Urban Fantasy – the new Grimm’s Fairy Tales?

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Urban fantasy is a phenomenon. Ten years ago, it was hardly there at all. Now you can’t move on Amazon without tripping over it. Everyone’s getting into the act, even authors like Tad Williams, who’ve been solidly epic-fantasy, and old books that fit the genre (like George R.R. Martin’s Armaggeddon Rag) are being reissued.

Why is it so popular?

Personally, I think it’s because it fits what we need. Life is increasingly stressful, increasingly difficult (when did a day last go by without you hearing the word ‘recession’?), increasingly grey.

We used to be happy to go off to whole new worlds built by authors, but now we’re tied down with the mortgage, the kids, the car payments, and all that sort of thing. We’re stressed out of our heads and we can’t cope with that kind of travel. What we really want to feel is that the magic is here. We don’t have to go a long way, let alone to another world, to find it. It’s right here, if only we could see it.

It doesn’t matter if we, personally, don’t encounter the magic – it’s enough that we can kid ourselves that Harry Dresden and Rachel Morgan are out there, doing battle with the Forces of Evil and trying to make the rent.

And we might encounter the magic.

If not today, then maybe tomorrow.

Hey, Author! I think your mind’s showing…

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The book I’m reading at the moment got me thinking, but possibly not in the way the author intended. And since this is my blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

When an author writes, I guess they hope that certain aspects of their personality will shine through, smiting the reader with awe at their genius etc. This is not to say that authors are particularly big-headed (any more than anyone, for example a blogger, who lays the contents of their mind out in public for anyone to see), but you’ve got to admit that someone who struts their stuff in public is hoping that people are going to be impressed. Otherwise, why do it? If you write only for the pleasure of writing, then what’s the reason for publishing? Publishing is for when not only do you want to write, you want others to read what you’ve written.

But what else does your writing say about you? You authors out there, have you ever taken that step back, read through your stuff, and thought What does this say about me?

Other than What a genius, obviously.

The thing is, writing is produced solely from the mind of the writer. This applies whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, although of course in respectable non-fiction there is supposed to be a clear delineation between fact and opinion. But you can sometimes still detect the author’s personality in the turn of a phrase, the exact placement and choice of a word, the conclusions they draw from evidence (just read anything about Richard III if you don’t believe me).

Fiction, though, that’s a whole different ball game. There are no external facts: it’s purely a construct of the author’s mind, so you do see a lot of the author’s personality. I read one book a while back, and the author didn’t come across as a nice person at all. He didn’t seem to respect his characters, or even like them – the whole novel had this air of contempt for these poor people that he’d invented. What kind of person does that? Invent someone from the ground up, and then despise them for the way they are? Made me wonder whether the author was the kind of person who would despise anyone who didn’t measure up to his stringent standards.

OK, another example. Take Laurell Hamilton. You do not have to get this woman drunk to find out that she gets turned on by men with long hair and thigh-high boots. Almost every single sexy male character has the same attributes, and do we believe that this has nothing to do with the author’s preferences? No, we do not (and I’m not the only one who’s noticed). (And I’d like it on record that long hair on a man just makes me want to shout: You! Am I hurting you? No? Well, I ought to be because I’m standing on your hair! GET IT CUT!) Ms Hamilton’s fantasies obviously lean in the direction of extremely long hair, because how often do you see anyone with hair that reaches to below their hips? Hair that reaches the floor is practically unknown (unless matted into dreadlocks) because it’s biologically impossible for most people – all to do with how long the ‘growing period’ is for an individual’s hair, before the hair falls out.

Terry Pratchett; now, I like this guy. He respects people who know what needs to be done, and do it, even if it costs them. He likes teachers and policemen. Even when he’s describing the appallingly insanitary Watch House canteen, you know that he’s fond of his characters; he loves their strengths and their weaknesses. He watches people, and he points out their amusing little peculiarities, but with a kind of understanding, not contempt. He hates prejudice, and points out that anyone can be prejudiced against anyone – no-one gets a free pass just because others might be prejudiced against them. Plus he must do a massive amount of research. I have great respect for Mr Pratchett.

