Tag Archives: fantasy

When Fantasy is Self-Indulgent

Note: This should’ve gone up Friday. In fact, it would’ve gone up Friday – was all ready to go up Friday – when my computer experienced internet connectivity issues. So, you get to enjoy it today instead!

A major part of writing fantasy is world-building – everyone agrees about that. What’s the point of setting your plot on another world, if everything that happens could’ve occurred in the very city you live in without anyone blinking an eyelash? Characters have to act in a realistic other world, a world that is somehow different than the world we live in.* This is the fun part of fantasy, but also one of its pitfalls.

And not just the realistic part. It’s tough to think up another world all on your own, and not even Tolkien’s world is without its flaws (Tolkien, by the way, admitted once or twice that the geography of Middle Earth was sadly unrealistic). Another pitfall is, after putting all your effort into dreaming up a wonderful alternate reality, you want people to know how much thought you put into it.

Shown their work” is one name for this, and don’t get me wrong, this can be done well. But everyone’s heard of historical novels where characters spend pages explaining the political situation of their time to each other, just so the reader knows how much effort the author put into this. And, you know, the exact same thing can be done in fantasy novels, and is definitely one of the reasons non-fantasy readers find them boring. Because there is usually a LOT of back story about the setting, characters and society that somehow has to get across.

I’ve certainly got the feeling before, while reading fantasy novels recommended to me as “good,” that these particular characters are chasing this particular MacGuffin into this particular country, just so the author can show off the fact he/she actually INVENTED another country/society/setting in their fantasy world. That their world has breadth and depth, just like the real world. But in reality, those scenes could be cut from the book and the only result would be that the plot would move along a little faster.

Or, the feeling that a particular fantasy series is going on forever because the author wants to explore the outer edges of his world, while the reader would be perfectly satisfied for the plot to just get on, already!

In these cases, the reader feels like the world was created far more for the author’s own pleasure than for the readers’. That we are just being dragged into a very long trip into someone else’s imagination – someone who is very proud of their imagination, and thinks the sheer scope and force of their imagination will convince everyone else it’s good too. When, in reality, the story is lost behind dense layers of self-indulgence.

I’m speaking here as a reader and not a writer, obviously. I know it’s a tricky balance, getting out everything you need to say in a story without destroying the illusion by saying too much.

Anyway, I’d just like to point out at the end, instead of listing off every terrible fantasy book out there (which would really just be tearing other authors down, rather than saying anything useful), one author who does not fall into this pitfall. You can pick up any of her books and feel the full force of disorientation of falling into a fully realized world in the first chapter. Very little is carefully explained, but none of it feels like it was hurriedly thought up at the last minute. She’s done her world-building, but she doesn’t tediously show it off.

I’m talking about Diana Wynne Jones here, of course.

According to her, the reason she doesn’t feel this urge to precisely describe every aspect of her world-building is because she spent so much of her career writing for children. In her own words, here’s a brilliant quote that explains why this is:

 “When I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed… I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand… I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”

 This is, perhaps, why I have such trouble finding new fantasy books to read, despite my love of the genre. I don’t mind if every little detail isn’t explained – as long as there’s enough details for me to put things together. I don’t need every book to be a doorstopper. So I often find myself reading children’s fantasy, and I’m not ashamed of it. I still hold out the hope, though, that I’ll find more fantasy novels that I truly enjoy.

* I recognize many fantasy novels are set in our world, but by this sentence I mean in those novels our world has to be our world but different, for it to truly be a fantasy novel. You know, like in Harry Potter, where wizards and witches live hidden under our very noses. And so on. In this case, using our world as a setting is using it as more of an alternate fantasy version of our world.

** After complaining about the above at length, I realize it’s almost hypocritical of me to still love Lord of the Rings. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lord of the Rings. Because it’s – well, it’s Lord of the Rings.


Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, On Writing

Unicorns in the Streets: What is Genre, Anyway?

by Erin Stevenson O’Connor, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

J.K. Rowling just released her latest book yesterday, and surprise, surprise, it is not about wizards. Or magic. Or unicorns. She has firmly departed her old stomping grounds of children’s fantasy, and forayed into what might be called contemporary adult fiction. Which got me thinking – why do we draw such hard and fast lines between different types of writing, anyway?

No Fantasy in Realism

“I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling is quoted as saying. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy.” She makes it sound like the gulf between realism and fantasy is wide and impassable. But looking back over a history of literature, it doesn’t appear that there was always such a hard line between fantasy and realistic stories. The Iliad depicts a drawn-out conflict between two war-like groups, a situation that would’ve been somewhat familiar to people at the time. Yet fantastic elements such as the interference of gods and Achilles battling with a river are added without a second thought. In medieval literature, knights go off to fight dragons and mythical creatures, as well as more mundane enemies. Beowulf slays a dragon. King Arthur pulls a sword out of a stone. MacBeth consults with witches. The line between the realistic and the fantastic seems to be very blurry – perhaps to the point of not existing at all.

(To be fair, what we know as a ‘novel’ was not invented till about the 17th century either. The Iliad, for example, was an epic poem and certainly not a novel. The same for Beowulf.)

