Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve…Samhain – when the ghosts walk among us
Welcome to Hallowe’en, the day when the boundaries between worlds grow weak.
Malicious spirits and the unquiet dead press across thresholds, seeking revenge, closure…or entertainment. With the rise of the Christian church, and the prohibition of the ancient rituals, their access has grown easier as the years pass.
Before All Hallows Eve, when Christianity prefers that the world consider the lives and the deaths of saints and martyrs, was Samhain, the night between – between the old year and the new, between summer and autumn, between death and life itself.
The ancient Celtic clans left offerings of food outside their homes to appease the wandering, the mischievous, and the malevolent, hoping that they would accept the gifts and take trouble elsewhere.
Bonfires were fed through the night on the hills and in the villages to hold back the forces of death and decay.
Others wore masks, hoping to confuse the vengeful dead and see them take their search elsewhere until the dawn came.
Today, disguises and food are a ritual for children, and bonfires cause air pollution. The ancient rites of the Light are nearly extinguished, and the dead rejoice as the veils thin.
Watch yourself, as the world turns closer and closer to Samhain, and voices murmur in empty rooms. Watch yourself, when you feel a chill. Watch yourself, when you see a familiar face in the crowd.
So why am I being so boring? At this time of year, it sometimes looks as if every writer across the world is gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, which is awesome.
For them as aren’t writers or haven’t come across NaNoWriMo before, the NaNoWriMo challenge is to write 50,000 words through November, which averages out to about 2,000 words a day. It’s an annual thing, with regional, national and international support, social media pushes, and every bell and whistle you can think of, and it’s a great way for people to set a writing goal and have millions of other people inspiring them to stick to it.
I participated in 2014 and won (defined as getting 50K words down in November), and I now have about 66K of an urban fantasy novel sitting on my hard drive. NaNo 2014 got me to actually write most of it, which is the idea. However, because of the way I prefer to write (write when I can, do at least a prelim edit as I go, end up with something almost reasonable by ‘Draft 1 complete’), NaNo and my writing style are basically incompatible.
I haven’t dared open that manuscript since 2014, because I know it’s a horrible hurrah’s nest that will take most of a year to edit – assuming it isn’t quicker to simply take the bones of the story, cut my losses, and start over.
So, while I’m going to be cheering for my friends who are participating this year, I’m going to stay out, focus on the upcoming launch of my new urban fantasy, Death is for the Living, and not kill myself ‘just getting words down’ that I won’t have time to work on the way I like to.
Those were pretty much my thoughts when a well-meaning friend tagged in a #10in10days event on Facebook. (Every author has a secret drama queen. If they claim they don’t, they’re probably being contextually inaccurate.) To add to my woes, my personal library downstairs currently runs to several thousand books, and doesn’t by far cover all the books I’ve loved and left in my life.
So, after I calmed down, and checked out various other peoples’ entries, I got into it and started thinking. My top ten books of all time? What would they be, and why?
I figured I’d share below, in case anyone’s looking for something new to read.
The Horse and His Boy. Yes, of all the books I’ve read in my life, and as you may’ve gathered, there’ve been a few, this one probably takes the top spot. I fell in love with it sometime between the ages of six and seven, tried to move to Narnia, and very probably it gave me my initial interest in learning to ride. (I lived on a boat at the time…)
I still have a lovely, Folio Society copy of it in my library, a gift from my father, and every so often I get it out and re-read it. Of all the Narnia books, it’s my favourite, and at the simplest level, I think it’s because it’s the only one entirely set in Narnia.
The Monstrous Regiment. More than any other author I know, Terry Pratchett can expose the nonsense that underpins society and make it hilarious, and possibly nowhere more than in this book. I made the mistake of reading it for the first time on a bus, and laughed so hard I actually had a seat to myself. Topical, unflinchingly accurate, and stand-alone, I’ve just about worn the covers off this Discworld.
The Game of Kings. I love Dorothy Dunnett’s writing. I’ve read at least a couple of versions of this series to pieces. She writes historical fiction, and the characters, plots, and settings are incredible. Crawford of Lymond is an incredibly rich and complex character; there’s nothing transparent and open-and-shut about him. In a world of YA written for the grade 6 reading level, this series is like yoga for the brain.
Dragonflight. Anne McCaffrey was my first brush with science-fiction, aged about ten, and I still have that copy of the book – it’s gone in the harbour, it’s got marine varnish on it, and it’s been chewed on by kittens. I don’t like all her later books, but the original Pern series may well be what hooked me on sci-fi. When it comes to epic vision in world-building, this series is a great example.
Lord of the Rings. I scared myself so thoroughly with this book aged seven that I wouldn’t go to the bathroom on my own for six months. J.R.R. Tolkien has the ability to write a story that drags you in to the extent that you wake up and shake your head and try to figure out why all the colours are drab, you can’t feel your feet any more, and which century is it, anyway. This is one where the book is and will forever be better than the movie (although get back to me once we have Star Trek-style holo environments…).
Valour’s Choice. In terms of military sci-fi, you really can’t do better. Tanya Huff’s protagonist is Torin Kerr, Confederation Marine, and along with cracking pacing and excellent writing, the one-liners and turns of phrase in this book (and the rest of the series) keep me coming back for more. If anyone’s having trauma flashbacks to the Starship Troopers movies, have no fear – there is no comparison.
Magic Bites. Magic and technology rule the world in cycles over multiple millennia, and technology is beginning to lose its sway. Kate Daniels is a mercenary for hire in the USA, front and centre for awakening demi-gods, magical curses, and rogue shape-shifters, even if the non-rogue ones debatably cause her more trouble. This series is a relatively recent find, but for fun and originality, it definitely earnt a spot on my list.
