On Dodging the Obvious

A somewhat-belated Happy New Year!

corgi with confetti
May you have plenty of occasions for confetti in 2017.

I recently read The Impostor Queen, a YA fantasy by Sarah Fine, and was struck by the importance of copper in the fantasy world where it’s set. It made the world – and therefore, the book – feel more unusual and distinctive. Copper isn’t as well-known or symbolically loaded as silver or gold, at least in Western storytelling. Indeed, I see it used as a hair color more than as a metal, especially in YA fantasy, where it seems like every other heroine is a redhead.

(My theory on this: authors avoid going with dark hair for their [usually white] heroines, because it might seem common and uninteresting *brunette sigh* and avoid blonde because it sometimes comes off as a shorthand for “is conventionally gorgeous” and they want their protagonist to be relatable and not an obvious beauty queen.)

Returning to the point! Lots of specific elements, from gemstones (e.g. rubies) to animals (e.g. wolves) to flowers (e.g. roses) appear frequently in Western fairy tales. They’re rich in symbolism and associations, and can provoke certain feelings or assumptions from the reader just by appearing. This can make them useful in fantasy storytelling, especially if you want a classical fairytale feel. But there’s also an opportunity there to make your fantasy world stand out by doing something different.

If your fantasy world is geographically unlike Europe, this will likely be a moot point. If your protagonist grows up in the tropics at the edge of a jungle, she might learn to beware not of wolves or bears but of jaguars. If you’ve based your setting on China, then your heroine is perhaps less likely to wear rubies than she is to wear jade.

But you can certainly vary these elements even in a story with a generally Europe-like setting (the world of The Impostor Queen gave me a Scandinavian vibe). Maybe your heroine’s country doesn’t mine rubies, but has large deposits of topaz. Maybe roses aren’t their thing, but tulips are. Topaz and tulips have fewer classical associations, at least in Western fantasy, but will likely still be well-known to readers. You could go for something less recognized, like iolite or anemone. These have the advantage of being more of a blank slate, association-wise, and perhaps introducing readers to something new. You’ll have to make sure to describe them well, though, as readers may not have a ready mental image of them.

You can include an element like this prominently – like the copper that is used practically everywhere in The Impostor Queen – or as a subtle touch. Think about how common this [metal/gem/animal/flower/etc] is in your fantasy world. Who has it? What is it used for? What does it signify to people?

If you know a good fantasy book that does this, I’d love to hear about it! And while we’re on the subject of book recommendations, allow me to give a shout-out to my favorite novel read in 2016, The Goblin Emperor. Fabulous fantasy. What books did you love last year?

A Picture is Worth SOME Number of Words, Anyway

You know what’s always a good time? Worldbuilding. I like researching what would make sense in a certain situation, and I like brainstorming things that would be cool, and it’s satisfying to find the place where the two fit together.

In this instance, I have a population of elves, some of whom are about to appear in the novel I’m working on. I realized I wasn’t sure what they should look like exactly. I know what the elves of my fantasy world look like in general terms, but like humans, they vary in traits like build, skin tone, and hair and eye color. For these elves, I wanted to choose traits that would logically evolve in their home environment, a chain of equatorial, volcanic islands. I also wanted them to have a look that evokes fire/ash/smoke, since they are particularly attuned to fire magic.

So, I drew up a couple of possible color schemes:

fire elf

The first image rather un-subtly suggests fire, with its red-orange overtones. The second image reflects one of the skin tone/hair color combinations found among the humans living on the nearby mainland. The third image is grayer to be reminiscent of ash. The fourth takes into account that these are equatorial islands, so the elves should perhaps be quite dark-skinned. I gave the skin a slightly grayish cast to evoke charcoal and smoke.

Then, some research! The mainland closest to these islands is loosely based, geographically, on India. Turns out the real India actually has an island with an active volcano. It’s called Barren Island (gosh, wonder why?), and it’s in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. These islands don’t straddle the equator, but they’re not too far off.

(The following is Internet research, and I can’t guarantee its accuracy. I would DEFINITELY do further research if I were actually writing about the Andamanese people. In this instance, however, I am just trying to determine what people living on an island chain like theirs might plausibly evolve to look like.)

