fantasy

Patricia McKillip, Fantasy Author and Prose "Sorceress"

I can always tell when a book speaks to me and I need to hang onto it (and not give it away) by the number of times I highlight passages in the book. The more lines and paragraphs that catch my eye, the more I feel engaged with the writing. This usually occurs when I’m reading non-fiction, but it will sometimes happen with fiction too. I highlight passages that I want to come back to.

Recently I picked up an abused copy of Patricia A. McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn. She is well-known for her “Riddle-Master” trilogy (The Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) as well as many other works. Many years ago I read the Riddle-Master trilogy and enjoyed it very much. I’ve even gone so far as to re-collect these books after letting them go years ago. (I seldom reread books - not because they aren’t worth rereading but because I have a Pile of Unread Books Waiting that grows week by week.) I began reading Alphabet of Thorn and realized very quickly there were examples of beautiful writing that struck me. So much so, in fact, that I purchased a new copy of the book so I could begin highlighting these examples. Here are just a few:

  • (page 2) “He carried a manuscript wrapped in leather that he laid upon the librarian’s desk as gently as a newborn. As he unswaddled the manuscript …”

  • (page 7) “[As a toddler in the library] Nepenthe had drooled on words, talked at them, and tried to eat them until she learned to take them into her eyes instead of her mouth.”

  • (page 9) “The world was so still that it might have vanished, swallowed by its own past or future.”

  • (page 13) “Dawn mists were shredding above the water, tatters and plumes of purple and gray.”

While “plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery,” writers are often advised to study the writing of authors they admire. If I could only do sorcery with prose like Patricia McKillip does, I would be thrilled.

Jenn Lyons' "The Ruin of Kings", and the Challenges of Worldbuilding

The Ruin of Kings, a debut fantasy novel by Jenn Lyons, will be released next month. A free “extended preview” is available through Amazon, and I plunged into it recently. Immediately I was struck by the richness of the fantasy world Lyons has created.

I’ve posted a number of times about the challenges of worldbuilding. The new world an author introduces a reader to can be fantastic, but it must be credible. And to be credible, a certain degree of detail is needed. How people live, dress, eat, speak. Customs, culture, religion, government. Systems of magic, pantheons of gods, hierarchies of evil. But too quick an immersion into worldbuilding details can overwhelm a reader. Too many names, places, relationships may be introduced too quickly. Confusion on the part of the reader is a danger to be avoided.

But one can hardly expect a reader to absorb all the details and keep them straight if the author doesn’t! So authors develop all kinds of systems for structuring the details and managing them, especially as the details morph and evolve as a story is written. Lyons explains in a recent post on the TOR.com website that she uses a personal wiki. People, places, things, they all have an entry.

As I’ve been working on the sequel to my own debut fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, I’ve tried to manage the worldbuilding using Evernote, even going so far as to create an Evernote template that looks like a wiki page. Evernote was an obvious choice for me because I am a heavy user of the software. But I’m going to try out the system Lyons uses, and see if it offers benefits.

There is Such a Thing as a “Weapons Aesthetic"

There is beauty to be found in weapons.

How can that be? Start with a Google search on the two words “weapon” and “aesthetic.” Take a look at what Pinterest users have organized under “weapons aesthetic.” My understanding of a weapons aesthetic is this: weapons obviously vary in their utility, when and how they are used in combat or self-defense. But they also vary in their design and their “eye” appeal.

Of course, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As a beholder of beauty in certain weapons (both real and fictitious), I offer up the following opinions:

  • The Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol is “ugly.” I don’t care for either the angular shape of the box magazine or the bulbous round handgrip. The materials don’t match, and the lines (angular and bulbous) don’t match.

  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun, a pistol carbine based on a Walther P38 and used in the TV series, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is a thing of beauty. It is sleek, minimalist, and because it is made from detachable components, it can be customized on-the-fly. The toy version of this gun (which I owned in 1966, lost, and subsequently reassembled component-by-component from parts offered on eBay) is not an exact replica, and its aesthetics are marred by the design of the pistol (not a P38). As a boy I also owned a toy P38 that fit my hand so perfectly it felt like the proverbial extension of my arm.