Another author whom I shall not name obviously has a problem with women. You read his books and you eventually realise that all his female characters are either nuns or whores. And if a whore repents and becomes a nun, she still has to die for her sins. Creepy? You bet. After I figured that out, I got rid of all his books. Then washed my hands.

So, what does your writing say about you? What characteristics do you give your heroes, your villains? What prejudices do you have that show up in your writing, even if you’d never admit to them in public?

So, there is a challenge for all you authors out there. Go back and read your stuff with a stranger’s eyes, and see what your reader sees.

What does your writing say about you?

Angelology

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Angelology is a real word. It means ‘the study of angels’. There are even books on it.

There seems to be two types of angelology: the study of angels as they appear in religious artefacts (books, sculpture etc) and also study of the angels themselves.

How do you study angels? I mean, it’s not like you can set a trap (humane, of course) and bait it with… what? A soul? Or put an ad in the local paper. “Wanted: Angel(s) for interview.” So angelology traditionally means a lot of extrapolation and a lot of speculation.

Angels appear in all the Abrahamic religions (as you’d expect from religions sharing a common origin) as guardians of humanity and messengers of God. The concept of divine messengers also occurs in other religions, although the terminology may not be the same.

But hey, I think I’ll stick to the Abrahamics, if it’s all the same to you. Include Hinduism etc, and we could be here all day.

There are lots of angels, and mostly their names end in ‘-el’, which is a suffix meaning ‘of God’ in Hebrew. Others end in ‘-yah’ which means ‘Lord’, again in Hebrew. An exception is Metatron, who doesn’t seem to have any clear etymology behind him (no, nothing to do with insects – that’s entomology). Maybe at some time in the future I’ll make a list of angels and their duties (for example, Metatron is – some say – the only angel who can look upon the face of God, and hence is known as Prince of the Countenance). But it would be a long list.

Angels allegedly come in different ranks, although there isn’t much agreement on how the ranks are arranged. The different orders of angel are as follows:

Seraphim,
Cherubim,
Thrones (or Ophanim, or Erelim),
Dominions (or Dominations),
Virtues (or Authorities),
Powers (or Potentates),
Principalities (or Rulers),
Archangels,
Angels.

About the only thing angelologists seem to agree on is that Seraphim are at the top of the pile, and Cherubim second. Archangels are second-from-bottom, and ordinary common-or-garden Angels are right at the bottom of the heap. Everything else is negotiable; I’ve used St Thomas Aquinas’ ordering; he groups his in three hierarchies of three orders of angel.

Putti – those little winged babies you get all over baroque art – don’t count. They’re Art, not Theology, and confusing them with Cherubim is likely to get you smacked if a Cherub hears you.

Whatever ranking the different orders of angels have, the further up the ranks you go, the less the angels have to do with humanity, or at least with individual humans – the intermediate grades of angel might be responsible for whole countries. When you get right to the top (Seraphim), their job is apparently to surround the throne of God, constantly shouting praises. (I have to say, my first thought is, Don’t they get laryngitis or something? and my second thought is Isn’t that rather distracting? Does this explain the duck-billed platypus?)

Right at the bottom of the scale, you’ve got ordinary angels, who seem to be the gophers of heaven. (As in go-fer-it, not as in cute rodents that live in large communities.) There’s some debate over whether Gabriel is an angel or an archangel, and whether Michael, who is definitely an archangel, is the kind that’s nearly at the bottom of the heap, or whether he’s an Arch-Angel, as in, top-dog angel in charge of all the rest.

So far, I haven’t found out where angels come from; presumably created by God directly. Unlike demons, for whom the Abrahamic religions have at least two alternative explanations that I know of (I’ll probably talk about demons later). There also doesn’t appear to be much opportunity for promotion; angels don’t seem to die, and nor do they seem to change position in the ranks. Great if you’re Metatron, less good if you’re one of the minions.

I think I’ll stop there; wouldn’t want to bore you.

