alanajoli: (mini me short hair)
A few great projects happening right now:

  • Margaret McNellis (@mcnelliswrites) has launched a Kickstarter for her nautical, haunted historical novel, Out of the Sea. I'm super excited for her, and the project sounds fantastic.

  • Erik Scott de Bie (@erikscottdebie), who I met back at GenCon '06, is involved in another cool Kickstarter: an anthology of short fantasy titled Women in Practical Armor. What's not to like?

  • Margaret Dunlap (@spyscribe) and Max Gladstone (@maxgladstone) are working together on the serial-fiction-in-the-style-of-a-television-series innovative project Bookburners. Max's first episode is available to read for free, so go get it!

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Awhile ago, I talked about the learning curve I was experiencing with Meljean Brooks's paranormal romance series, because there was too much ongoing plot for a straight romance, but too much romance for a straight paranormal. Between then and now, I've been reading (somewhat voraciously) Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling series, which has many of those same qualities, and, encouraged by how much I was enjoying those, I went back and got the first book in Brooks's series. This time, the series clicked for me. Whether it's because I started at the beginning or just hit my learning curve, I'm not sure. Whichever the case, however, I wanted to be sure to report that I have, in fact, gotten a better hang on how to read this side of the paranormal romance spectrum. (Many paranormals read more like urban fantasy or straight romance--but Singh's and Brooks's are smack in the middle.)

It occurs to me, having just read some really insightful entries from Erik Scott de Bie and Jim Hines on reading shared-world fantasy that paranormal romance isn't the only genre that requires learning how to read it. I suspect that if you don't start reading shared-world fiction before you realize it's a whole sub-genre all to itself, you bring to it some kinds of assumptions about what it means. The author hasn't created their own setting--so obviously they *couldn't* do so, and their writing is sub-par because the world isn't unique to them. This, of course, is not my opinion--but it's one that I've heard many times. Shared-world fantasy, particularly game fiction, has long been the looked-down-upon step-child of the fantasy genre.

But here's what I've observed, both as a reader and a writer in shared-world fiction. There are people who do it well and people who do it really badly. Some of those people who botch shared-world fiction are writers who do perfectly well in their own worlds, and even win awards and critical acclaim. But when it comes to writing in a shared-world setting, particularly one that requires use of the same characters, they miss the boat. Why? Because they're writing too much like themselves--and not enough like the characters. They change the world rather than enhancing it. Their work doesn't feel *genuine* the way a good shared-world writer's work does. The real challenge in shared-world fiction is writing something that makes that shared-world *more real* to an audience that carries a lot of expectations to every book it picks up.

If you're not keen on a setting, of course, you might be turned off by all the fiction, no matter how good it is. Despite my interest in the Living Forgotten Realms game, I've never been a huge fan of the Realms. There is way too much content to know--and as the best shared-world books have the setting deeply ingrained, from slang to deities to insults that only matter to people familiar with what's being insulted--so it's easy for me to get lost. I have enjoyed some Realms fiction, but the setting itself isn't enough to draw me. Some of the particular writers, like Erik, are the draw instead. I feel roughly the same way about the X-Men; I like them all right, but I bought the series written by Joss Whedon.

In settings that have a lot of appeal for me, I eagerly read the books due to the same things that frustrate me in settings I'm not keen on: they use slang, enhance my understanding of the world's deities, banter in ways that only make sense if you're in on the details of the setting. And then, there's more. Not only are these books marketing tools (and make no mistake, the companies that publish them are trying to sell their games and, in the case of Star Wars and other TV tie-ins, DVDs or other content, as much as they want to sell the novels). The books have the chance to also be great fantasy novels on their own. They can explore concepts like mortality, theology, ethics, and philosophy. They explore very human relationships between people who aren't always human. And they do all of this while maintaining a particular tone that reflects everything that has come before them.

Learning to read shared-world fiction and appreciate them for what they do may be the same kind of learning curve that I experienced with paranormal romances. Once you see what they're doing, not only in terms of story but in terms of enhancing a setting created by other authors, it's hard not to admire what these writers are doing. In my own work, I tried to think of the setting as a character in its own right, and I hope that when people read my novels, they see that as much as they see the characters and plot I created on my own.
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On the trip home, I finally finished Depths of Madness by Erik Scott de Bie ([ profile] eriksdb). This novel was far less linear than his previous book, Ghostwalker, and had a lot more character development--in sort of an odd way. Only one of the main characters who shares the story from his/her POV continues to be a main character right through the very end. The whole story, being about madness, keeps reality spinning from the very beginning. Is any of it really happening? If it is, who's the spy among the group? Even as the story ended, I wasn't sure if the villain would twist into a different identity, leaving one of our heroes innocent after all. The novel is extremely creepy, darker than a lot of the sword and sorcery novels in the Forgotten Realms line, and sets up the potential for more stories with the main character--an incredibly bitchy, independent anti-hero who is utterly likable despite her flaws (perhaps because of them).

I've mentioned here a couple of times that I've been reading this novel, and to tell the truth, it took me awhile to get into the story--not due to any real fault of de Bie's, but because there were so many references to Forgotten Realms gods, places, and words that I had no connection to (I'm not a big Realms reader, as I decided ages ago that there was no hope of my ever catching up; I've enjoyed Douglas Niles, a chunk of R. A. Salvatore, and a little Ed Greenwood, but they're the only ones besides de Bie that I read). Realms fans will have no trouble keeping up, but I struggled with figuring out why some things that were said were cause for contention inside the group.

