Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest Post - J. A. Beard

You meet the most interesting people in this line of work - at least, for sufficiently broad definitions of "meet" and "work."  Today I'm pleased to present J. A. Beard, who has just released The Emerald City, a young adult urban fantasy novel set in Seattle.  It's clever, engaging, and thoroughly original, but it's also a fascinating re-framing of The Wizard of Oz

Today's guest post is from Mr. Beard, who shares his insights into the changing nature of fantasy worlds.  Take it away, J. A.:

Our World versus Their World
In the past, there was far less separation between the idea of “our” world and the world of the fantastical. Storytellers would spin tales about creatures traveling around the outskirts of humanity, distant lands, or even the past, but there typically was less a sense that the magical world was something discrete and forever disconnected from the mundane “real” world.
Some of this was because our worldview was different. The magical world, for many people in the past, was the real world. A story about creatures that eat children who stray too far from home may have served a useful social purpose, but many people did legitimately fear creatures in untamed lands bordering their villages and cities. A lack of understanding of the forces of nature in many societies often manifested in the elevation of practitioners of what we’d now consider mystical arts.
The government of ancient Heian Japan, for instance, had an entire government department staffed with onmyoji, a group of men we’d classify as mystics and diviners. These were not priests. The ancient Japanese had plenty of Shinto and Buddhist priests. Onmyoji were professional “magical” bureaucrats. Magic was their science.
Slowly, though, humanity’s understanding of the world advanced. The dragons of ignorance fell before the blades of science and controlled observation. Where many ancients worshipped the moon as a deity, we’ve walked upon it. Magic has been forced to mostly retreat from our daily existence. People may accept many elements of the supernatural, but in most places a more rational non-magical worldview has settled in. Most people no longer fear ogres in the woods, vampires, shape-shifting foxes, or other sorts of supernatural beings.
Concurrent with the retreat of magic from daily existence, we saw the rise of fantasy as a distinct genre with its stories of magic, monsters, and heroes. Unlike earlier tales that included such elements, these types of stories typically were often not set on Earth, or if they were, would define their setting as some lost mythical age totally divorced from the present. There were exceptions, but in general fantasy became something associated not just with magic, but with different worlds.
This persists to this day. The gritty politics and betrayals in Westeros may have been inspired partially by the War of the Roses of our own world, but no one would ever mistake anything in the A Song of Fire and Ice series for Earth-based fantasy.
Even many stories that did establish a link to our world would quickly shuffle their characters off to somewhere completely fantastical and separate from our mundane little blue planet. Whether they are gritty struggles of brawn, epic magical adventures, whimsical explorations, or something else entirely, these second world fantasies have formed the basis of a rich canon. They allow complete escape into an all-encompassing adventure: new world, new creatures, new rules.
In recent years, the rise of contemporary and urban fantasy has challenged the dominance of second world fantasy. Of course, ever since the rise of fantasy as a true separate genre, there have been stories that inserted magic into a modern milieu, but they’ve typically been overshadowed by their second world cousins. Now, though, when one goes to the bookstore, they’re as likely to find a fantasy story set in a major modern city as they are in some country set in a different world and time. Vampires again lurk in the darkness, faeries in the forest, and the occasional fox does change shape. Mages battle in secret (or out in the open) for control of Earth.
Unlike the second world fantasies, contemporary and urban fantasies don’t allow a total escape. Sure, they do have creatures and new magical rules, but can an adventure of someone adventuring around, for example, Chicago ever capture the same feeling that comes with visiting somewhere totally new?
In a sense, the very familiarity of the world in such books produces a sense of wonder of its own. The tweaking of the familiar sets up a different but still satisfying exploration into the unknown. Whether it is the shadow worlds of settings where the supernatural is hidden to the twists on the modern where the supernatural creatures walk openly among us, the mere inclusion of these elements in our rational and oh-so-scientific world produces a new setting every bit as rich in unexpected possibility as any distant land.
As humanity continues to advance, change, and adapt, it’ll be interesting to see how our age-old interest in the supernatural continues to infuse itself into our fiction. Perhaps in a few decades, we’ll have a whole genre of fantasy taking place in domed lunar cities.
J.A. Beard likes to describe himself as a restless soul married to an equally restless soul. His two children are too young yet to discuss whether or not they are restless souls, but he’s betting on it. He likes to call himself the Pie Master, yet is too cowardly to prove his skills in an actual baking competition.
While writing is one of his great passions, science is another, and when he’s not writing or worrying about baking, he’s working on the completion of his PhD in microbiology.
He blogs at and is on Twitter as @jabeard_rf.
His current release, a young adult urban fantasy, THE EMERALD CITY, doesn’t take place in Chicago, but it does have a lot of mystical action in the fine modern city of Seattle. It’s available for sale at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Author Interview - Craig Comer

I've got something a bit unusual to tell you about today.  The Roads to Baldairn Motte is not the typical fantasy novel.  It is in fact three novellas in one volume, by three authors, telling linked, interwoven stories of the same war, especially one key battle.  You can read more about it here:

It's written in a gritty, authentic-feeling style, with a worm's eye view.  This isn't the story of kings and princes, but rather of common men and women caught up in great events.  Thralls of the Fairie, for instance, centers on a farmer deeply worried about his sons.  He ends up marching off to battle in an attempt to keep his family together.