And here is some angel-related music: Let All the Angels of God Worship Him from Handel’s Messiah.

Give the kid a book

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There was an article in the Independent today about how children are reading less nowadays, and how this is a bad thing, and giving suggestions on how things might be improved.

Well, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air, because for once the writer was not demanding that schools, and teachers, take responsibility for yet another failing of parents. Interestingly, the author also recommended buying an ebook reader – because more than one person can read the same book at the same time, they’re easy to keep tidy, and you can adjust the font size.

I agreed with everything she said – reading is a habit that you have to get into, and children do have to be introduced to books.

But I would go a little further – let’s just have a look at the kind of books we’re introducing kids to, shall we?

Have a think about what books you were given to read at school in English lessons. Mine, as far as I can remember were:

Moonfleet, JM Faulkner.
Smith, Leon Garfield.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

All important literary books. All pretty heavy going, if you’re not a reader. You could say, yes, I was in the top set and could cope – but then, not being a reader is not wholly the province of the less intelligent. Are these the books that would persuade a child who was not usually a reader that reading was a fun thing to do? Personally, I don’t think so. My sister certainly didn’t think so. I remember her saying “If they picked a book that some people liked and some people didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair. So they pick books that nobody will like.”

What a comment on the education system’s book choices for children!

I remember the bottom set got to read The BFG (Roald Dahl). Oh, how I envied them. I remember thinking that it really wasn’t a great encouragement to work hard: work hard, get into the top set, and they’ll make you read Moonfleet. On the other hand, if you doss about and end up in the bottom set, they give you a fun book like The BFG!

If we have a problem with children not reading, then we should give them books that they’re going to enjoy. Yes, parents should be taking care of this, but, as usual, some parents won’t, so the only place little Josh or Molly is going to get books is school. And if they’re not readers, the only time they’ll read is when they’re made to, and that’s English lessons. In English lessons, they’re a captive audience. We can introduce them to reading books that say ‘reading is fun’; ‘reading is exciting’; ‘reading takes you to places and introduces you to people beyond your wildest imagination’.

So what do we give them? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Now there’s a book that would probably put me off reading, and I’m kind of the definition of “I think, therefore I read”. Literary merit, yes, in spades, but is it the kind of book that says “You had fun with me… you could do that again – look, the school library’s just down the corridor”?

If you’re faced with reluctant readers, you need to give them something fun, something they’ll enjoy, something that’ll make them want to read more. Then once you’ve persuaded them that reading per se isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s fun, then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff.

Here’s my really quick list of kids’ books I think are good, in no particular order:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Say no more.
Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. All the best of Pratchettism, but for kids. And besides, the main character is called Tiffany.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
Anything by Roald Dahl.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books – a little dated now, possibly, but she obviously understood children, and remembered what it was like to be a child. And that hasn’t changed.
Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And sequels.

I think I’ll stop there. There are also authors who usually write adult books who are now starting to write for children: Simon Scarrow is one; if his kids books are as good as his adult books, they’ll be well worth reading.

OK, so what books would you recommend for schools?

Remember, it’s got to satisfy two conditions:
1. It’s got to be fun to read.
2. It’s got to be well written enough, and deal with enough important issues/concepts, that you could get some English lessons out of it.

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

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Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker is the first book in a series by D.B. Jackson, introducing eighteenth-century Boston thieftaker Ethan Kaille. In the absence of a police force, if a citizen wants a thief, or stolen goods, found, then they must employ a thieftaker. Kaille, however, does not rely merely on traditional legwork – he can do magic.

Unlike many magic-is-real urban fantasy settings, this alternate 1767 Boston does not seem to have magic-users and magical beings all over the place. Magic-users – conjurers – are not common, and they risk being arrested and convicted of witchcraft by the church. Kaille understandably keeps quiet about his gift, although it’s clear that quite a few people know about it all the same. Obviously the church isn’t too zealous in hunting conjurers down, or he’d be dead.