Of course, part of the reason for this was that for historical peoples, the world was a mysterious place and mostly unknown. There really might’ve been dragons beyond the next hill, but you didn’t really know because you’d never gone there. In our modern times, we’ve lost that sense of wonder when we gained the ability to circumnavigate the world in hours, and map DNA down to the very last detail. Fantastic creatures such as unicorns and dragons just don’t belong in our everyday life, or even our typical imaginations. They are only acceptable sectioned off behind a little label called ‘Fantasy,’ with the understanding that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Realism’ are very different things.

But Really, Why Genre?

I think it’s because we, as humans, like to know what to expect in stories. Not to know every detail, of course, but to be able to predict general outlines. If it’s a fantasy novel, it’s going to have magic, some kind of Dark Lord, and yes, maybe unicorns. If it’s a mystery novel, it’s going to have a murder – and probably someone who’s wrongfully accused, a detective of some sort, and a second murder that raises the stakes of the case. The readers know a bit of what to expect beforehand, so while hopefully the plot will keep them at the edge of their seats, they are still entering a comfortable world where events happen according to unspoken rules. A nice contrast to the randomness of reality.

And genre conventions do go back a long way. The ancient Greeks didn’t have novels like we do, but they did divide their plays into two types: comedy and tragedy. The audience knew to expect different things in each one. Shakespeare also had comedies, tragedies and histories (slightly different from what the Greek meanings of those words were). Of course, not all Shakespeare plays fit into the categories assigned to them, proving that while genre is a useful concept, it does not solve all problems across the board. Creators want freedom to subvert conventions, including the conventions of genres.

So there you have it. When J.K. Rowling announced her latest book was ‘adult realism,’ she (and her publishers) were signalling exactly what kind of audience they expected to buy the book. Genre is a useful tool for letting the reader know what to expect, but the categories are not the hard and fast categories we like to think of them as. Writers like to break rules, and more than that, categories and styles of literature have changed over the years.

But does this mean a unicorn could never walk down the main streets of New York, and still be called ‘realistic’? Maybe not nowadays, but who can say about the future?

Note: I missed my Quotables post this Monday – it just completely got lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately I have a bit of a busy semester ahead of me, so once in a while I may resort to only posting once a week. If a post doesn’t go up, rest assured I have not forgotten about my blog! I just have not managed to juggle my priorities well enough. I hope this will not happen often. 🙂 

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Filed under On Writing, The Iliad

Choosing Sides: Chapter 14B (Why Polly?)

This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace.  Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee… where she meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.

Chapter 14B: Choosing Sides

I had been slightly put out at the Rajah for what he’d done to Casper, but now I’d met him I could see he thought he had no choice. Being a ruler always seems to get you stuck in pickles like that. It was wrong to stick Casper in Chaldea forever, and I’d tell him so if I got a chance, but I’d heard a million stories at court about how Chaldea’s fortunes had improved since they had an enchanter in the land again. And I felt a little sorry for the Rajah too, all those blasted women around him, never letting him escape, I wondered if he ever got any privacy.

Anyway, Casper didn’t seem to hate the Rajah personally, they were on quite good terms, but the Enchanter only chafed at the bounds that had been put on him. I wondered if there was a way they could resolve this mess.

But all in all I didn’t like court much, and I told Casper so. He only laughed.

“You just don’t like it because you can’t control it,” he said. “Like you run the Peak, and like you probably ran everyone’s lives in Angaria.”

“I was independent,” I replied. “I helped Gretchen support me.”

“I can imagine!” he said. I shot him a dirty look.

Maria continued to help and coach me. She got so many dresses for me their array startled me. Altogether, including the Chaldean robes Casper had first got me and the dresses I had made for myself, it was almost three times the number of dresses I’d ever owned in my life before this. They were wonderfully beautiful, but somehow they always made me fell like a doll dressed up for show.

I was wearing the lemon yellow one with pearls when Carmen blew her top again. Not at Mandarine this time, but in hysterical panic. It turned out the heirloom ring she’d been wearing, passed down through her family for generations, had been lost, and she’d just noticed. The ladies in her group all gathered around her and tried to sooth her frantic sobbing, while Mandarine and her friends gathered across from them and looked disdainful.

“Probably not as priceless as she’s making it out to be,” Janeira said, “But still, not a good thing to lose.”

The Rajah leaned back in his throne and positively rolled his eyes (I’d have sworn he did if I hadn’t known he was a ruler), while all the earls, lords, officers, and men in the Palace made valiant, manful hunts around the throne room for it. Most looked out of their wits at a lady in distress, and did their frantic best to find it. But it did not turn up. The ladies around Carmen, meanwhile, managed to calm her hysterical screams to soft, hiccoughing sniffles. If possible she looked even worse than when she’d been fighting with Mandarine.

She went to get cleaned up, but still looked positively miserable during our daily promenade. The men all shook their heads and muttered ‘poor little thing’. I’d thought her excitability would put them off, but they seemed to like a lady in distress.