The Andamanese people are comprised of multiple tribes with different languages and cultures, but have some physical characteristics in common. They are typically short and slender, with very dark skin.

The elves of my fantasy world are already short and slender, so that works out nicely. Otherwise, my research nudged me toward the elf design on the far right, the darkest one.

I take this also as an opportunity to subvert some fantasy tropes. These will be very dark-skinned people with red, yellow, or orange eyes (see again: fire imagery). When these traits appear in fantasy, the characters who have them are often sinister, and sometimes outright monsters. (Which has pretty terrible implications vis-a-vis perceptions of dark-skinned people.) These elves are neither sinister nor monstrous, but are generally seen as refined and creative. They are known for their fire magic and their main export, high-end glassware.

Now, I can get back to actual writing, knowing that I’ll be better able to describe these elves when they appear. Huzzah!

Fun with Other People’s Characters

I’ve been doing fanart!

I’ve been writing, too, of course, and reading a lot. But fanart is great fun, so I thought I’d share a bit of that. I recently read and enjoyed a YA low-fantasy novel called Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine – a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, but set in a factory complex in a reimagined industrial Asia. It’s pretty great, and I had to draw some of the characters. These are, from left to right, Melik, Wen (the protagonist), and Bo:

drawing of three characters

(Also on deviantART.)

I also drew Bo with a character from another YA fantasy I love, Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore. The character’s name is Erris, and in case the drawing isn’t clear, his body is made of clockwork under the shirt.

Bo and Erris have words

(Again, on deviantART.)

Nothing profound to say about any of this. I mean, I do find creating fanart to be inspiring to me as a writer, insomuch as it’s powerful to be reminded that people can create characters you care about so much that you want to play with them yourself, to spend more time with them and see them expanded. I’ve never written much fanfiction, but it’s the same concept.

Yay fanart!

My Kind of Holiday

It has come to my attention that today is Appreciate a Dragon Day. (Although really, shouldn’t every day be?) So, I had to think about some dragons that I appreciate. Want to know which ones I came up with? No? Oh, okay. PSYCH, you’re hearing about them anyway! (Deep inside, you know that’s what you wanted.)

  • The various dragons kind enough to appear in my own writing, mostly in Rabbit and Cougar. Without them, the Dragonfolk would have to really rethink their culture.
  • Kazul of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, because she appreciates the value of a “captive” princess that won’t run away and can make cherries jubilee. Reading this book, I had no idea what cherries jubilee was, but I wanted it.
  • The red dragon of the Bone series, because those. Ears. Just Google him, okay? “Red dragon bone” should do it.
  • Smaug in the upcoming second Hobbit movie. (Revenge of the Hobbit? The Hobbit Strikes Back?) Because he will be voiced by Benedict Cummerbatch, and he will be playing opposite Martin Freeman, and it will basically be Sherlock, but with a dragon. Be still my heart.

How about you? What dragons do you appreciate?

If You’re Going to Dance in Storms, You Should Probably Research Them First

So, awhile ago, I was looking at upcoming teen books to potentially order for the library where I work, and I saw this:


And then I saw this:

“. . . Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist . . .” – from Patrick Rothfuss’ blurb

My heart, it went pitter-pat.

So I ordered the book for our library. It arrived, looking just as pretty as the image above, and has so far circulated a couple of times. I have not read it. But recently, I started reading some reviews that made my heart go things other than pitter-pat. Things more in the general vein of “sink,” if I had to be specific.

The first review I saw was this one at lady business, which broadly and briefly covers some facts that have been bothering people: author Jay Kristoff seems to have got a lot of his Japanese culture stuff (notably terms of address, whether or not pandas live in Japan) wrong, and then basically brushed off all criticism: “It’s fantasy, folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.”

For a much more detailed, blow-by-blow account of problems one reader had with the book, see the review at You’re Killing Me. While I, too, would probably take issue with the Bathing Scene of Unexamined Creepiness (I must here recommend this excellent post on the male gaze in writing), the thing mostly under scrutiny in Stormdancer is that it’s inaccurate to Japan and Japanese culture.

