Friday Five: Life Stirs in Deep Winter

I don’t know about anyone else, but the opening weeks of January tend to have a feeling of inertia to me. The sound of a nation recovering from its hangover. This has been amplified by the pandemic and events across the water. But this week there seems to be a little more activity, a little more spring in people’s steps. Or at least mine. I’m even doing yoga daily. This hasn’t resulted in me having a lot of interesting things to say

  1. First off, some twitter threads. I liked this one on endings from CL Polk – both for the advice, and for the reassurance of seeing very talented writers struggling with the things we mere mortals do as well. I also found a couple on first vs third person, one from Kayla Ancrum and one from Samantha Shannon riffing on it. I particularly like Kayla seeing third person as like spying on them from close, that’s really helped me buy into close third pov vs first.
  2. A few links. One is a resource for writers – here’s one on disabilities from Writing the Other for people to go through. There was also an interesting article on the Washington Post’s website on SFF books from the days of yore that are starting to fall under the radar. And I’d also like to shout out Bibliostatic’s review of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water which came out just after last week’s Friday Five, and Imyril’s review of Bookburners, which I’ve only quickly scanned as I want to read and I want to remain unspoiled, but that scan confirms I want to read it.
  3. Here comes the point where I talk at thee. I stumbled across a tweet asking why fantasy writers are obsessed with medieval Europe and briskly – possibly over-briskly – replied that this is an outdated stereotype. Which I very much believe in, and that this case should be pressed strongly for the good of the genre for reasons beyond accuracy. I like my medieval-ish fantasies as much as the next fantasy fan with a history degree, a Mjolnir necklace, a collection of funny shaped dice, and really high scores on Tolkien Character or anti-depressant. But I like other types of fantasy too, and I like the idea that fantasy should contain all the types of fantasy a person could desire. The more we promote the idea it’s all knights and castles and guys with beards you could hide a badger in, the less we get that. That’s why I always seem to push back on those who want to say that’s what fantasy is – not just that I see far more Urban Fantasy and Gaslamp and Modern and what not combined than I see medieval.
  4. This conversation swung at one point to how I don’t really see a lot of those medieval fantasies as being set in medieval England, but rather being pastiches of general medieval-ish western-ish Europe. Ish. Tolkien is in fact a poster child for this. Yes, his work inspired oodles and oodles of medievalism, and yes, his work is very English, but medieval English? The Shire is a dream of pastoral early 1900s England, and about as medieval as the steam train. Gondor corresponds most to Byzantium, and vaguely at that. Rohan is very Anglo-Saxon and medieval, but an anachronistic one, the Huscarls and Thegns replaced with Riders like the Norman knights. The greatest single foundation stone in medieval-ish fantasy is a pastiche, a clodgepodge, and so is a huge amount of what has followed. And yet, in its way, it ends up being more English than any faithful celebration of any one period in English history could be. This is part of why I’ll continue to cheer and urge the pastiche, the bending of history and identity together to form visions almost more real than reality. It can allow us to celebrate a culture far more loudly than any single period, because what single period contains all that is great? This is like Jeanette Ng asking why shouldn’t she server ancient Emperors her grandma’s favourite dish. There is no reason she shouldn’t, no reason why anyone should believe they cannot adapt their culture. It is not the only reason I love pastiches but in a time where we are very aware of our cultures and seeking to celebrate them, complete authenticity should not be the only coin accepted.
  5. I also got asked to help expand a reading list with non-medieval non-European stuff. This is very much off the cuff, but here it is (It’s a lot easier typing this in a blog than a thousand tweets!) in the form of ten or so authors

Aliette de Bodard – I always take a chance to hype Aliette who’s not only done fascinating stuff with her gothic-gaslight Paris with Vietnamese water dragons in her Dominions of the Fallen, but also visited Meso-America in her Servant of the Underworld. And Fireheart Tiger is coming soon. Go get it! Now!

Fonda Lee – The Green Bones trilogy is a great mash-up of The Godfather and wuxia in a near-modern setting. There’s a lot of near-modern E/SE Asian-ish fantasy right now – Rebecca Kuang’s The Poppy War and the above mentioned The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water – but I think this is my favourite.

Marlon James – I have yet to read Red Wolf Black Leopard but every review I’ve heard of it screams of a determination to push a narrative style and world that is completely African.

CL Polk – Her Kingston Cycle is set in an Edwardian-ish era and won a World Fantasy award for the first book, Witchmark; I brought a copy for my sister after one look at the prose.

Tasha Suri – The shape of the narrative of Empire of Sand, and the way the character must survive a power that gives her virtually no power, has really stuck with me.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – An author who seems to effortlessly surf between time periods and genres, she’s mostly worked in last century Mexico but I am excited to see what happens with her upcoming Sword & Sorcery novella.