The Eagle has Landed. Actually most of the Jack Higgins are on my read and read again list; for gritty, realistic thrillers that are much more than simply point and shoot, he’s one of my go-to authors. I started climbing my parents’ bookshelves to steal these books about age nine or ten, and one of the things I really like about his work is that the villains are often more relatable than the heroes. Jack Higgins has a unique skill for taking everything you think you know and making you think about it again.
The Morgaine Cycle. I found this in a charity shop somewhere near school, and consequently was MIA for most of a week of classes. C.J. Cherryh has her weak points with things like consistency (see the Phoenix series), but in the Morgaine cycle, the atmosphere, the settings, and the characters combine into the perfect sci-fi / fantasy read – complex, dark as hell, and compelling.
Tarnished Knight. Jack Campbell is one of my more recent discoveries in sci-fi, and his Lost Fleet protagonist is so damn perfect it makes my teeth hurt, but in the Lost Stars series, the characters are dark, cynical, and prone to double-crosses, and totally hit my happy place. Campbell’s books excel in plausible battle scenes, but this later series also brings strong characterisation and great plots to the table.
Society takes itself so damn seriously. There are such a lot of unwritten rules (see also ‘stereotypes’). Sometimes you just need to wear assless chaps and a suit jacket and walk on your hands for a bit. Do something the bastards don’t agree with, it’s good for society as a whole.
This thought came to mind when someone followed my Twitter feed (I know, awesome, right?).
This particular account was for a women’s self-defence organisation. Very laudable, I fully approve of women learning to kick ass. However, this account had a banner image of this determined-looking young woman with a clenched fist stretched out in front of her, the other one resting up on her cheekbone, and immaculate make-up. The sports bra was a nice touch, too. It was very scary. (No, I’m actually not being sarcastic. Bear with me again – I’m about to explain why it was scary.)
Making a fist is important. Doing it wrong means you go all Clint Eastwood on someone and damage yourself much more than their manly jaw (broken hands are not fun. Believe me). This chick was show-casing the how-not-to of fists.
Stretching your fist out as far as you possibly, possibly can is also a really crappy idea. It’s a really crappy idea because it means you’re off-balance, which means all your mugger has to do is grab your arm and yank, and there you are all spread-eagled on your ass for them.
Having a guard up between your head and incoming, on the other hand, is a great idea. However, if your guard hand, all fisted up, is resting on your cheekbone, it’s fundamentally not going to work. Ever seen those little desk ornaments, where there’s a row of suspended ball-bearings, and you can drop the one on one end down and the ball on the other end flies up and away due to transfer of momentum? Similar principle.
‘Cos everyone fights in their undies…
Basically, this women’s defence group’s set-up made me think of all the reasons that every female fighter I’ve ever trained with has put up with years and decades of being patronised rigid, usually by both genders.
Partner up with a male? “Oh, but I don’t hit women!” (Top favourite response I ever heard on the mat to that bit of chauvinistic crap was “That’s fine, I have no problem hitting men.”.)
Get asked by a friend what you do for fun? “Oh my, but surely you can’t enjoy that very much? I mean, women can’t fight, it’s so…violent!”
Listen to that kind of nonsense for a while, and you must either develop a very fuck-you attitude to social stereotypes (you saw that awesome response I quoted, yes?) or you get discouraged and move back into line, and a stereotype gets propped up a little longer.
“Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.” ~ Sir Terry Pratchett
So yes, that particular Twitter account made me groan and pound my head on my desk a little bit; not because I object to women learning to fight (quite the opposite), but because it propped up every single damn stereotype about female fighters while purporting to train women to be all independent and badass.
A truly great banner image would have been a woman who actually knew how to close her fist, standing as if she meant to do some damage, and wearing a top that wouldn’t result in her flashing someone if it got grabbed sparring. I’d have followed like a shot. Retweeted, even.
In books as in life, gender shouldn’t be everything
I’m a radical. I’d truly like to live in a world where a person’s gender was one of the least important things that other people registered about them – you know, after their sense of humour, their personality, or their intelligence, for example.
However, it seems that humanity as a species can’t keep itself from a prurient fascination with the shape of other humans’ genitalia. From colour-coding new-born infants to be sure that complete strangers can recognise on sight what shape their genitals are, to trying to control who sleeps with who (if it’s consensual and they aren’t trying to get in your pants, why exactly is it your business?), to regulating what a gender can and can’t do, it’s everywhere.
It’s particularly annoying to me that I can go to the effort of writing an entire book (that shit’s hard, folks), with a plot, and character arcs and everything, and the main and possibly only thing that sticks with some people is the fact that it’s got a female protagonist. And *gasp* she’s in a leadership role, not in one of the approved female positions, like between the hero and a mattress.
When are we going to get past this massive hang-up? I’m tired of being told what I can and can’t do based solely on my gender. I’m tired of seeing books filled with characters who are, basically, tropes (princess who needs rescuing, anyone?). I’m tired of reading about US politicians advocating the death sentence for abortion, and seeing adverts where men are repeatedly indoctrinated with what ‘being a real man’ means.
So yeah, I do get mildly irritated when someone reads one of my books, goes to the trouble of leaving a very nice, in-depth review…but focusses strongly on the fact that the protagonist is a woman.
Khyria’s gender is one of the least important things about the character. I can’t help feeling that, much as I appreciated the review, some of the key points about the character and the book were relegated to a secondary position by the sheer level of shock and awe generated by her gender. I also can’t help feeling that this points to something deeply wrong with our society.