has lost half their family and most of their possessions and who is grateful for a bowl of what we might consider to be inedible food for their supper. But it would take so little – so little! – for that person we cannot understand… to be ourselves. So little. The margins are so, so small. There but for the grace of God go all of us, every last one of us.

Something you can do

For some of us over here in the safe and comfortable enclaves, it is hard to look over there, hard to see, hard to comprehend, and when we do steal an appalled glance, the problem seems so huge, so intractable, so impossible, that we cringe away and wring our hands and say, but what can we do? It is so much bigger than ourselves.
But there are things you can do. There are always things you can do.

children of a different sky coverOne such thing is the anthology “Children of a Different Sky”, a collection of twelve stories and two poems from a group of authors who range from multiple award winners to writers who are seeing their first published work on these pages. The profits from the sales of this book will go directly to two charities working with refugees and migrants, both internationally (the International Medical Corps) and within the United States (Center for New Americans).

The problem is too big for any one of us to tackle alone – but those of us who can tell stories can tell in fiction stories which illuminate that lost and bewildered and abandoned state of mind and how to overcome it.

The readers who pick up this book and read those stories are both picking up a treasure-house of tales which will deeply touch them, and supporting a cause which will directly help those who are living many such stories right now.

The problem is big. We, the storytellers, are trying to do our part. Our readers will also be doing something tangible. Their purchase of a copy of the non-profit anthology “Children of a Different Sky” will mean they will be directly sending aid to charities who work with refuges who need help so desperately.. You can make the world a better place… by buying a book.

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“Children of a Different Sky” can be preordered, ebook or paperback, HERE 

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The Big Idea

We have a guest today.

My friend Joshua Palmatier has a new book out – more than that, it’s the culminating book of a series, and one which completes a fascinating story based on a shiny, shiny idea.

I invited him to tell you about it here – so, over to him:


 Reaping The Aurora

                Alma Alexander suggested that—since REAPING THE AURORA is the third and final volume in this series—I write about the big idea behind the series, what drove me to sit down and create this series, so that’s what I intend to do.

                The basic idea behind the series came from two sources actually.  The first comes from the 80s.  Yes, IT CAME FROM THE 80s!  Back then, almost every fantasy novel I read mentioned the ley lines—the mystical forces that connected stone monuments like Stonehenge and whatnot.  However, none of those books really USED the ley lines at all.  It was really just part of the setting, something that everyone would identify as fantasy.  It was annoying.  I vowed I would never write anything involving ley lines.

                Except that, years later, I began to wonder—how could you use the ley lines in a fantasy novel?  I mean, really USE them?

                As my subconscious began mulling this question over, I began to notice something coming up at conventions a lot:  the idea that there should be more variety in fantasy settings.  Why were they all medieval in tone?  Why couldn’t there be fantasies set in other time periods?  Most people began messing around with fantasies set in other cultures—Africa, Asia … basically non-European—but I began thinking, why couldn’t we have a “modern” fantasy?  What if that medieval setting that used magic continued its existence untouched?  What would the society look like in fifty years? a hundred?

                And that’s when the two ideas combined and the “Ley” series was born.  What if the culture in my world tapped into the natural ley line network and used that power in the same way we use electricity—to light the streets, to heat homes, to cook?  What would that initial medieval society look like fifty years later? a hundred?  In what other ways would such a society use the power they’d tapped into, this natural resource?  And most importantly, in what ways would they abuse it?

                When I sat down to write the first book, SHATTERING THE LEY, I knew I wanted a society that had been using the ley to make life easier for decades.  They’d become dependent upon it, the same way we’re dependent on oil.  And not just dependent, the society wanted to continue using the ley, to push it to its extremes, to build ever larger buildings and new and improved innovations, all while ignoring the signs that perhaps they system they’d tapped into was becoming strained.  That first book explored how such a system could be used in a fantasy setting and the consequences of its abuse.  There are “bad guys” and political infighting and even the threat of terrorism, but in the end the real “bad guy” in the novel is the society itself.

                The misuse of the ley leads to the catastrophic failure of the ley system, and the second and third novels in the series—THREADING THE NEEDLE and REAPING THE AURORA—both deal with how the survivors of the apocalypse deal with the consequences of that failure.  Essentially, the ley system is broken and those who created it and understood it the most are all dead.  It’s up to the remaining Wielders—those who can manipulate the ley—to figure out how to repair the damage that’s been done.  Of course, it isn’t easy, especially when you must also deal with the basic necessity of survival in a world where society has literally collapsed.

                So in essence, the Big Idea for this series was to actually explore an apocalyptic storyline, but in a fantasy setting.  Instead of having the “catastrophic event” happen sometime in the far past—which seems to be the back story in many fantasy settings—I wanted to explore that catastrophic event in person.  What brought it about?  What caused it?  And what happened immediately after? 