Overall, if you enjoy fantasy with a healthy does of creepy, a non-linear plot, mixed with a little bit of mystery as you second guess what's going along right along with the characters, definitely pick up Depths of Madness. Particularly if you're already a Forgotten Realms reader.


Upon arriving home, I finished Senrid, which I started before I left but didn't pack, as I didn't have room for another hard cover. When I started the novel, I was worried that I wasn't going to like it--an emotion I hated because I've always enjoyed Sherwood Smith's ([ profile] sartorias) writing so much! As stated on the back of the novel, Senrid was written when Smith was only fifteen, so it lacks the polish of her later works (despite its being published more recently). Unlike Crown Duel and Inda (and even in her online novel Shevraeth at Marloven Hess), magic is far more powerful and accessible in Senrid. Several of the main characters come from other worlds--a detail that no one seems to think is unusual. Of the other worldly characters, several are actually from Earth, instantly putting the novel in the category of "earth kids have adventures in fantasy worlds," something I hadn't been prepared for when I picked up the book. But as my brain adjusted to the ideas, the way the world worked during this time, and the idea that this story in fact happened in the middle of several other tales, I was able to suspend my disbelief in a way that hadn't been required of me by Smith's other books.

After I left, having read half of the book, I kept thinking about it. What was Senrid doing while I was away? Would we meet Sartora in this book? Was Kitty the simpering little girl she seemed to be, or would she actually develop a spine? The more I returned to the story in my head, the more I was desperate to read the novel when I got home. When I arrived home, I eagerly snatched it up and read the rest of the story, watching Senrid's conversion from outright villain to anti-hero to something approaching an actual, kingly hero.

The quote on the back of the book, explaining that Senrid is a peek into Smith's imagination as a teen, is spot on. Taking it in that frame of mind and accepting that yes, there are Earth teens involved, the novel is absolutely wonderful. I would recommend it to the "Redwall" crowd, anyone who enjoyed Smith's "Wren" books, and readers who have grown out of the Narnia books but don't yet read more sophisticated books like Smith's Crown Duel or any of Tamora Pierce's series. I'd also recommend it to anyone who has read the other works set in the world, with the warning that despite its label as YA, it's more of a novel for children than young adults. Had I known all of that, I would never have had to worry about not liking it--I'd have loved it from the first page.

Now, of course, I'm desperate for more. When was Senrid a captive of the Norsundarians? When did he meet Sartora? There are gaps in my understanding of the world, so I hope that Senrid does well enough that we'll see the other texts from Smith's teen writing years to fill out the holes.


I watched two movies on the flight home: Eragon, which I'd missed in theaters, and Music and Lyrics, which I don't really have anyone to watch with me, as my chick-flick buddies live in California and Boston. There's really only one way for me to describe Eragon: OAV. As explained to me, and OAV is an anime that is designed just so that fans of a manga can see their favorite characters animated. It's fine to leave huge gaps in the plot, because everyone already knows what's going to happen, and it's just the novelty of their favorite characters moving that keeps people watching.

Eragon the movie stripped the Eragon story of everything that made it interesting to me as a reader. This is not in any way the fault of the actors, who I thought were quite good. Jeremy Irons was great, and the new actor playing Eragon did a nice job with the script he was handed. The script, however--ugh. Part of what makes Eragon (the book) interesting is that Paolini plays with the idea of consciousness and makes Saphira, the dragon, feel qualitatively different than her human companions, just by the way she thinks and talks. The other part that I remember being extremely appealing to me is that Eragon questions whether he's doing the right thing by going to the Varden. Only a very little bit of that moral quandary comes across--it's mostly swept by in the effort to show more special effects. Angela, one of the most intriguing characters in the novel, is completely ruined.

General assessment? If you can see it for free and have three hours of your life that you don't have to spend on anything else, sure, go ahead and watch it. It worked for me, and it was at least diverting if not enjoyable.

Lyrics and Music, on the other hand, had me in stitches. I think it's one of the best romantic comedies I've ever seen. Drew Barrymore, who I usually don't much care for, is stellar in her performance of a completely nutty writer. The commentary on the music industry (both in the eighties and now) is hysterical, as is the use of things like VH1's Pop up Video. It's a movie I think Shanna Swendson ([ profile] shanna_s) would approve of, and as she's had some rather harsh criticism of the romantic comedy industry as of late, I think that's probably a good sign.
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Upon reading [ profile] eriksdb's recent entry about upcoming books he's excited about and plugging, I thought I'd check my amazon and see what releases were coming up. One that was notably not on my wish list (but is now!) is the first book in the new Eberron "Inquisitives" series: Bound by Iron by Edward Bolme. I think I've mentioned before that Ed Bolme is not only an awesome guy (which I know from meeting him at GenCon last year--the same way I know the awesomeness of [ profile] eriksdb, incidentally), but a great writer.

I'm jealous that he's getting to write in the "Inquisitives" series, which sounds like possibly the most fun shared-world mini-series ever (if you're into the whole private eye pulp mixed-genre stuff like me). But I'm also delighted, because it means they've got someone really good writing for it.

Now, back to that novel I'm supposed to be writing.


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Alana Joli Abbott

March 2019

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