Kristoff’s main response to this criticism seems to be a claim that the story actually takes place in a land like Japan, and not actual Japan. Some people are brushing this off, but I think it’s an important point. I strongly believe that people should be able – even encouraged – to write settings that are loosely based on non-European civilizations in the same way that oh so many fantasies take place in settings that are loosely based on European cultures. You shouldn’t be held to the historical facts of a country that your setting is only based on, any more than we should shake our fists at dozens of popular fantasy authors because medieval Europe didn’t really have this term or that animal.

I wrote myself awhile ago about coming up with another name for garments my characters were wearing that are close to saris in part because I didn’t want people assuming my setting was India when it isn’t; a similar concern is expressed by blogger Linda in this excellent post on her desire to write fantasy with Asian characters that isn’t set in Asia. (Yes, technically, one is only Asian if one comes from Asia. What she means is that she wants to write characters who, if they were in our world, would be considered to look Asian, in the same way that legions of blonde and blue-eyed fantasy heroes and heroines would look recognizably Caucasian, despite the fact that their fantasy worlds presumably have no Caucasus regions.)

BUT. The blurb right on the front cover of Stormdancer refers to the novel as “Japanese,” and Kristoff doesn’t correct it. There is, apparently, very frequent use of Japanese terms – the book actually includes a glossary. Curiously, some of the terms, like -sama and hai, are used incorrectly throughout the book but have their correct uses described in the glossary. This does rather support Kristoff’s claim that he has fudged and changed things a la George R. R. Martin, who bases his famous A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series loosely on England during the War of the Roses, but changes spellings (“sir” to “ser,” for example).

Still, the impression I get is that Kristoff has crossed the line into appropriation territory. (For a good article on the location of this line, see the Zoe-Trope.)

I also get the impression he makes some choices that are just plain unfortunate. Linda, whose blog I mentioned earlier, also gives us an excellent rant on how frustrating it is that, in a world populated with characters who look Japanese, everyone swoons over the protagonist’s love interest . . . because of his green eyes. Certainly being attracted to people who look different from you is common – and often genetically useful – but to make everyone wildly attracted to (and not even a little, um, freaked out by) an eye color that presumably they’ve never seen on a human before? And an eye color that, not gonna lie, is pretty much a white thing? Kiiinda problematic.

Related to that, one thing I’ve personally gained from all this: the idea of researching different cultures’ standards of beauty. I think that paying so much attention to eye color is really kind of a white thing – if everyone in your culture has brown eyes, are you going to notice it when you meet a new person? That would be kind of like noticing that they have a nose. (On a side note, how hilarious would it be if a character did describe each person s/he met without taking anything for granted? “He walked upright on two legs, with one head located at the top of his body . . .” Somewhat hilarious, is my guess, followed by very tedious.) I’ve already tried to emphasize other, non-eye-color features in the aforementioned not-set-in-India fantasy, but I’ll be curious to learn more about how other cultures measure attractiveness.

How about you? What features do your characters notice about themselves and others? What features do their cultures value and devalue?

A Fantastic Quiz

For my Popular Materials class, a partner and I presented on the fantasy genre. To kick off our presentation, I handed out a quiz I’d written – not to be collected or graded, which might have gotten me assassinated, but to show classmates that they already knew more about fantasy than they might have thought.

(About certain kinds of fantasy, anyway.)

The quiz was so popular with my classmates that I thought I’d post it here.

Sometimes a Smeerp is Just a Smeerp

I recently ran up against an interesting worldbuilding issue: a reason for smeerps.

In case you’re not familiar with the convention of “calling a rabbit a smeerp”, it is when a writer of sci-fi or fantasy includes something that is clearly recognizable as an existing object, concept, or creature (e.g. clock, love, rabbit) in a non-human (or at least non-Earth) society, then refers to it using a made-up word in an attempt to make the society seem exotic. (The rabbit may also have some token alien characteristic, like different coloration.)

This ranges from being a bit silly (apparently parts of the Star Wars canon refer to dice as “chance cubes”) to being a good example of how a culture views things differently from ours. Perhaps your culture is full of tiny carrot-shaped people who are terrified of rabbits and refer to them as Hopping Death. What I ran into, though, was a totally different reason for . . . smeerping?

It stemmed from the type of clothing that the protagonist of my new novel wears. This is something between a sari and a toga – and therein lies the problem.

If I call it a sari, immediate reader assumptions could include:

  • This story is supposed to take place in India
  • This is a female-specific garment
  • This is a garment with Hindu significance

None of which are true in my story.

