Welcome, welcome, to our next round of exciting interviews on the state of the genre. Today, we catch a glimpse on one of my most favorite blogs: Speculative Horizons by James Long.
It’s not that I don’t love all blogs equally, of course. Rather, it’s just that James and I have very similar tastes in terms of fantasy books. We like our meat raw, our coffee black and our heroes composed of equal parts moral grayness and deep philosophical quandaries in regards to violence and how it’s used to relate to the world around them and the people they care about deeply.
What? No, that is definitely a manly thing to talk about. Shut up! Go to the interview!
Let’s take a moment to consider the state of your blog. You’re considered one of the more acerbic and violent bloggers, unafraid to get into the fray of every conflict imaginable (those doubting me need only see your input on the latest George R.R. Martin updates). I also notice you like exceedingly violent stories like KELL’S LEGEND (by Andy Remic). Do you think this is reflected in what books you prefer and should we consider you the go-to guy for all things furious?
Acerbic – at times. But violent?! Anyone who hasn’t previously heard of my blog is probably now entertaining the following episode in their heads: me, standing over a bloodied author, fist clenched as I scream a torrent of expletives in between punches: “Nope, clumsy use of exposition.” SMACK. “How dare you offend my eyes with such wooden prose!” SMACK. “And here’s one more for the BLOODY HOODED FIGURE ON THE COVER!” SMACK. And yes, I know it’s mostly not the author’s fault they’ve got a bloke-in-a-cloak on their cover, but by this stage of the interrogation I’ve lost all sense of reason.
In all seriousness though, I don’t set out to be controversial or confrontational at all. I just happen to be tremendously passionate about the genre, and am not afraid to be brutally honest about what I think. Sometimes this passion, mixed with a healthy dose of dry British wit, can come across quite strongly. But I think that’s good – it often provokes a response, it gets people talking. I’m not afraid to get involved in some of the furious debates – in fact, I think it’s necessary at times. If we want to promote and improve our genre, it’s important to analyse (and often criticise) the elements that drag it down – like all this anti-GRRM bullshit, and the marketing obsession with hooded figures (the former is simply ridiculous, while the latter might help sales but it also makes the epic fantasy genre look stale and predictable).
Anyway, to answer your question: I don’t think the books I prefer are really linked to my occasionally blunt, unflinching attitude. It just so happens that epic fantasy is my thing, and this particular genre (especially these days) involves a large degree of violence. In truth it’s not the violence I really enjoy (although there are exceptions – the duel between the Red Viper of Dorne and the Mountain That Rides in A Storm of Swords is one of the greatest sequences ever written in epic fantasy – but more the sense of wonder you get from fantasy, the sense of adventure. I just like to lose myself for a while in a different world where I can watch people struggling with their own problems, rather than worrying about my own. And anyway, I’m a peaceful guy really. I like having a cup of coffee and some cake. I like fluffy bunny rabbits. Although I do have a replica of a medieval flail in my closet – just in case.
Let’s go ahead and assume you are a deeply disturbed sociopath with a love for gore, then. How do you think it’s figured into the fantasy of 2009? Do you suppose 2010 looks better for all things action-adventure-swords-up-the-butt?
There’s no doubt that epic fantasy has become grittier in recent years – there’s more of a sense of realism about many of the books, a warts-and-all approach. In part I think it reflects the change in western society – violence is everywhere these days, on the TV, in the newspapers, on the internet, and I think fantasy has altered to mirror this. While it’s not an aspect that bothers me (truth to tell, I prefer my fantasy hard-edged with greater realism) I do think at times we’re at risk of losing the sense of wonder that fantasy can give you. Sometimes I feel that this whole blood-and-guts approach is merely disguising the fact that some of these books aren’t that inventive. Still, it’s a trend that I don’t think will go away any time soon.
You avoided the accusation of sociopathy quite skillfully, sir. Perhaps those bunnies affected you more deeply than one might think. Let’s get balls-deep into a piece that strikes me pretty squarely. How much does cover art really affect you?
I won’t ever dismiss a book purely on the basis of its cover, though a bad cover certainly won’t encourage me to pick the book up. But cover art is massively important – why do you think we’ve seen such a torrent of hooded figures gracing the covers of fantasy books? Because for some reason they appeal to the casual reader, and they’re the biggest market. We have to remember that – as brilliant and passionate as online fandom is – we represent a small slice of the potential market. So for each one of us who vomits up our breakfast over another hooded figure cover, there’s a hundred people who think “Oh cool, another book about a badass assassin – where’s my wallet?”
While I completely understand and accept the commercial reasons for these covers, I think they’re dangerous. As I said above, they make the genre look stale and unprogressive. Worse, some readers assume that because one book has a similar cover to another one they enjoyed, that it’s going to be as good. I saw a guy recently comment online that he knew an upcoming Orbit book was going to be great, because “it has a cover like the other ones, so I know I’m going to get a great read.” That worries me. To some degree it feels like publishers are not promoting individual books or authors, but a collective brand instead – hence the similar covers. And I don’t like that, since it feels too much like a conveyor belt. Come on, is too much to ask for a little bit of originality now and again?
As a man who is watching the debuts of 2010 roll in as though they were a pit fight (thankfully, they aren’t, since I’m pretty sure N.K. Jemisin can kick my ass), let me ask you about your hopes for the debuts of the new year.
Well, there’s a book called Tomb of the Undergarments, or something, which I hear has been written by a chap who recently escaped from a secure medical complex where he was undergoing intensive anger-management courses, so I might check that out (by the way, like a Lannister I always pay my debts – that ‘Tomb of the Undergarments’ gag was originally made by Adam from the Wertzone, though I’m sure he won’t mind me using it – free publicity 4tw!).
Seriously though, I expect there to be one or two solid debuts this year. In recent years, there’s always been one debut that has accrued more hype than the others, and became that year’s ‘big deal’, so it’ll be interesting to see which novel takes that title this year. Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God has already caused quite a stir, with opinion split almost entirely down the middle. I expect Blake Charlton’s Spellwright to do pretty well, though I don’t think it’s for me. I liked the sound of Col Buchanan’s Farlander until I read a sample, and now my interest in that book has cooled somewhat. I’m hearing good things about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin too – one to watch, the prose from what I’ve read seems good. But overall I’d have to say that Tome of the Undergates looks like the debut of 2010 – what else could I say when you’ve got a HUGE MACHETE pressed against my throat?
And thank you, sir, for guaranteeing I will never live that parodied title down!
Well, that was pretty good, wasn’t it? For those of you concerned: don’t worry. Despite a mild slip-up due to my eating chicken fingers before pressing the machete to his throat, he lost a minimal amount of blood and I’m at least 90% sure that the number I dialed was emergency services. The guy was sort of mumbling into the phone and I asked him to send an ambulance and he asked me if I wanted that extra spicy, but I think that might just be code for something.
Anyway, once again, assuming James survived, please check him out at Speculative Horizons
and stay tuned for our next guest!