  • Several of the weapons used in the filming of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings catch my eye because of the smooth curves and lines of the blades and/or hilts. See, for example, the double-bladed Mirkwood pole arm; Orcrist, the sword of Thorin Oakenshield; and the fighting knives of Legolas.

  • Ornamentation of any kind (e.g., jeweled hilts for blade weapons, filigree etching on gun barrels or handgrips, pink coloring for women) I find aesthetically displeasing. It is distracting and non-functional. (Though the fantasy blades mentioned above do have varying degrees of ornamentation, it is not overly distracting.)

Poul Anderson's "The Broken Sword"

Readers of my blog are aware of my respect for fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his tales of the albino anti-hero Elric. In his book Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock points out a book that he holds in high regard: The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Anderson is a well-known scifi/fantasy author, but The Broken Sword, published in 1954, is not so well known.

The Broken Sword, set in a supernatural and mythological Scandinavian past, tells the story of a man, living among elves, and the troll-born changeling with which he was exchanged at birth. Each man struggles to fit into the world in which he lives. Once their paths inevitably cross, these struggles only grow more fierce. The story overflows with sorcery, Vikings, epic battles, Norse gods, and sadness. The eponymous Sword, Moorcock admits, influenced his own creation of Elric’s sentient sword, Stormbringer.

As Moorcock points out, The Broken Sword is a true tragedy, something not often seen in modern fantasy. It echoes of Shakespeare, with its somewhat (intentional) archaic style. This style works well, even if it does make for slower reading. It is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy - particularly when a pair of lovers discover they are actually brother and sister.

Moorcock calls The Broken Sword “Anderson’s finest dramatic achievement.” After reading this high praise, I had to read the book. It was a great read; I highly recommend it.

"The Ban of Irsisri" - on Kindle for 99 cents for a limited time!

For a limited time, my epic fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, is on sale for 99 cents for the Kindle version. Just go to https://www.amazon.com/Ban-Irsisri-Epic-Fantasy-ebook/dp/B07FK2SF6K. If you’re new to my blog, here’s the scoop on this novel:

The Gauntletbearer, The Swordbearer, and The Tribesman. Three men with quests to save the world from The Gatekeeper, the man trying to rule it.

Long ago, with dusty rites and moldy tomes, a powerful artifact known as the Gauntlets was fashioned for a sorcerer's hands. Promising untold power, the Gauntlets were taken and concealed for safekeeping. For ages they were lost, but now, the sorcerer Raethir Del has tracked them down. If he ignores the Ban of Irsisri and takes them, he will rain death and destruction across the lands. Three men embark on separate quests, and only their actions can enforce the Ban of Irsisri and avert the rise of incredible evil.

Enkinor, bearer of the Gauntlets, lost to the world, imprisoned by a spell transporting him from one nightmare to the next.

Visylon, warrior and Swordbearer, on whose power prophesied judgment depends.

Longhorn, nomadic tribesman, charged with the impossible - bringing these men together.

One must sacrifice desire for duty.
One must embrace healing over harming.
And one must escape the Dreamtunnel.

"Elric: The Ruby Throne"

I don’t usually read graphic novels, but I made an exception for Elric: The Ruby Throne, by Julien Blondel et al. Years ago I enjoyed reading Michael Moorcock’s fantasy tales of the albino anti-hero Elric, so when I learned Moorcock himself praised the illustration and story-writing that went into The Ruby Throne, I decided to give it a try.

Because I have so little experience with graphic novels, I can’t judge Elric: The Ruby Throne against others. But I can say that it was interesting, dynamic, and very well conceived. (I must add that this story is really only for adult readers — in showing the decadence of Melnibone’, the kingdom Elric rules, the writers and illustrators present considerable nudity, violence, and horror, as well as dashes of cannibalism and sex.)