I interviewed Craig Comer, author of the third novella in the book.  I'm going to let him tell you about the story and its genesis in his own words.

Tell me about The Roads to Baldairn Motte.

The Roads to Baldairn Motte is a mosaic fantasy novel centered around the conquest for an empty throne. The novel consists of three novellas, each written by a different author, and each telling a different point of view of the same battle.

The captain of the Black Wind is forced into the service of the powerful Earl of Gaulang. Ensnared in a tangle of bargains and betrayal, the captain and his crew fight for survival, finding allies in the unlikeliest of places.

To the north, the commander of the Titan Guard, the elite fighting force of Lord North, travels to the edge of civilization to enlist the help of barbarian giants known as the Marchers. But such aid comes at a cost, and the price of victory may spell doom for all.

From simple crofts, farms, and villages come the ranks of the engaging armies. A crofter hunts for his missing sons at the peril of his life and honor, while a miller follows his lord to battle, eager to rattle spears against enemy shields. Hungry and exhausted, both men will find they are but dander upon the wind in the great game of the Passions.

Yet struggle as they might, all roads will lead them to the ruins at Baldairn Motte.

What was it like working collaboratively with two other authors? How did it make the book stronger? What were the challenges?

Unlike traditional co-authored books, we wrote our stories independently so that each viewpoint came from a completely different creative genesis. We feel this created a unique overall story because the different factions are truly pursuing their own ends, they aren't pulled along by an overall plot thread. For example, Garrett Calcaterra's piece, On the Black Wind to Baldairn Motte, chronologically stops well short of the other two, yet it still gives a heavy dose of what is to come. It doesn't matter that his characters don't appear in the final novella, Thralls of the Fairie; their story has ended, and in a satisfying way.

That isn't to say we didn't call out each other's works once we were in revision mode. That's part of the fun of collaboration! Having your ideas rebutted when you're still writing drafts makes you think about why you're making certain choices, and what choices you'll risk an argument to defend versus what you're willing to let go. Plus, your collaborators may take your story to places you hadn't considered, which may spark better ideas of your own.

What is world building like when you have collaborators? How did it affect the development of your characters?

For continuity, we created a bible for the world with major characters, events, cultures, and even a lexicon of swear words. But it wasn't until we started kicking out drafts that we knew the more lush details like whether it was raining on a particular day, or what type of tree is common near a village. Through email, we were able to make quick decisions and revise as we wrote, changing the name of a river or the size of a town as our characters entered those places.

From a character development standpoint, one thing that really helped was our desire to keep our characters at a ground level. That is, we wanted to experience the war through the eyes of the common soldier, sailor, and farmer, not from the view of lords and the realm's powerplayers. This allowed us to grow our characters without worrying too much about how their decisions would impact each other's storylines. Our characters do cross paths (if you look close enough) but we didn't want them to dwell too long together. After all, swords are sharp, and something bad might've happened!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review - My Sparkling Misfortune

My rating: 4/5

Laura Lond has written an absolutely delightful novella about a villain who finds himself plagued with a goody-two-shoes helpful spirit who's determined to make him a better man. This is one of the most thoroughly charming stories I've read in a long time.

Lord Arkus is a sword-wielding villain with a castle in a pestilential swamp and a bloodthirsty army ready to do his bidding. He's doing his best to terrorize the local kingdoms, kidnapping royal heirs for ransom and generally being thoroughly evil. Then a series of misfortunes puts him on the run and ready to risk everything to capture a gormack, an evil spirit of great power.

It goes wrong, though, and he accidentally captures a sparkling. The sparkling, to Arkus's considerable embarrassment, thinks Arkus is a great guy, somewhere deep down inside. Most of the book is a hilarious battle of wills as Arkus tries to corrupt the sparkling, and the sparkling takes Arkus's every evil scheme and turns it into something noble and good. Arkus, determined to inspire dread and terror, instead finds himself showered with gratitude and admiration. Every gift, every thank-you, every banquet in his honour, just drives his blood pressure higher.

There is depth to the story as well. Arkus is forced on a difficult journey of self-discovery. Arkus, and several other characters, face excruciating choices. There are moral dilemmas with no easy solutions. Friendships are forged, tested, destroyed. It's powerful storytelling.

It's not a perfect tale. There are minor proofreading issues, and the book could really use a good editor. Nothing is seriously wrong, but there are sentences that are awkwardly phrased or that come out a bit clumsy. None of this detracts much from my enthusiasm for the story. It's such a terrific, fun, entertaining story that I forgive every minor technical issue.

As an added bonus, the book is illustrated by the highly gifted Alla Alekseyeva. Her beautiful black and white pictures are a great addition to the story.

My Sparkling Misfortune was great fun to read, and I will be picking up the sequel.

Buy it on Smashwords.