Similarly, “toga” calls immediately to mind Ancient Greece and Rome. Then, of course, there’s the fact that neither “sari” nor “toga” is an entirely accurate description of the garment (though saris can be worn so many ways that it’s hard to say that one couldn’t look like this).

In photos I’ve seen of garments that approximate what I want here, they tend to be described as “robes.” Unfortunately, the word “robe” carries a set of connotations in high fantasy. Connotations like sleeves. Again, not quite right.

So I smeerped it, using a made-up name and working in a brief description of how it’s worn. This works out well, because I can avoid using an approximate word that doesn’t quite describe what I mean. It occurred to me, though, that I might have used a made-up word even if the object I wanted looked EXACTLY like a sari, just to avoid the other associations. I don’t want someone thinking I’ve made a mistake when a male character appears wearing this garment, and I don’t want people pointing out that my characters aren’t good Hindus.

On a more basic level, though, I don’t want to use a word that seems out of place. Decades of frequent appearances of European objects in fantasy means that their use doesn’t make readers go, “Hey, how can there be a castle? This story must take place in actual medieval Europe, because that’s where castles exist.” I suspect, though, that a sari or a toga would, at the very least, throw people for a loop. Since my setting is based loosely on India, I don’t want readers thinking I’m doing things “wrong” when they see some variation. If I were basing it more closely on India, I’d still want to be careful of using a term which not only has Hindu significance, but could, again, cause readers to think the setting actually was India. (Many words have religious significances, of course, but I try to avoid that when I reasonably can.)

So! Smeerpage as a force for good! Huzzah.

Two Topics Related by One Book

Today’s two writing-related topics are steampunk (yay!) and cover whitewashing (boo!).

How do these things relate? Well, Jaclyn Dolamore’s debut novel, Magic Under Glass, is YA steampunk. (I have heard some arguments for calling it “Victorian fantasy” instead. Haven’t yet read it, so I’m going by what the various categorizing entities say.) It’s also one of that sadly rare species, the fantasy novel with a protagonist who isn’t white. Unfortunately, its publisher, Bloomsbury, saw fit to give it a cover featuring a white girl. Even more unfortunately, this is the second time Bloomsbury has done this in less than a year.

When Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel Liar came out from Bloomsbury in 2009, fans raged at the original cover, featuring an obviously-white girl with straight hair in place of the book’s “nappy-haired” mixed-race protagonist. The author joined the outcry, and Bloomsbury ended up giving Liar a new cover.

At the time the Liar incident started appearing on some of the blogs I read, I shook my head, disappointed but not too surprised. But this is ridiculous. I know that the cover of Magic Under Glass was probably decided already when people let Bloomsbury have it over Liar, but what? Did they think no one would notice? They didn’t issue an apology or an assurance that they will fix things in the paperback. What’s up with that?

The range of literature published in this country featuring non-white protagonists is disproportionate to the population, to say the least. Things get even worse if you’d love to read about people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but don’t care for “gritty” books, books that make you cry your eyes out, or books that are largely about racism. Yes, racism exists, and it’s important that it be recognized. But why shouldn’t a person of any race be able to just pick up a freaking fantasy novel and read a freaking fantasy story (or mystery or romance or whatever floats that person’s literary boat) featuring someone whose skin falls outside of the cream-to-khaki color range? By making one of a few such books look like it is about a white person, Bloomsbury implies that people of color don’t belong in this genre, or that this genre isn’t for them. I’ll say it again: what’s up with that?

Naturally, one doesn’t want to punish the author by boycotting her book. She’s not the one being racist here, and is probably distressed by the misrepresentation of her protagonist. Some bloggers suggest that concerned readers contact Bloomsbury. Probably a good idea, but I also think it’s important just to make noise about this whitewashing business and let Bloomsbury know readers have noticed and We Are Not Amused. Hence my commentary here.

If you want to see what some other people have to say about this issue, check out this Open Letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA, and the posts here and here and here. There are also these suggestions on how white bloggers should not take this news.

To end on a happier note, steampunk! As part of my YA Lit class, I’ve joined the listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. It is neato. At one member’s request, the listserv’s contributors have volunteered titles of YA steampunk, which were then compiled into a snazzy list. Check it out!