                That was the basic thought behind this series.  The fact that I could also introduce some subtle commentary on our own society—our misuse of our own natural resources—was simply a bonus.  Isn’t that what science fiction and fantasy are for?  A way to comment on our own society by reflecting some of our own issues onto a science fiction or fantasy setting?  Not that these novels are heavily literary at all.  I don’t browbeat the issue.  It’s simply there, if you care to pay attention.

                Of course, no series will ever be interesting or involving if it’s only based off of a concept or idea.  There’s far more to “story” than that.  The series would never have taken off if I hadn’t discovered the characters Kara and Allen.  Kara is the heart of the story, a Wielder who is just discovering her powers in SHATTERING THE LEY and who, because of her talent, feels personally responsible for repairing the ley.  Allan starts off as one of the vicious Dogs, controlled by the Baron, who in turn controls the ley system itself.  Without their personal story arcs stretching across all three books, the series and the world would never have come to life.

                So, if you’d like to try a fantasy that’s a little different, that has a more “modern” feel to it, that could perhaps be a blend of sci-fi and fantasy, then check the “Ley” series out.  With the release of REAPING THE AURORA on August 1st, the series is complete, so you can read it all at once.  Join Kara and Allan—and all of those they care about—as they traverse this fantasy world based on the ley lines and follow them as they survive the Shattering of the Ley … and fight to repair it.

The final book in the thrilling epic fantasy Ley trilogy, set in a sprawling city of light and magic fueled by a ley line network.

In a world torn apart by the shattering of the magical ley lines that formerly powered all the cities and towns of the Baronies, there are few havens left for the survivors. The uncontrolled distortions released by the shattering have claimed the main cities of the Baronial Plains. And many of the Wielders who controlled the ley died in the apocalyptic cataclysm their manipulation of the ley created.
 
Wielder Kara Tremain and former Dog Allan Garrett, survivors of the city of Erenthrall’s destruction, have seized control of the new Nexus created at the distant temple known as the Needle, the stronghold of the White Cloaks and their leader, Father Dalton.  With Father Dalton a prisoner, Kara intends to use the Needle’s Nexus to heal the major distortions that threaten to shake their entire world apart. 

But while she and the remaining Wielders managed to stabilize Erenthrall, they have not been able to stop the auroral storms or the devastating earthquakes sweeping across the lands. Now they are hoping to find a means to heal the distortion at the city of  Tumbor, releasing the nodes captured inside.  If they succeed, the ley network should be able to stabilize itself.

But the distortion over Tumbor is huge, ten times the size of the one over Erenthrall.  Kara will need the help of all of the Wielders at the Needle in order to generate enough power, including the rebel White Cloaks.  But can Kara trust them to help her, or will the White Cloaks betray her in order to free Father Dalton and regain control of the Needle, possibly destroying any chance of healing the ley network in the process?
 
Meanwhile, Allan journeys back to Erenthrall, hoping to form alliances with some of the survivors, only to discover that Erenthrall itself has sunk a thousand feet into the ground.  The vicious groups that plagued them on their last visit have banded together under a new leader—Devin, formerly Baron Aurek’s second-in-command.  While discussing an alliance with the Temerite enclave, Devin’s men attack, forcing Allan and the Temerites to flee back to the Needle, leaving Erenthrall in Devin’s hands.
 
But the Needle is no safe haven.  Father Dalton’s followers have begun to rebel, starting riots and creating unrest, all of it targeted at Kara and the Wielders.  The tensions escalate beyond control when Father Dalton declares he’s had a vision—a vision in which the Needle is attacked from the north by dogs and from the south by snakes; a vision that ends with the quickening of the distortions called the Three Sisters to the north . . . and the annihilation of reality itself!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A professor of mathematics at SUNY College at Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels to date—the “Throne of Amenkor” series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne), the “Well of Sorrows” series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven), and the “Ley” series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora).  He is currently hard at work on the start of a new series, as yet untitled.  He has also published numerous short stories and has edited numerous anthologies.  He is the founder/owner of a new small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC, which focuses on producing SF&F themed anthologies, the most recent being Alien Artifacts and Were-.  Find out more at .joshuapalmatier dot com .  You can also find him on Facebook under Joshua B. Palmatier and Zombies Need Brains, and on Twitter at @bentateauthor and @ZNBLLC.

 

What can fairy tales possibly teach us?

I didn’t get to go to Disneyland until I was a grown woman – and I was wholly unprepared for the rushing feelings that swept over me as I stood there and watched the real-life incarnations of some of my childhood fairy-tale iconic images come dancing down the road in the parade. I was practically in tears watching Sleeping Beauty wave from her float, preceded by those three ditzy fairy guardians in their little pointed hats and color-coordinated outfits.

