But isn’t this a girl book?

My favorite book to recommend to readers of a certain age, or those shopping for them, is Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. It’s a perfect rec for middle grade readers with an interest in fantasy who have already consumed the “big” titles at that level — Warriors, The Unwanteds, Land of Stories, Percy Jackson — but who might not be ready for full-on YA yet. It’s great because, despite being an award-winner with a special place in the hearts of many, it is an older book, and so it doesn’t have the marketing splash that the big series do. But I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me, so I absolutely love recommending it to others.

The protagonist, feeling constrained by the expectations their life defines for them, embarks first on a quest of self-betterment. They learn all sorts of useful skills from the palace staff, everything from fighting to cooking to Latin, because they don’t just want to sit around and be waited on all the time. But when their parents try to force them into a life they think is too small, too tedious, too ordinary, they run away and decide to become the “official captive” of a dragon. They then end up having to figure out how to defeat a wizard who’s trying to steal the dragons’ magic and poison them. And that’s just the first book — the rest of the series has more tricks and twists, surprising rescues, and dashing feats of heroism.

Did you notice that I used a gender-neutral pronoun throughout that description? That’s because the protagonist is a girl, Cimorene — and that fact alone puts parents off buying this book for their sons. Never mind the fact that this is, at heart, an adventure story. Parents frequently take one look at the cover, as I’m pressing this book I’m telling them is amazing into their hands, and dismiss it. “But isn’t this a girl book?” they ask me.

Y’all.

Your sons can read a book with a female protagonist. It won’t hurt them. I promise.

In fact, evidence suggests it’ll be really good for them. It’ll teach them to empathize with the girls and women in their lives. It’ll help them see that it’s not just boys who are the center of stories. It’ll help normalize female protagonists for them, so that female-led stories can stop being rarities for us to cling to and can instead be just stories, like male-led stories have always been.

So please, stop asking me, “But isn’t this a girl book?”, because I die a little inside every time you do.

On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and the helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

VerilyThis.jpg

Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

Eowynsword

I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

Hobbiton

And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

Reading Recommendations (while you’re waiting for FROM UNSEEN FIRE)

Hallo! Cold, grey, dreary wintry days always have me wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with y’all. Not just favorites, but favorites that, in some way or another, I think will be enjoyable to the folk who will like From Unseen Fire. Or, if you like these books, I think it quite likely you’ll enjoy From Unseen Fire!

Some are on the list because they’re Roman historicals: Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series, and the exquisite explorations of famous or forgotten women by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran. Others are classical-flavored fantasies, like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. Some are fantasies with elemental magic or other magical systems I find delightful, such as Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series or the works of Cat Valente. A few are nonfiction resources: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday and Philip Matyszak’s wonderful Roman resources. A great many are simply wonderful epic fantasies, often with historical aspects: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogies, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the tri-authored Heirs of Alexandria series, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

So while you’re counting down the days til September 5th (230, incidentally), give some of these a try, or revisit some old favorites!

Aven Cycle Suggested Reading

And while you’re on Goodreads checking those out, add From Unseen Fire to your “to-read” list!

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

Samwriting

Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.