Reviews of this book and its sequel on Amazon.com are polarized. In many ways, the Elric portrayed in these books is very different from the one in the original novels by Moorcock. Because Moorcock praised the graphic novels, the evolution of the original Elric to one far more dark suggests Moorcock might have crafted Elric differently from the beginning, if allowed. Or, perhaps his own imagining of Elric has evolved over the fifty years or more since the first Elric story was published.

The fact that I plan on reading the next volume following this one say a lot regarding how well I enjoyed this one.

Swords That Do More Than Kill

The most common weapon found in works of fantasy must surely be the sword. There are people who fight with one, people who carry one just in case they need it, and even some people who simply wear one as a fashion statement. Swordsmanship is often a key skill in many fantasy worlds.

But there are swords that go beyond simple weapons. There are legendary swords, such as Excalibur. There are swords that are legendary within a particular fantasy universe, including several in Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth. Some of my favorite examples of magic swords include the following:

  • Stormbringer. The sword used by Michael Moorcock's albino antihero, Elric of Melnibone', is an example of a sentient weapon. It gives him strength and prowess and frees him from the need for life-sustaining drugs, but it must feast on the souls of humans it cleaves. And sometimes these humans are not enemies, but friends.
  • Changeling. This sword, appearing in the Morgaine stories by C. J. Cherryh, is capable of tapping the power from space-time Gates to send its victims to a place and time they would much rather not be.
  • The Sword of Helsinlae. This sword is obviously a favorite because it appears in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. It is pretty much an ordinary sword until its wielder, Visylon, chops down an evergreen growing from the grave of the ancient king Helsinlae. The sword is thus imbued with the power of this king, power that will play a critical role in the vanquishing of the sorcerer Raethir Del.

Though not an example of a magic sword, Terminus Est is a sword used by the executioner Severian in Gene Wolfe's series of science fantasy novels, The Book of the New Sun. This sword plays such an important role in these novels that it is almost a character in its own right.

An Interview with Author Mark E. Lacy

Recently I was interviewed by AC Cobble regarding my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. Here is a transcript of that interview:

AC:The Ban or Irsisri is in many ways a traditional epic fantasy with an epic quest, lots of action, and powerful sorcery. It’s also packed full of dream sequences, tribal rituals, and mysticism. Why did you decide to add those elements, and do they add to the story?
 
MEL: The mix of traditional elements of epic fantasy with elements of tribalism and mysticism was something that developed over time. I knew I didn't want my main characters to come from privileged backgrounds. Nor did I want them to emerge from serfdom. If you take Robert E. Howard's "Conan", for example, you have a hero who has great disdain for the trappings of "civilization" and who takes great pride in being labeled a "barbarian". I think Conan would enjoy sharing a mug of ale with the tribesmen in The Ban of Irsisri. As far as dreams and mysticism are concerned, I think some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have supernatural mysteries at their core. Forces we cannot fully comprehend, forces that transcend ordinary experience but nevertheless influence our values, our choices, our sense of destiny.
 
ACI love that you mention Howard’s “Conan”. I was thinking about that character when I read your book. You have a great sequence early in the novel where one of the tribesmen, Enkinor, enters a city and – spoiler! – runs into all kinds of trouble. In fantasy books, it’s always the dark forest that is full of threats. But in real life, it’s usually the cities where people get in trouble. What do you think is so appealing about the idea of a primal man from the wilderness facing off against a modern (well, more modern) world?
 
MEL: I’m pretty sure one could trace back Conan’s barbarism to the concept of the “noble savage.” But I also think “primal man from the wilderness” has an appeal because life in the wilderness, on the frontier, was simpler in many ways than the “modern” world. Not easier, but not as complicated. The threats to your survival in the wilderness are often better known. And perhaps the wilderness could be said to be less-populated by immoral distractions and temptations.
 