“She’s always been excitable,” Janeira told me. “All her family is.”

We went in to lunch, a first course of cold, cucumber soup, followed by waldorfs, jellied salads, rolls with meat and gravy in them, and other dishes I did not see. Carmen sat across from me, with her two best friends, Clio and Rianne, sympathetically patting her arms while Mandarine glared and sniffed haughtily from down the table. I thought rather that Mandarine was jealous of all the attention Carmen was getting.

After lunch I went out to the front lawn. Tensions in the court were too stressful for me, and I had to get away, if only for a moment. The lawn was empty, and I wandered about restlessly. Over the lawn the Rajah’s peacocks stepped gracefully around me, and I fed them a few crumbs from lunch.

Then suddenly as I was bent down I saw a glint near a bush. Coming nearer to investigate I saw it was round and golden, with a brilliant green emerald set in it. If that wasn’t Carmen’s lamented lost heirloom ring, I didn’t know what was. She must have dropped it when she’d entered the Palace this morning.

As I bent to pick it up there was a voice behind me. I turned and saw Mandarine standing there, flanked on either side by Aurelia and Daina. She crossed her arms.

“You’ve found Carmen’s ring, haven’t you?” she said. “Give it to me.”

“So you can torment her with the fact you have it?” I asked. “Not on your life. I’ve had enough crying for one day. Besides, I don’t even know it’s hers.”

“I do,” she replied. “I’d recognize it anywhere. Give it to me.”

“Forget it,” I told her. “I already told you I wouldn’t.”

Just then another group of ladies rounded the corner. Carmen was among them. They stopped short when they saw us.

“Have it then,” Mandarine told me. She spat at my yellow slippered feet, then whirled away with Aurelia and Daina. Carmen looked at me.

“I found your ring,” I told Carmen. I tossed it to her, then set off down the gravelled paths, in the opposite direction Mandarine had gone.

Later Carmen came up to me, wanting to thank me, to my surprise. I told her it was only an accident I’d found it.

“Yes, but you could have given it to Mandarine,” she replied. “Are you on my side, or hers?”

Her slanted green eyes looked at me, being somehow enhanced by the French green dress she was wearing. She was offering me a place in her group. Now was the time for me to choose sides, and I sighed.

“I’d rather not be involved,” I said. “But at the moment I am rather disinclined to follow Mandarine.”


Filed under All My Stories & Extras

Court Rivalry: Chapter 14A (Why Polly?)

This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace.

Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee, and taken far, far away from her home… where she meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.

Chapter 14A: Court Rivalry

Maria came over the next morning, with three boxes of new dresses. I slept hard that night after my day at court, and I woke up reluctantly when she knocked on my door. “Come in,” I groaned.

“Good morning,” she told me, sweeping into the room. She dumped three boxes on the floor beside me. “Get up and decide which dress you’re going to wear.”

She had brought three dresses, the first a dark, golden apricot with a V-neck and a golden circlet of ivy for the waist. The second was raspberry edged in gold, with embroidered roses growing up from the skirt to the neckline. But the third one was the one I chose to wear: an azure blue, without seams and without decorations, with a square neck and trailing sleeves. Maria helped me lace up my girdle and pull the dress over that again, and my stomach protested at being constricted for the third day in a row. Around my neck and arms I wore jewellery like woven silver.

“Are you going to court today?” I asked her. She shook her head.

“I do not feel so much like it lately,” she said. “You get tired of it after awhile. So I’m taking the time to re-order my estate again.”

“But you will come to help me every morning?” I looked at her. “Please? I need you for moral support, and I don’t think I’ll ever manage to do this by myself.”

“I’ll come as much as I can,” she promised, combing out my hair. “How did it go yesterday?”

So I told her all about my day at court, and my many mistakes, and she laughed.

“You did very well for your first day,” she said. “I know many who would not think someone not born to nobility could perform half so well. You did not even know what a court was like before.”

She left just before breakfast again, avoiding Casper and leaving me to swallow as much food as I could manage and climb into the carriage to set off. Casper came with me again, he had business with the Rajah.

“So long as the jadess doesn’t get you,” I told him with a laugh. He pulled a face.

“I try not to put myself in a place where she can get at me,” he said.

“You know,” I said, “I feel sorry for Paulina. I mean, being left behind.”

“I gave her a protection charm too, you know,” he told me. “So she can get out of the house now.”

“I know,” I sighed. “But she’d be so much better at this court stuff than me.”

The carriage reached the Palace. Casper led me through the Palace again, since I didn’t know the way, this time to a different throne room, with different heralds at the door. But one we went in I found all the same nobles as the day before.

“Hello,” Janeira said to me, once I had given my greetings to the Rajah.

“Hello,” I replied. The other ladies all looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I nodded to them.

It was much like last time. I sat down on a chair, spreading my azure skirts out around me, and listened to them talk. Janeira explained some of the names they were talking about, reminding me of people I’d met yesterday. But still I couldn’t contribute much to the conversation, and I kept getting everyone mixed up.