Helene Wecker – I really loved The Golem & The Djinni, a slow paced slice of life that brought Jewish and Arabic mythology to life in 1800s New York, and am excited by the prospect of there finally being a sequel.

Robert Jackson-Bennett – His Divine Cities series was a really good example of what can be done with semi-modern semi-trad fantasy settings, and the mix of Russian and Indian cultures found convincing.

Max Gladstone – Another author working in semi-modern semi-trad, his The Craft Sequence hops all over the world and its combination of magic and corporate structures – rarely treated kindly – is one of the most original ideas I’ve seen in a long time.

That’s a quick version of recent authors who maybe don’t have that much hype (I feel like NK Jemisin goes unsaid here). However, I would also add that fantasy’s past has these books too, even if they haven’t stayed alive in the canon’s memory all that well at times. Sometimes we forget that the Wizard of Earthsea himself isn’t white, and that his beliefs are influenced by Le Guin’s own Taoism. Tanith Lee’s created mythology in Night’s Master deserves remembering, as does Charles Saunders’ Imaro. Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds may not be entirely accurate to Chinese mythology, but helped establish a market, and The Empire Trilogy by Feist and Wurts was also a pioneer there (although actual praise for Kelewan belongs with M.A.R. Barker). The list could go on, without even considered urban fantasy, or more liminal fairytales, or the strange cultures like Gormenghast, or fantasy of manners like Swordspoint.

It would be a lie to discount how influential medieval European fantasy is, and has been, but also to give it sole pride of place. The genre has always grown beyond, and keeps growing beyond it. There are more than stirrings of life there. Much more.

p.s. Bonus ball! Check out this really cool art

Sarah on Twitter: “I finally finished the f/f enemies-to-lovers fae romance piece! My goal is to try to do the sort of cover art I commonly see for f/m but so rarely for f/f. A lot of the time I feel like I’m making cover art for books I want to exist and then hoping someone writes them.” / Twitter


For fuck’s sake Peat, get it together. I meant to include this link to Shiv Ramdas’ And Now His Lordship is Laughing and forgot so here it is. Also, Shiv is the funniest follow on Twitter, so go follow.

8 thoughts on “Friday Five: Life Stirs in Deep Winter

  1. “But I like other types of fantasy too, and I like the idea that fantasy should contain all the types of fantasy a person could desire. The more we promote the idea it’s all knights and castles and guys with beards you could hide a badger in, the less we get that.” I feel like this is partly because we put modifiers on other types of fantasy. We accept that when most non-fantasy book people think of fantasy they think of the Tolkein style and so we seek to differentiate rather than just saying nope it’s all fantasy. I was so surprised (but pleased) to see SPFBO actually having a range of different types of fantasy than what would loosely be defined as traditional.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve got a point there. I tend to accept fantasy as having a dual meaning between everything that’s fantasy, and the trad meaning most people use because I prefer to work with the definitions going – but it probably doesn’t help. Maybe time to be fantasy and trad fantasy.


  2. Thanks for the shout out and I hope you enjoy it. It’s diverting brain candy.

    I admit to lurking on your contributions to the fantasy discussion and biting my tongue as my own gut response was considerably less measured than yours. I realise my reading is deliberately biased away from reading white male authors, but that bias it has made it terribly easy not to read faux medieval European fantasy 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Honestly, it feels like ages since I’ve read a good new faux medieval fantasy, and much as I love some of the new directions, I’m craving a hit. I guess it doesn’t help that I don’t particularly enjoy the writing of some of the bigger names doing it – Gwynne and Cameron both spring to mind – but it’s just not what the big publishers are pushing; it’s not what the most talented writers are writing.


  3. This is a fantastic post. Honestly the best fantasy I’ve read lately has been non faux European. Jade City is one of the best books I’ve read in my life and I can’t remember reacting to anything like I reacted to the masterpiece that is Ring Shout. I do also love European-inspired fantasy as well though. Gwynne and Cameron are a couple of the authors I’ve not read that I’ve been very excited to get into; what is it about them you don’t gel with?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Both Cameron and Gwynne have what I (mildly unfairly) call ‘Path of Daggersitis’, where there’s so many strands and arcs that the odds I’m going to like all of them equally enough not to get frustrated by switching focus is very low. In Cameron’s case this was compounded by the Captal de Vrailly being arguably the single biggest thundercunt of a PoV I have ever come across. Just couldn’t. I am considering picking up the series again some time though, as I enjoyed the first and parts of the second.

      Gwynne… I’m not entirely sure other than I never got sucked in and always felt like a distant observer. Again, I might give his most recent one a go.

      But I agree – insofar as I’m up to date with the genre, the best stuff is being done outside of the medieval pastiches.

      Liked by 1 person

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