But the Disney princesses were just the most obvious, most prevalent, most visible and recognizable avatars of stories which, for me, had far deeper roots.

When I was young, I read the actual fairy tales. The fearsome, bloody, no-holds-barred, emotional ones. In my childhood fairy tales, Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. In my childhood tales Sleeping Beauty wasn’t just wakened with a kiss, but something far more visceral than that.

And in my childhood I wept over the tale of the Little Mermaid – and perhaps it was this that crystallized it for me because to this day I can’t watch what Disney has done to it. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is full of power and drama and pathos and poignancy – and I simply cannot bring myself to accept a singing lobster sidekick with a Caribbean accent.

I read Oscar Wilde’s wonderful dark fairy tales, when I was a little older, and there were things in there that pierced me to the heart, just like the rose thorn did his immortal nightingale.

I think that fairy tales are a deep and visceral influence, and they are handed out to young minds which they then help shape. A famous paraphrase of a G K Chesterton quote applies – Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. The lessons of fairy tales start with that – with courage. They also teach wisdom, and strength, and compassion, and an obstinate refusal to give up hope, because in fairy tales even the worst possible things that happen work out in the end. In some way.

Maybe not the obvious way – not in Hans Christian Andersen, at least – but in some way. It might sound overblown if fairy tales are credited with the formation of the inner moral creature of the human adult by shaping the still malleable stuff that is the child, but in some ways that is exactly what they do. That is what they are for.

It has become fashionable to shield and shelter the child from many things and this is where the Disney Princesses come from, a sanitized and often saccharinised version of a more rough-hewn and visceral original tale. But there are generations who grew up with those older and rawer stories and who didn’t end up damaged by them. Children have far more strength and intelligence than they are given credit for. In some ways it is a regression when they grow up through all the Disney fluff and fairy dust and end up faced with grittier life realities afterwards, anyway, inevitably, as we all are.

When I was growing up with fairy tales I was not shielded from the bitterness and pathos of “The Little Match Girl” because some adult did not wish me to know that it was possible for a child to die cold and hungry in the street.

The best fairy tales had a hint of a happy ending, not just a happily ever after slam where everything just ended on a nice high note and nobody ever questioned the ever-after. I learned young to question the “happy ending” as such – because I had an early suspicion that somebody had to lose for someone else to win absolutely everything. Yes, every story has an ending and you have to be able to close the book in a satisfying way when you are reading the tale to your child and say, yes, here we conclude and here this story is ended.

But fairy tales, the best fairy tales, are not just pieces of cake which exist separately and are delicately snacked on one at a time. They are a part of a greater fabric of Story, and they are formative, when they are encountered at a young age.

We learn how the world works from inside a fairy tale. We learn that the world isn’t always fair. We learn what we are supposed to want in order to make us happy – but we also learn that on the way to that handsome Prince, the Princess-in-waiting first has to have friends and allies, be they a fairy godmother, a bunch of dwarves, or animals who can communicate only with her. It’s okay to be offered help. It’s okay to accept it. There are a lot of smaller moments of happiness on the way to the happily-ever-after.

I wept at the Disney parade because it brought fairy tales – their own versions of it, which I don’t always agree with but still – to life, and breathed existence, actual existence, into characters which had hitherto lived only in the imagination. But it is in that imagination that the real power remains. Those stories read by flashlight under the covers when you were very young – or were read to you by people who loved you – remain with you. Always.

You carry the fairy tales of your childhood into the adult world with you. And they will always be your friends – even the dragons which they have shown you how to defeat – because a fairy tale is a fundamental building block of the world. With them, we build ourselves.

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Faerie Magazine cover

This article first appeared in Faerie Magazine, a quarterly print magazine celebrating enchantment.

It’s website is HERE

 

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Where are the women?

Why can’t a woman save the world?

I watched the first episode of a new disaster TV series, ‘Salvation’, and while I was entertained enough to keep watching, there was something that bothered me.

Take a look at the place, the time, and the protagonists. The dateline is “present day” America. , . Your world. Your everyday real world. They’ve added a potential catastrophic asteroid impact in 186 days – but other than that, we’re fine, folks, this is our world, nothing to see here.

Protagonists:

Handsome maverick rich guy/entrepreneur/tech wizard who’s out there with a (somewhat selfish but eh) vision to save the world from itself: a hetero white male.

Bright young genius MIT student who falls into this because, you know, he’s a genius and he’s the only one doing this research which is really boring and all that but oh hey there’s an asteroid coming and who ends up as the above maverick’s sidekick – handsome, adorable, with the BEST pick-up lines ever, quirky, witty, sexy, fun, and did I mention preternaturally BRIGHT: a hetero white male.