“That Lord Hamptys thinks too much of himself, doesn’t he?” Carmen was saying, fanning herself slowly with a large, gilded fan. It was hot and stuffy in the throne room. Mandarine looked sharply at her.

“Lord Hamptys is my father’s brother,” she told Carmen coldly. The others were all watching them with avid interest.

“So?” Carmen asked, raising one eyebrow archly.

“I would appreciate it if you did not insult my kinsmen,” Mandarine replied.

“Not again,” Janeira sighed from beside me.

“Why not?” Carmen said. “They’re all pompous asses, and you’re one of them.”

“Nice words coming from someone who can’t even get the Rajah to look at her,” Mandarine sneered, her face white with fury.

“Oh yeah?” Carmen hissed back. “Does he look at you any more often?”

“He does,” Mandarine asserted.

“Does not!”

“Does too!”

“You shrieking fool!”

Thwack! Mandarine’s hand shot out and slapped Carmen across the face. Carmen rose up, raised her arms, and hit back. Then Mandarine grabbed a hunk of shiny black hair, and they both fell to the ground in a screaming, kicking, biting, yowling pile. I stared, aghast.

“Cat fight,” an earl standing two feet away remarked.

The other ladies weren’t helping much. The ones on Mandarine’s side were facing the ones on Carmen’s side, circling the fight, hissing at each other and encouraging Carmen and Mandarine on. There was quite a lot of hair-pulling and elbowing in the crowd, and multitudes of dirty looks, though Carmen and Mandarine were the only ones who were actually fighting.

I stood up nervously. “Um, why don’t we take this outside?”

They all stared at me, and even Carmen paused, though Mandarine did not.

“Whatever for?” Daina asked.

“We’re in a palace!” I protested. Maria must’ve been crazy – meek-tempered women at court, my foot! Janeira came up beside me.

“The Rajah’s learned not to keep valuables in his throne room by now,” she told me. “Don’t worry.”

I stared at them all. Didn’t they see? How uncourtly and unladylike!

Chaldean women have tempers like cats,” I remembered hearing Casper say. “And once they start there’s no stopping them.” I think he’d been talking about the women who’d been furious at him for jilting them, but I thought I understood what he meant now.

The brawl was still raging. A couple of palace guards and some earls were trying to drag them apart, but they seemed afraid to get too close. I was about to try and extricate them myself, when a piercing whistle tore through the hall.

“Stop it this instant,” the Rajah commanded. He stood, regal, his noble eyes flashing, his strong profile hard, his muscle tense under his robes as his darkish hair fell down around his forehead. He made a motion with his scepter, and amazingly both women stopped. I made a mental note to correct Casper. Chaldean women could be stopped if they lost their tempers, but only by a young, handsome, unmarried Rajah’s command.

Both Carmen and Mandarine looked decidedly worse for the wear. Their hair was yanked out of its combs and tangled around their shoulders, their make-up was smeared, their expensive dresses were torn and rumpled. Jewels that had fallen off were strewn around the floor.

“I have tolerated your childishness long enough,” the Rajah told them sternly. “I will no longer. I will not have this unseemly behaviour in my court. From now on you will get along.”

I thought he was asking rather much, but both Carmen and Mandarine looked penitent, at least for now. The Rajah gave them one last look, before sitting down and continuing his conversation with the officer beside him. He already looked as if he’d forgotten the incident.

“Well, they certainly both got the Rajah to look at them that time,” I muttered.

“Sharp tongues get you in a world of trouble at court,” Janeira said, rolling her eyes. “Especially theirs.”

Without looking at each other Carmen and Mandarine picked up their things off the floor and stormed away, presumably to fix themselves up. The other ladies separated into two groups, Carmen’s group and Mandarine’s group, and began whispering excitedly.

“Does this happen a lot?” I asked Janeira.

“About every couple of weeks,” she replied.

Carmen and Mandarine came back looking as good as new, and my day after that was pretty much the same as yesterday. I though I was finally getting the hang of manners at lunch. At least I didn’t make everybody stare at me so often.

Court days fell mostly in a pattern. First was the morning, when everyone arrived one by one, to be announced by the heralds, and to give their greeting to the Rajah. Then, while the Rajah took care of business, the court ladies were left to gossip and amuse themselves together. After that it was our ‘daily promenade’ around the garden. Officially it was to get some fresh air, but both we and the Rajah knew better. The earls seemed to know better too, and often they would show up and watch us during this time, talking among themselves. Probably discussing our beauty and rating us, I thought. Most of the earls seemed to be of marriageable age, perhaps that explained it.

Then there was the mid-day meal. The Rajah’s lunch was the finest in the land, slices of cold venison, fresh salad, platters of fruit, bowls of jelly, pitchers of cream, and frozen ices to go between each course. Too bad the laces on my girdle were too tight for me to enjoy much of it.