AC: The Ban of Irsisri stands out because of its vivid prose, and in some ways it reminds me of NK Jemisin – which is about the biggest compliment I can give a fellow fantasy author. Sorry if this is rude, but, how did a former corporate guy learn to write like that!?! Asking for a friend…
 
MEL: Asking for a friend? (laughs) We might stand your question on its head and ask, how did a fantasy writer survive Corporate America for thirty years? Seriously, I think that, to the extent my writing succeeds, it has a lot to do with reading and revision. Many successful writers have counseled new writers to read a lot and read broadly. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learned how good writers produced their work. And the more I learned, the more I went back to revise. And revise. And revise. I would set my work aside for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes, only to discover, with chagrin, I had more work to do. 
 
AC: Tell us something no one else knows about Mark E Lacy or The Ban of Irsisri?
 
MEL: Only my junior high school English teacher knows that the fantasy story I wrote in ninth grade, which won first place in the school's literary contest, was a seed that would sprout and influence the scene, early in The Ban of Irsisri, when Enkinor and Strigin escape into the hills beyond the city of Kophid, only to face their pursuers and a forest fire of supernatural origin.
 

Glaciers, Bogs, and Ancient Ruins in "The Ban of Irsisri"

In less than a week, The Ban of Irsisri will go up on Amazon! The release is set for July 17. The experience of having my book published is sooooo cool. Please mark the date on your calendar and go online to look at it, if not buy it! It will be available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

Over the past few weeks, I've shared a number of different inspirations for the landscapes that form various settings in The Ban of Irsisri. Here are three more:

  1. The Cana Glalith is a glacier that appears in the story. Within the ice, someone long ago created a small armory and placed spells on it so only certain people could access it. It turns out that the armory, Icefast Hold, contains more than anyone ever knew. My inspiration for the Cana Glalith came from seeing glaciers like the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.
  2. Not too far from the city of Kophid, a Saerani warrior, Visylon, is trying to find his friend, Enkinor. The trail leads him to a bog, up in the hills, where he is confronted by outlaws, a powerful man-like creature called a krylaan, and a huge monster that comes out of the water to indiscriminately attack everyone. I was inspired to create this setting by the many bogs one can see in upstate New York and the Adirondacks.
  3. The abandoned temple of Qirik was a site of demon-worship sometime before the events taking place in The Ban of Irsisri. The sorcerer Raethir Del must travel to Qirik in order to obtain otherworldly aid in obtaining the Gauntlets, a powerful artifact owned by Enkinor. As I constructed Qirik I was inspired by two different landscapes. One was Angkor Wat in Cambodia and ruins, choked by trees like the strangler fig, appearing in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The other inspiration was the ruins of Chichen Itza, the pre-Columbian Mayan city in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Rock Music and "The Ban of Irsisri"

My recent posts have pointed out real-world inspiration for the exotic landscapes found in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri (due out July 17!). Much of this inspiration came from the Tennessee countryside, including lakes, waterfalls, caves, and mountains. But some of my inspiration came from album covers for 1970s rock music.

In The Ban of Irsisri there is a chapter where the protagonist, Enkinor, has been transported by the Dreamtunnel to the volcanic island of Tari Nar. When Enkinor wakes up on the shore of this island, the horizon seems unnaturally near. Once he climbs through the jungle to a higher vantage point, he can see that a vast upwelling of water surrounding Tari Nar is actually flowing over the side of a larger crater within which Tari Nar sits. (A geologist might be able to speculate on the geothermal causes of this.) This landscape was inspired by the inside of the cover of an album by Yes, titled "Close to the Edge."

The Ban of Irsisri also presents some rather exotic-looking people and creatures. For example, the real villain in the story is a shape-shifting sorcerer named Raethir Del. Early in the novel, Enkinor witnesses Raethir Del's shape-shifting firsthand when the sorcerer transforms into a fish. Not long after, however, Enkinor is witness to a more spectacular feat of metamorphosis when Raethir Del transforms into something that is part man, part wolf, and part butterfly. This image was inspired by the cover of the album by Uriah Heep, titled "Demons and Wizards."

The artist behind both album covers is the imaginative Roger Dean.