The current case revolves around the seemingly senseless death-by-magic of a rich young woman who was, for reasons unknown, out in the street during one of the riots due to the Stamp Act. It’s clear that she was killed by a powerful conjurer, but who might this be, and why was she killed? And were other possibly-mysterious deaths related? And, again, why?

In the course of pursuing this case, Kaille gets repeatedly beaten up, kidnapped, threatened, etc. Although conjurers have the ability to heal themselves, the man must have a constitution of iron and the courage of a lion to make it to the end of the book without deciding to retire from thieftaking and take up some nice, safe, boring occupation like alligator dentistry.

The author is a historian, and he has consulted other historians in the writing of the book. The setting felt real; however, it is neither overloaded with unnecessary detail (meant to impress on the reader that the author Knows His Stuff) nor so lacking in detail that it felt bland. I was worried that the book might not make sense to someone who didn’t know the period, but I needn’t have worried. Although knowing what the Stamp Act actually was would have helped, just accepting that it was important to the characters was enough since it was only background, and not part of the plot.

On the down side, some of the dialogue was a little modern (I’m pretty sure people didn’t say ‘hi’ in the eighteenth century), but I’m against the use of deliberately ‘archaic’ speech patterns in novels – I think it causes more interference with the reader’s enjoyment of the book than it increases authenticity. I prefer to read dialogue I can just absorb rather than something I have to decode.

Although the book had a slow start for me, and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like Kaille enough to devote my evening to his problems, in the end he grew on me. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and did not find myself stopping reading to do something aimless. I even carried on reading through dinner, which is one of my yardsticks of is-this-a-good-book (you can keep any comments on my table manners to yourself, thank you). So I will definitely be looking out for the second one in the series.

If you like urban fantasy, with fairly low-key magic in a historically realistic setting, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Equinox

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Today is September 22nd – the Autumnal Equinox. Today, sunset and sunrise are 12 hours apart, so we have equal day and night. Summer is now officially over, more’s the pity, since it wasn’t much of a summer to begin with – at least here in the UK. Unless you really enjoy rain.

Like probably a lot of people, when I thought ‘equinox’, I thought ‘druids’. You know, those chaps in the white robes who built Stonehenge. Or so they say. (Flanders and Swann did a fantastic monologue on Stonehenge which you can listen to here, along with a couple of their other monologues.)

Only, if you do a little bit of digging you find
a) We don’t actually know what the druids believed because they seem to have made a point of not writing anything down.
b) We don’t know what Stonehenge was for, but it probably wasn’t some fantastic multi-functional solar computer.
c) Solar worship as a main focus of a religion isn’t as common as you think (or as common as I thought, anyway).

Stonehenge seems to have been mostly used at midwinter – possibly the midwinter solstice – which makes a certain sort of sense since we do have evidence of the midwinter solstice being extremely important to ancient European cultures.

If you’re weird… act normal

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Today, Dr Una Coales is facing an unexpected media storm.

She wrote a book, three years ago, advising doctors who wished to pass their Royal College of General Practitioners exams (the ones you pass after you’re a real doctor, but before you can be a GP – which is a family doctor in the UK) that if they’re having trouble passing their oral/roleplay exams, something other than their medical knowledge might be the trouble.

She advised:
Gay students: act straight.
Women students: don’t wear a floral print dress – people will think you’re a nurse.
Ethnic minorities: if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh.
Fat people (male, presumably): acquire a ‘Santa Claus’ persona.

And for this, she appears to be being witch-hunted through the halls of the Royal College of GPs.

I wonder if this is because it’s very, very embarrassing for the RCGP to have it revealed that a) someone thinks that they don’t assess students wholly on competence and b) it has taken them three years (and someone posting on Twitter) to notice?

Dr Coales is being portrayed as racist, discriminatory, demeaning, and a whole lot of other nasty things. But let’s actually take a look at this.

Gay students – act straight
OK, do we think that there is no prejudice against gay men? Let’s all think about our acquaintances, shall we, particularly those with a Y chromosome. Do we think those possessors of a penis will be more comfortable talking to a straight or a gay GP? Ideally, it should make no difference – doctors aren’t supposed to make the moves on patients, and that’s the only time someone’s sexuality should matter – but I don’t think we’re quite at that Utopian state of tolerance yet.