And in the afternoon the court enjoyed leisure time. We did all sorts of courtly things: boating on the river, displaying ourselves to the common folk, viewing plantations, hawking (for those with hawks to show off), competitions in which the lords and earls would show off their skills for us. The earls and the court ladies all seemed to know each other, and be friends, and sometimes I wondered why the ladies didn’t just quit chasing the Rajah and marry one of them. They were extremely kind and courtly; I met some of them because they who showed open interest in the only woman with blond hair there, though obviously not because of my beauty. I got to know some of the ladies too, and they could’ve been worse, but it seemed it was hard to really fit in here if you weren’t on anybody’s side. So I stood around by Janeira.

The Rajah came too, in the afternoon, if he wasn’t wrapped out in something else. When he did, the ladies would all jostle in a crowd around him, enough to make me green and wish they’d give the poor man a break. If he disappeared even for a moment, though, I worried, wondering if the jadess was getting her hands into him, but at least I had all the ladies under my eye. Though Casper would probably skin me alive if he knew.

“I thought you said Chaldeans like their women meek,” I said to Maria, first moment I could – one morning when she brought over new dresses. “The two leading women at court are spitting cats.”

“I said you would have to be meek and mild, to get close to the Rajah,” Maria retorted. “Carmen and Mandarine are leaders at court, very true – but are either married to the Rajah yet? Is that the sort of woman he prefers, or merely the sort that wearies him? You decide.”

Slowly I hooked a pair of jewelled earrings into my ears. “He seems – pretty sick of court in general. Don’t tell me, he’ll offend some important family if he doesn’t show up.”

“You are quick.” Maria grinned.

Casper’s plan was genius, then – there was no way the Rajah would meet a strange woman outside of court, and if he was always at court it would be difficult for the jadess to make a move. Even more difficult if I was there to keep an eye on things.

“You are a foreigner,” Maria went on. “You have to be very careful about your place in court. And I know the Rajah prefers the sort of woman – that I can never be.”

She glanced away quickly. It was the first sign of emotion (other than anger) that I had ever seen in her.

I wouldn’t go to court anymore, either, if I had to watch all those women fight over the man I loved.

“Look here, the Rajah’s got to open his eyes someday,” I told her.

She let out a long sigh. “I do keep telling myself that.”


Go to Chapter 14B


Filed under All My Stories & Extras

Fish Out Of Water: Chapter 13C (Why Polly?)

This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace.

Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee, and taken far, far away from her home… where she meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.

Chapter 13C: Fish Out Of Water

“Yes?” the Lady Janeira said. “I’m new here too. My family lives on the eastern borders of the land, and today I’m allowed to go to court this time for the first time ever. What do you think of the Rajah?”

“Fascinating,” I replied.

“Yes, we all think so,” she answered. She leant a little closer. “I’d watch out for those two, you know,” she indicated Lady Carmen and Lady Mandarine. “They’re the rival groups here, and you’ve got the pick sides. I haven’t yet,” she giggled, “because I’m new. But they’re both chosen me. What I mean is, they both want the best on their sides, because they’d rather have the Rajah pay attention to a member of their group, if not themselves, rather than the other side. Strange, isn’t it?”

I could honestly say yes. Everything so far had been strange.

There were lots of people to see the Rajah, and the Rajah dealt with them all. We sat by the edge and gossiped. At least, everyone else did. I didn’t know half the people they were talking about, and they didn’t tell me. They didn’t seem to know what to make of me, a pale Angarian sitting in the midst of them.

“So you’re Casper’s cousin,” Lady Aurelia said to me finally. I nodded.

“That Enchanter!” Lady Daina spat. They all exchanged looks at this, then turned back to me.

“You do know what he’s like, don’t you?” Lady Aurelia asked.

“Yes,” I replied coolly. “Fortunately, I happen to be his cousin.”

“By which you mean?” Lady Mandarine inquired sharply, staring at me in a way that got my back up.

“He doesn’t jilt me,” I told her sweetly. Beside me Janeira gave a quick gasp. I sighed to myself and cursed my mouth. If I wasn’t careful I’d get myself in trouble.

Lady Mandarine’s gaze had hardened, and she got up and swept to the other side of the throne room, but Lady Carmen was studying me appreciatively. I flushed under all of their gazes. At the edge of the group I noticed Lady Cassandra and Lady Clio had joined us. Lady Cassandra was looking at me especially hatefully.

“Well, well, the Enchanter’s cousin,” she said.

I did not trust myself to reply, and remained silent. They continued staring at me for a while longer, then began talking again. I let out the breath I had been holding.

“I told you to be careful,” Janeira told me. I shrugged and sighed. Looking up I saw the Rajah get up from his ornate chair and stride out of the room. For a moment I panicked. Casper had said never to let my eyes off him! Then I quickly made up my mind and hurried out after him.

When I got out into the hall it was empty. Looking back I realised I was now in a different part of the Palace, and I hoped I wouldn’t get lost. Picking up my skirts I hurried down the passageway. Where had the Rajah disappeared to?

I wandered around for a few minutes, getting worried. I knew I wasn’t cut out for this, I thought. But I could get out of it now.

Turning a corner I almost ran into the person I was looking for, the Rajah with a couple dusty volumes in his hands, which fell the to the floor as I knocked them.

“Oh – I’m sorry,” I gasped, almost sheepishly. What would he think of me, wandering around the Palace like some aimless fool?