Powerful government figure – deputy secretary of defense – high-falutin’ political type with all the proper tentacles, er, connections, in the highest circles of government: a hetero white male.

In the other corner:

The efficient press secretary/press release writer/sophisticated media personality, blonde and vivacious, and in a secret affair with the Head Political Guy: a blonde white female

The young sidekick’s girl – the one he picked up with that adorable line and immediately bedded – quirky, pretty, savvy, a writer of science fiction (dear god at least they didn’t make her write Harry Potter fantasy): a white female.

A spunky journalist type with moxie and connections, one who looks slated to be “trouble”: a slightly darker female.

ALL the women are pretty, *TWO* of them find an occasion to slip into something slinky and sexy for an “Embassy ball” halfway through the episode (and the third one, by that time, is wearing nothing at all because she’s already between the sheets with Genius Boy With The Good Pickup Line. All of them are gorgeous, and all of them appear to have a head for no more than just the feminine stuff.

You know, words. While the men get on with the actual IDEAS, with THINKING, with ACTION. The women merely get to write about those things. They’re important, to be sure – because without them how else is all that masculine excellence going to get communicated to the audience who need to see and admire it?

There is a certain sense of a dynamic here – the powerful man and his relationship with the beautiful but subordinate arm candy woman (the politician and the PR flack) – which would admittedly be harder to sell if the politician, for instance, was a woman and the flack a man.

But it’s been done, if only rarely. Take a look at something like “Expanse”, with that oh so ruthless and powerful female political star in that heaven, and you see it can be done.

But even if you leave that alone – why couldn’t the grad student, for instance, have been female? And why couldn’t she have been appreciated for what she did and what she understood rather than for the fact that she might have been REALLY HOT once she took off the obligatory pair of scientist spectacles which she would no doubt have been made to wear in the beginning, just to establish that she was, you know, scholarly, a nerd, a geek?

In one sense I know I am giving a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

There is indeed the version of the stereotype where the girl scientist is all nerdy and geeky and unattractive because, you know, the hot girls really don’t DO this kind of thing with their lives – or else she’s EITHER just pretend-geeky and once she shakes down that severely pinned up hair into cascading curls and takes off those glasses she’s a rocks star, OR she’s just a rock star to begin with, a scientist with a body of a Playboy centerfold and the face of Boticelli’s Venus who also just happens to have two PhDs in relevant disciplines plus a stray Master’s degree in Russian, just for funsies.

And more often than not, if we DO get a female scientist thrown in, she’s either the bossyboots who terrorizes everyone else into doing the right thing, or else she’s the one who drops the ball on whatever is being done, and then stands there and SCREAMS…

Yes, I know, I know, it’s all fiction and I am being a curmudgeon. But somehow these things never arise when it comes to male figures of power. They CAN be brilliant and good looking at once and nobody bats an eyelid or makes any snarky comments (much like the ones I was making).

But remember this – men age gracefully. An older man with graying temples is actually believable as a scientist of standing or a power figure and yes, he can STILL be sexy.

While the Hollywood standard has – as has been described by someone whose identity I now don’t recall – precisely three levels of roles for women. The sexy ingénue, someone’s mother, and Driving Miss Daisy. In recent years it might have been expanded – marginally – to suit-wearing corporate bitch (or genre equivalent).

But nowhere in there does an older woman with a touch of gray and a quiet sense of power have a place to stand. Nowhere there does an intelligent younger woman stand, either, one who might have stepped into that Grad Student Sidekick’s shoes. SHE, you see, would have had to fall back into ingénue – she would be young enough for Hollywood to demand that she had to be pretty and easy on the eyes, all other qualifications be damned.

Anyone who’s ever known a grad student in the advanced stages of pursuing a PhD could tell you that those people usually look rumpled, bleary-eyed, carrying the weight of two worlds in the bags under their eyes, wearing clothes they might have slept in (and probably have done at least once), with way more than five o’clock shadow if they’re men and hair that hasn’t been brushed for a while if they’re women, basically focused on what they are doing rather on what they look like or whether they own a tux (or a fetching evening gown) to show up at an Embassy ball in.

I think I may have to go an WRITE the kind of thing I want to see on the screen. The only problem is that then I will never see it on the screen. Because the kind of character I write… is way too real for the fiction that people are apparently willing to accept.

All I can say is, keep soldiering on, the female half of humanity.

Even though nobody wants to know that you’re doing it. If a real asteroid comes hurtling down to this planet… we’re probably going to bungle things badly enough to destroy ourselves anyway, whoever is in charge, but it’s likely to have been the old boys’ club.

We might never know what could have happened if they’d let a girl scientist whip off her glasses and release her hair and save the world.

~~~~~

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