So we if acknowledge that some patients might be happier (and some examiners, says Dr Coales) with a straight-seeming doctor, surely amending his body language is something our aspiring GP ought to at least consider? And, of course, this also applies to those chaps who will chase anything in a skirt but just act camp.

Women students – don’t wear a floral print dress or they’ll think you’re a nurse
OK, we’re in the twenty-first century here. Girls are allowed to be doctors, and it’s been that way for more than a hundred years. But while less than half of junior doctors are women, more than 90% of nurses are. The statistics are against us, ladies.

Also, nursing is traditionally ‘girly’, and if you wear a girly dress, people will think you have a girly job. Doctoring is more traditionally male, is certainly seen as a higher class of job (something to do with not having to take people to the loo, I think) and is more traditionally linked with ‘power’ dressing. Dr Coales may have overstated things slightly, but she does have a point.

Your clothes say something about you, people. Make sure what your clothes are saying is what you want them people to hear.

Ethnic minorities, if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh
Well, duh.
This also applies to everyone else. Your voice says all sorts of things other than words. Just you look at the internet pages on ‘most trusted accents’. Some accents, which I shall not name for fear of having my windows broken, sound like they’d steal the wheels off your car as soon as look at you. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find my voice changes depending on circumstances. Normally I don’t have much of a regional accent, but if I’m faced with a difficult conversation, my old accent comes out. And you know what? It works. I’m one of the lucky people with a ‘trustworthy’ regional accent, and I find that people calm down and are more likely to listen when I use it.

But this was not what Dr Coales was on about. Although she is being vilified for being against ethnic minorities’ accents, and for telling them to talk with a Scottish or Welsh accent, she actually only says to do this if practising in those areas. Presumably, she would also advise an Indian student practising in Liverpool to try to develop a Liverpudlian accent.

This is nothing to do with the desirability, or otherwise, of having an Indian (or other) accent, and everything to do with your voice saying I am someone like you; I am someone you can trust. It also aids understanding. I can’t imagine a consultation getting very far if neither understands the other’s accent. I used to work up in the North East of England, and I’ve encountered accents up there that were impenetrable even to me, and I used to have family up there so I was used to that particular accent. I’ve also got an elderly aunt (possessor of a strong regional accent) who changed her doctor partly because she couldn’t understand anything he said.

Fat people – develop a Santa Claus persona
This plays right into our expectations. It’s OK for Santa to be fat (in fact, can you imagine a thin Santa?) but it’s not OK for anyone else to be fat because it’s unhealthy. We are happy with fat-and-jolly because it’s a stereotype we know and with which we are familiar. Once we’ve stereotyped someone, we can stop thinking about them and get down to business. Probably quite important if you’ve got to sort out someone’s health in whatever the standard consultation length is.

Maybe we shouldn’t be vilifying Dr Coales. Maybe we should be thinking about what she’s actually saying, and why she’s saying it. We need to accept that people are different, yes. We need to not discriminate against people who are different in whatever way. But those of us who are different also need to acknowledge the effect our differences have on others.

Yes, you have a right to be yourself. But equally, you need to realise that if you do not fit the box marked ‘normal’ you will pay a price for it – justly or unjustly.

You can either be different and damn the consequences, or you can consider whether there might be any little changes that you could make without compromising your identity and individuality that might make your life easier. Also, if you are in a position of trust and responsibility, dealing with the vulnerable (and also the ignorant, and the stupid) – such as a doctor – you need to consider that some people are just not as enlightened as you are. If you’re going to deal with them profitably, and if you are going to be able to give them the help that they need, then you need to not scare them.

We find strange things frightening; and to some people, gay, ethnic minorities, even women in positions of authority, are all strange and therefore frightening. There is a time and a place for campaigning for the rights of oppressed minorities, but while dealing with someone who is only reacting badly to you because you’re just outside their comfort zone, rather than because of anything specific, is not it.