“Lady Penelope,” he said, “What are you doing here?’

“Looking around, your majesty,” I replied. “I mean, er, Most Exalted Rajah…” I was making even more of a fool of myself. I bit my tongue and looked at him. Politely he offered me his arm and said courteously,

“Shall I show you back to the court, Lady Penelope?”

“Sure – I mean, yes,” I replied, flustered. But I did not take his arm, so after a while he dropped it.

Forgive me, Casper, if he kicks me out of the Palace, I thought. Luckily the Rajah did not seem about to do so. I followed him back down the halls to the throne room.

The ladies of the court all turned to look at me again as I re-entered. I was already red, but I’m sure I flushed three shades darker.

I’m never doing that again, I vowed silently to myself. Next time I would wait a while before I started worrying.

Just before noon the court ladies went to ‘stroll around the garden’, though their real intention seemed to be to promenade where all could admire them, and mostly for the Rajah. I went too, not really knowing what else to do, feeling like an idiot and making casual small talk with Janeira. The Rajah stood on his balcony and smiled with an arrogant amusement that was similar to Casper’s, only somehow more dark and regal. He knew this was put on for his benefit.

I looked around the garden at all the strolling silks and laces, and realised why Maria had said my other robes were completely unsuitable. They were simple compared to these, decorated only with embroidery. I decided they must be the kind of robe the common people wore, and that was why Casper could buy them in the market, but the dresses here at court were made professionally be seamstresses especially for the woman who bought them. I wondered how much all these dresses here put together would cost, and how Casper could afford to get such dresses for me.

I realised then Casper must be quite wealthy. Funny I had never thought of it before. But of course the only Enchanter in the land would be rich.

“You said both Mandarine and Carmen asked you to join their sides?” I said to Janeira as we strolled.

“Asked me if I was for them, or against them, more like,” she replied. “But yes, they did.”

“Neither has asked me,” I said, “And I do not wonder why.”

“Come, it is only your first day here,” Janeira told me. “They are not sure about you yet. And they do not really know if you’re competing for the attentions of the Rajah, or if you’re only visiting the court. Are you competing?”

I sighed as I walked. “Yes.”

The court ate the noon meal on the terrace, on a long white table set with gleaming silver and served by servants in blue. Besides the ladies of the court there were also many lords, earls, and officers, some with their wives. The meal was lavish, with course after course, but following the example of the ladies I ate little. I did not think I could fit much down anyway, with my girdle. The only trouble I had was remembering the procedures Maria had taught me: do not start your course before the Rajah does, follow the Rajah in his choice of utensils for each course, and do not talk loudly, lest you interrupt another conversation. More than once I found the whole table staring at me with shock and horror. It did not help when Mandarine hissed loudly in explanation to the earl beside her, “She’s Angarian.”

After lunch most of the court reclined for awhile, inside, in a dusky, brocade draped room infused with incense, because outside the heat of the day had reached its peak. Even the Rajah relaxed, discussing trivial matters with the other earls. Then, when most of the stodgier lords and officer had left, the younger set got up and gathered around.

“Afternoons are ours,” Janeira explained to me. “The Rajah usually has no business to attend to.”

A couple of earls were standing by Carmen and Cassandra, caped in maroon with sheathed swords at their waists. They turned when they saw me come up.

“Ah, it’s the Angarian,” one of them laughed. “I’ve heard about you. You’re the Enchanter’s cousin, right?”

I nodded.

“Funny,” he said. “You’re so much more charming than he is.”

They all laughed as I reddened. Carmen glanced at me edgily and moved as if to politely cut me out, and Cassandra positively glared.

“Pay the earls no mind,” Janeira whispered. “They’re always like that.”

“My dear Earl Rojah,” Carmen said to them, quite obviously cutting me out now. “I hope you have given thought to this afternoon?”

“I thought we might boat down the river,” he replied. “The weather being as it is.”

“But we always boat!” Carmen said. “And my dress…”

“Won’t be shown in its fullest glory on a boat,” the Earl finished. “Which would be a terrible thing, since it was made to pull in the Rajah.”

Carmen glared at him, but not in a way that said she was seriously angry. “Fine. We will boat.”

The earls began moving away, to tell the Rajah of their plans, and as they passed me they smiled.

“You are coming too, aren’t you?” one asked.

“I suppose so, if you wish me to,” I replied sweetly. Maria would have been proud.

And so for the rest of the afternoon we took the Rajah’s private yacht and sailed slowly down the river that ran through Araba. Here, more than anywhere else, I could see how out of place I was, because especially during this time, when the court was relaxing and having fun, I could see how well the ladies and the earls and the officers all knew each other. I spent the trip sitting near the bow and letting the cool river breezes blow over my face. Once, for politeness’ sake, the Rajah came to check on me, and for a while Janeira talked to me, but other than that I was alone. In a way I was glad, because I needed time to sort out my thoughts.

