Welcome to Smugglivus 2013! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2013, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2014.
Who: Sam Sykes, Fantasy writer, author of the completed Aeon’s Gate Trilogy and the upcoming highly anticipated The City Stained Red
Please give it up for Sam, everybody!
I oftentimes wonder if everyone feels embarrassment as keenly as I do.
Being raised Catholic, I already have a leg-up on people in that regard, but I also wonder if my decision to write and read in a genre that has, not infrequently, been riddled with accusations of adolescent wish-fulfillment has somewhat aided in that sense of embarrassment.
And I oftentimes wonder if that’s just me.
Perusing through various blogs and critiques would have me believe that no, it isn’t. A not-insignificant chunk of fantasy readership seems to go under the impression that they are being watched, scrutinized and judged, perhaps privately mocked for opting to read about dragons and elves rather than, say, something normal and decent like Fifty Shades of Gray.
I can’t really explain why this is. Perhaps the “Us and Them” rhetoric that gets tossed around whenever mainstream literature opts to ignore SFF gets taken too personally. Or perhaps people still live in fear of days-long-gone where being a geek was something to be maligned and derided, instead of being the widely-accepted subculture it is today. Or maybe we are falling into the same routine as any other genre and separating the wheat (the glorious high-minded conceptual science fiction) from the chaff (the icky gross escapist childish sex-ridden fantasy) and letting ourselves decide who is a “true” reader and who is an embarrassment.
But I know it’s there. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it whenever someone makes a weird post about intelligence versus emotions, as though the two are mutually exclusive. I’ve seen it whenever someone describes their latest read with slavering joy and then quickly apologizes for it, afterward, like enthusiasm is something to be ashamed of. I’ve seen it whenever someone praises a raw, gritty style full of despair, endless crap and, naturally, rape, for its edgy maturity.
2013 was an important year for me, as it was the year I finally stopped caring about being embarrassed. I had a look at a lot of books I was afraid weren’t going to be “serious” fantasy. Again, I can’t explain why. Maybe I just hit the point where, between writing, reading and trying to live my life, I simply don’t have the energy to dedicate toward caring what other people think of me insofar as my reading habits.
Or maybe it all changed once I came to understand some simple fundamentals about storytelling, a revelation that began with Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst.
In the interests of full disclosure, this was a book recommended to me by the Book Smugglers, largely because I asked them what a very good YA was. I had read The Hunger Games (and it still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read), but I felt ill-at-ease with having read only well-known YA. I wanted to go a bit deeper.
What I found in Vessel was a lot like what I found in The Hunger Games: a young female as the central protagonist, uncertain of herself and drawn to a young male protagonist who seems more self-confident, but has weaknesses of his own, a burgeoning romance that is, itself, connected to the nature of identity and how we assert it. I gather that this is typical amongst YA: a lot of emotion, a lot of bad decisions, a lot of romance, a lot of feelings and dialogue about said feelings.
Which, I gather, is embarrassing to a lot of readers.
And I loved the hell out of it.
For all that I do not understand, I certainly understand the appeal of YA, and whenever someone brings up an article puzzling over its popularity (as whenever someone brings up an article puzzling over the popularity of Urban Fantasy to Epic Fantasy), I find it odd that no one has considered the obvious.
People actually prefer emotionally charged, character-driven content to…say, not that.
I’ll not dwell overmuch on why this is precisely the case, suffice to say that I certainly found myself growing more intolerant of books that relied exclusively on world-building and economic treatises than relationships and drama (another word we’ve come to associate with embarrassment that is actually quite good). With this in mind, I sought to find more books like it.
Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan was a good one. A neat world-building gimmick gave way to some interesting characters with interesting problems (I include this book, despite the lamentable lack of female characters, since I know Mr. McClellan is trying hard to address this). I also enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts for an inventive look at emotional content from the perspective of an epic fantasy backdrop.
One of the more curious discoveries of the year came at the very end, where I started reading both The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski and The Copper Promise by Jen Williams. I’m actually kind of thrilled to see these two books occupying the same space, because, in case you couldn’t tell, I really, really love stories about monsters and adventures. These are the sorts of stories I was keen to rediscover when I stopped giving a damn.
Sadly, a lot of the widely-praised books around I decided to opt out of. I’m not going to go into grimdark or what it is or what it does or how it affects the genre—I’m as far beyond caring what happens to the genre as I am beyond caring what people think of my reading habits—suffice to say, I’m kind of…bored.
Gloomy badasses aren’t as interesting to me as they once were. Crapsack worlds where people clamber to be king of poop mountain aren’t all that innovative. I find a distinct lack of conflict in a world where everyone quietly resigns to their fates and tries to make the best of it by farting on their neighbors.
I do kind of suspect that my decision to embrace emotion over concept is inherently linked to my overall boredom with grimdark, since I suspect the latter was made as an indirect response to being embarrassed by the genre and its many trappings of happy endings, sanitized heroes and free-from-complications conflicts.
But perhaps I’m just growing older, less interested and less inclined to justify myself. I don’t really mind that, either, since the end result is that I’ve finally begun reading for pleasure again, instead of reading for appearances.
Thank you, Sam!