Foz Meadows Sees Your Tropes and Uses Them for Silage

IMG_6889I was reading this book during the aftermath of a horrific mass murder in our local high school. This quote is really sticking with me: Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know, keep fighting. I kind of want it on a t-shirt. Thanks, Foz, for helping me get through this rough time. 

Spoiler warning: I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reader responses. I can’t really do that here; this book is too complex and so you’re fairly warned.

I present for your consideration An Accident of Stars, Book I of the Manifold Worlds, the ambitious portal fantasy by Foz Meadows. (Note 1) I say ambitious because it’s almost as though Foz sat down with a LIST OF PORTAL FANTASY TROPES, and went down the list intentionally reversing or dismantling each one. (My Foz quotes here are not actual quotes. It’s my imagination of her process, every time I’d see her turning some other expectation on its head.) Here’s a few:

  • Protagonist from “real” world is a Chosen One in the new world. Special gifts or powers. I can imagine Foz: “Ohellnoez. Normal girl.”
  • Protagonist is an orphan. Foz: “Nope. Nice family. Supportive. Conveniently offstage, but everybody’s alive and caring.”
  • Protagonist has Special Problems. Foz: “Nope. Sexual harassment at school, all the girls face it, and some (implied) have it worse.”
  • Adults Don’t Understand/Won’t/Can’t Intervene…well, okay, that trope sticks around but it feels like it’s making a point that Yes This Is What The Real World Is Like for Teens; especially resonant with the #metoo movement.
  • We follow the Protagonist through their journey to the other world, experience the world with them, then follow them home. Foz: “Y’know, let’s have another viewpoint right away, before we even get through the portal. And then, a bunch more. But we’ll actually let the main character change and grow, instead of just being a boring narrator placeholding for the reader.”
  • Guys have a bunch of adventures. Foz: Let’s have most of the major characters be females. Even the nominal villain, let’s have the real interesting one be his wife. Let’s see her more often, too. And…the warriors are women. And the religious leaders. And the guys are kind of sidelined, and it’s really not fair, let’s make that really visible! (To be fair, the male characters are also interesting, and the older one has some nuance. The younger one is less developed. But there’s only so much you can do in the space of one novel.)

 

(I can practically smell the burning rage coming from some folks who are still jammed up into the idea of ButFictionHasToLookTheWayIExpectItTo.)

It goes on and on. Instead of a love triangle or epic hetero romance, there are complex relationships: friendships, polyamory, parent/child, complex families, siblings, subject/ruler, worshiper/priestess, etc. We see trans representation, aromantic representation, genderqueer, bi…a whole rainbow of gender and sexual orientation. BUT unlike a number of fantasy novels I’ve read recently, these relationships aren’t painted in graphic detail. This keeps things more YA friendly (and, honestly, a number of my older friends have told me they’re a bit overwhelmed with the volume of sex in some recent fantasy novels, so I’m happy to point them here.)

I really admire the way Foz tackles Big Social Issues around gender, race, identity, religion, sexuality head on. Representation is so vital! And Foz dives in head first, into the deep end. Let’s be very clear: this is a book I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to tackle writing. At least, not without having seen Foz do it first. And maybe not even then, because parts of it are so honest. There’s a vulnerability in that, and some writers just aren’t comfortable opening themselves that way. I am blown away by this author’s determination to Not Shy Away From Hard Subjects.

Sometimes it feels as there may be too many issues being grappled with here to fit easily within the structure of one story. As a result, we get more exposition chunks than we might otherwise; that can pull the reader out of the story flow. The framework is solid: newcomer has to learn the new ways. But there’s so much complexity, so much to fit within that framework, that it feels a little forced sometimes. This wouldn’t keep me from recommending the book, though…(cue moment of personal reflection)… Sometimes exposition feels weighty because we’re being exposed to something outside our usual understanding. For example, I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship; this may have made the explanations for the complex marriage customs seem longer to me than they actually were. (Note 2) (If my TBR pile weren’t so big, I’d re-read, with my self-evaluation glasses on.)

Back to the book. I like the magic systems, with their built-in flaws that keep things interesting. The world is complex, with some well-developed scenes that made me feel that I was really seeing the place the characters were experiencing. The plot is intricate and as tightly interwoven as the braids that are a recurring image in the novel. The characters are diverse, multi-dimensional, well thought out with their own motivations and goals.

Between themes, characters, worldbuilding, and plot … I wonder if An Accident of Stars might have been better served by being TWO books. Each of these areas left me wanting a bit more development. I wanted to see more of the characters, more of their worlds, have a bit more space to breathe around the social questions. But I understand that pacing is important, so I’m going to trust that Foz and her editors made these choices for reasons. (And leaving them wanting more is not generally seen as a bad thing.)