At the dock at the end of the voyage carriages were waiting for us, which took us up and carried us all the way back to the Palace. They day was almost over. Clio, Daina and Aurelia and the others in my carriage were discussing the dinner that night, but I had not been invited, and besides, Casper had said he would send a carriage to pick me up at the end of the afternoon. I realised suddenly I would be glad to see the Peak again.

“I hope you enjoyed your day here, Lady Penelope,” the Rajah said to me as I left, “And you are welcome back tomorrow.”

I curtsied smoothly, gave a little smile, and ascended into the carriage that would take me home. It started to rattle down the Palace hill to the city again. I leaned my head back tiredly against the seat and thought about my day, and the people of the court I’d met.

Janeira, who seemed to understand a bit what it was like to be new and out of place at the Rajah’s court; Carmen and Mandarine, the two rivals who completed for the Rajah’s attention and hated each other, and now probably hated me too; Cassandra, whose grudge against the Enchanter who’d jilted her seemed to extend to all of his family, including his ‘cousin’; Daina, Clio, Aurelia and the others who seemed to regard me with a sort of superior disdain. And then there was, of course, the Rajah himself. The young, dark, and handsome ruler of Chaldea.

“How was it?” Paulina asked me when I reached the Peak. She was making dinner since I was not there to do it, and Radagast was curled by her feet.

“Tiring and confusing,” I sighed. “I’m going up to change.”

Quickly I undressed and put on my light blue dress. It felt so good to get out of that girdle, and to wash all that make-up off my face. When I looked in the mirror and saw my familiar, natural face staring back I felt relieved.

“So, how’d you do?” Casper asked when I came down. I looked at him.

“Put it this way,” I told him, “I don’t know how you ever talked me into doing this.”


Go to Chapter 14A


Filed under All My Stories & Extras

A Meaningful Universe?–Defining Fantasy

Fantasy, according to Crawford Kilian, takes place in a morally meaningful universe, and that is why readers like it so much. “In fantasy, meaning is not something we slap on from the outside, it’s built right into everything from the rocks and trees to the political system.”

I do love fantasy, possibly because I believe everything on this earth is morally meaningful in a rather messed up way. Everything in this world points to something. So I was very intrigued by this explanation of what defines fantasy. It might explain why I enjoy fantasy, and am rather ambivalent about sci-fi. But even for people who don’t think the way I do–most people would like to imagine a world where everything that happens is meaningful.

Then I wondered–does this actually apply to all fantasy?

For old school fantasy giants such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, it obviously applies. Prophecies predict events that happen. Good is recognized as good (and is considered attractive and beautiful by other good people), though some are deceived by its humble nature and rough surroundings. Evil, while attempting to appear beautiful, is revealed as ugly and not worth following.

But even in quite different books, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this theory of meaningfulness applies. Especially so, since so many of her character names, place names and spell names gives clues to what the thing is actually like. The hero has a plain, ordinary name–Harry Potter. The Death Eaters‘ names all sound ominous–Lucius Malfoy, Draco, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mulciber, Yaxley… The appearance of the Thestrals in the fifth book are a clear indication things are getting darker. And so on.

I am still not sure all fantasy follows this rule though. Some books seem to plunk characters down in a world solely because the author likes that kind of world, and the towns/forests/roads the characters are travelling don’t seem to mean much. I’m not sure if Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is set in a meaningful universe–it’s so incredibly huge I have no idea what it’s trying to say–if you have any ideas on that, add it in the comments below.

That’s one drawback to Crawford Kilian’s book (Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy – I really enjoyed it, by the way). He makes good points, but insists everything in a story should be there for a reason, even if symbolic. As a reader, I do hate pointless scenes. But if they entertain me (and I’m speaking as a reader here, not a writer), fine–I personally don’t care what every object “means,” or represents. That’s why I hated highschool English (Did Shakespeare really mean that?). It is important to put thought in your stories, and not be random. But even Tolkien put in long passages of description that meant nothing to the plot as a whole. (Actually, this was a bad habit of Tolkien’s, but some of it is enjoyable).

How about you–what would you say a good description of fantasy is?


Filed under Misc. Books, On Writing

Fantasy Clichés–Avoided!

OR, Not Another Prophecy About ‘The One!’

I just ran across this list of tired, overdone clichés in fantasy novels, and decided to post it up here. Since, after all, I didn’t get a proper post out on Thursday…

I was SO surprised to see the fantasy I’ve started posting on this blog doesn’t fall into too many of the clichés… which means it’s got a few original elements in it, I guess.

Here are the first couple items:

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?

The rest can be read here.

But I will be the first to argue that re-telling an old story is not always bad – see this previous post of mine. Also, this page on TVtropes sums it up quite well. But clichés can be quite tiring and irritating, especially in fantasy.

What about you? If you’ve ever tried your hand at fantasy, how many of these traps have you fallen into? And do you think any of these so-called “clichés” can still be useful for writers?

Check out Why Polly? to see for yourself if I avoided any of these clichés!