I’ll definitely be picking up Book Two. This was a really solid, ambitious work for a first novel. Congratulations to Foz for a trope-bashing extravaganza! And, hey Foz? You know…keep fighting.

(Note 3)

 

(Note 1) Foz and her husband came to my attention recently due to egregious and unfounded attacks by some hacks with more time than skill, in writing OR online detective work. I pulled this book to the top of my TBR pile as a gesture of solidarity. Because it’s not a good idea to let the malicious voices be the dominant ones in a conversation just because they’re loud and annoying.

(Note 2) It’s a good thing to read books that represent people who don’t look, act, love, believe just as you do. It strengthens our understanding, increases our ability to identify with other humans. It makes us better people. And if it makes us uncomfortable? Well, sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.

(Note 3) I read an early print version of this book. I understand that later versions have had the formatting errors corrected. 

Fragment

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Tea and a Tale on a Tuesday: Fragment by Craig Russell

Bertie (R.A.) MacAvoy sent me a book to read, without telling me much of anything about it, or why I should read it.

But I trust her. So I read it: Fragment, by Canadian writer Craig Russell.

Well, I meant to read just a chapter or two. But I ended up reading the whole thing, compulsively. It’s a slender volume. The story, however, is a big one.

Sometimes what’s scary about a thriller is its plausibility. One of the things speculative fiction writers do best is tell the truth sideways.  And there’s a lot of truth here. Craig Russell’s near future ecological and political world are a little too easy to imagine as reality. It was a compelling, but uncomfortable read: I found myself reading faster as the story progressed, hoping there might be some way to avert disaster. Maybe something in the way of hope, that might be carried past the pages of the book and into the outer world. The hubris and political manipulation in Fragment: yes, there are real-world analogs. Seeing the potential outcome as spelled out in this novel? Dread inducing. But I couldn’t look away.

As a key part of the novel, Russell has created  a particularly compelling, and unexpected, major character. No spoilers here … but I’d have liked to see the book return to this character’s unique viewpoint more often.

This book would make a challenging summer movie. It might be difficult to get made in the current political situation. But there are some important messages here. And the visuals would be mesmerizing.

Tuesday: Tea and a Tome 9/13/16

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In my studio today.

My happiest time is when I stand in front of a white empty board: the space is full of hope.

— Kinuko Craft

Too much wrestling with tech yesterday left me irritable. Today is a new beginning! So I had a lovely cup of chai tea with a friend to start my morning. Cinnamon and ginger, allspice and cloves, quiet conversation: all warming and life-enriching. These things will soothe.

As will a peek into the visually delicious Kinuko Craft: Drawings & Paintings. I purchased a copy in New York recently. You may not know Kinuko Craft’s name, but you might recognize her paintings: ethereal, yearning,  ambient pieces that cup narrative in an enchanted, wordless space.

If you know her work, then like me you probably saw her paintings first on a book cover. I looked into her art after discovering her wonderful illustration for The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip, and realized that many of these paintings were familiar to me. Generally, yes, via book covers. A good cover stands alone as a work of art, but also serves as a sort of gateway, inviting a reader to come step through into the story.

An ill-suited cover can suffocate a book, but the right cover can make it sing. Craft and McKillip are well suited. As are Craft and Ellen Kushner, at least in the case of the wonderful Thomas the Rhymer. I read this story in 1990, when it was a new version of an old wonderment, and have revisited it since. I loved the Thomas Canty cover back then, and thought it couldn’t have an equal, but the US and Kindle reissues are graced with a Kinuko Craft cover that will likely draw in a new generation of readers. (You can see more about it on Terri Windling’s wonderful blog post over at Myth and Moor.)

But back to the book at hand. This volume (available through her official gallery for $25 at the time of this post) is a lovely production. Gleaming gold ink, lavish borders, and vividly printed illustrations. Worth the space on your bookshelf.

Kinuko Craft’s words give insight into her process and motivation.

“The stories invite me into a world the author has created. I start living there and let my own dreams and imagination explore and guide me.”  — Kinuko Craft

The art, though, is the main reason for picking up the book. Line drawings let us see pieces of the creation of the finished works. She has a very great technical skill in art, but as with the best writers, she transcends technique and takes us into worlds of her own creation. Dense, layered, rich with detail and color. Her paintings are so narrative, they don’t have subjects: they have protagonists.

Once a painting is finished I never look back. The journey is done, and I go on to the next adventure. — Kinuko Craft

Visit Kinuko Craft’s official website for more wonderment!