Filed under On Writing, Why Polly? Extras

EPICNESS in the Footsteps of Tolkien

I went through a phase of being obsessed with epic fantasy (see the post Fantasy Round-Up). I still like it, but it’s less of an obsession. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time series… the more epic, the better. So when I was assigned to write poetry in school I tried my hand at Tolkien-style epic poetry, and this was the result:


Terrnce, Krvel’s Bane


Over fields and happy places

Over town and dark, deep mountains

Over forest, and the faces

Of the desert, and by a lake

There is a castle, evil and grim

And Krvel, lord of dark, is there.

Lo, it is all because of him

That the land was dark and foul

That the lake was slaggy, that the grass was dead

That soil was leached, and piles of waste

Lay about, and that the dread

Of Evil haunts each stone and rock.

But lo, up to his castle

Rides a knight, his eyes like storms

His hair is dark, his arms are strong

The lurking evil ‘round him scorns.

A slave of Krvel comes out to him

“Why are you here?” he leers.

“I am Terrnce,” the stranger replies,

“Go tell Krvel to come here.”

Time does pass, and Krvel comes out

Dark is his raiment, sable his sword.

“I’ve come to regain my Lady Voä,”

Quoth Terrnce, “She belongs not to Krvel lord.”

“I did capture her,” Krvel laughed in reply,

“But she belongs to me alone

She suits me best, and because of that

She stays by Krvel, by his throne.

Unless, unless, you challenge me

And take up your sword and fight

Whoever wins shall have the lady

Whoever is greater in might.”

Terrnce, in reply his sword he drew

A fine sword, long, sharp, clean,

But Krvel, dark lord, drew his too

A cruel blade, wicked and mean.

Lady Voä Looked down from her window

And lo, what did she see?

Krvel, dark lord, down below

Fighting with-  could it be he?

Terrnce, her knight, had come to save her

Save her from this evil lord.

Looking up, Terrnce saw her

And strengthened his resolve

To free fair lady Voä

And Krvel’s power to dissolve.

With a clash their swords met in mid-air

Krvel pushed Terrnce’s blade aside

But Terrnce struck back, himself to defend

Yet does not attack freely, his time he bides

Then with a clash their swords meet again

Striking and biting, as furious as snakes

Terrnce falls back, his sword by his head

Defends himself calmly, a deep breath he then takes

And attacks, like a lion, valiant and true

Krvel steps back, afraid for a moment

But strikes Terrnce’s sword; his mouth in a line

Terrnce’s arm trembles, yet he does not relent.

He leans back and pushes, he calls on his strength,

Gathering all his power, all in one heave

He hews at Krvel’s arm, at his chest, at his neck

Krvel falls dead, and Terrnce it can’t believe

Lady Voä is free!

Voä runs out to meet him, and hold out her arms

Terrnce hugs her, he loves her, and she is now his

Together they ride out into sunset and light

The terror of Krvel to never re-live

By the way, this is probably my last poem for awhile. Stay tuned next week for a new direction!


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Filed under Randoms & My Life

Fantasy Round-up

Lately I’ve had people ask how I get inspiration when writing, and one big part of it is – reading other books! Good books show what works, what techniques are out there, and what tropes exist (obviously not for the purpose of blatant copying, that would be pointless). Bad books show what fails horribly, and gives me hope that I can at least do better than that. Since one of the genres I dabble in is fantasy, I thought I’d examine some of the ones I’ve read here.

So, after devouring Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (no need to recommend them – there’s obviously huge names in fantasy and worth reading), I turned to the rest of the epic fantasy world in an attempt to find something just as good. Either I just got a lot more picky, or nothing could measure up, because I wasn’t really satisfied with what was out there. Feel free to disagree:

–         The Sword of Shannara: This was a lot like Lord of the Rings, except lacking something (Tolkien’s genius?). I did like some of Terry Brooks’ (the author’s) later books a bit better – The Scions of Shannara and Antrax.

–         The Belgariad: I got a little annoyed at how the plot just made the characters run from country to country mostly just for the sake of describing strange new places. I did enjoy Belgarath the Sorceror though, since it was pretty much a condensed version of the original story. I tried the Sparhawk trilogy by the same author, but it bored me and I never finished.

–         The Wheel of Time: This is a very well-known and popular series by Robert Jordan – but maybe a little too long and detailed (I know, I know, the details are why people like it). I think I reached the fifth or sixth book before giving up, and I was a little tired of the frequent mentions of naked women (???).

I found more children’s fantasy books that I enjoyed, actually.

–         Diana Wynne Jones: This is an author who’s written a wide variety of books all in the fantasy vein. She’s just got absolutely unique plots. She also mocks some of the clichés of the fantasy world, with books such as Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I really loved: Hexwood (somewhat dark), Howl’s Moving Castle and Archer’s Goon (absolutely unique).

–         Artemis Fowl: A very unique hero (or anti-hero, I guess), who steals fairy technology and has to defend himself (a highly original plot). I loved the first two books, and found the series petered out from there, though they are still entertaining.

I have to mention the Chronicles of Narnia here, since they were the first fantasies I ever read and are responsible for sparking my interest in the first place. Puddlegum, in The Silver Chair, is great.

Note: I haven’t posted any of my fantasy writing up here, but maybe that’ll change. 🙂


Filed under Misc. Books