My hands are itching…

As I said in my intro post, along with talking about stories I’ll also be posting about knitting and other such crafts involving strings. It’s been a while since my last project, and now that I’m employed again I’ll have the funds to start knitting once more! Yarn can be terribly expensive, especially if you prefer to buy it from LYSs (Local Yarn Shop) instead of department stores. And I’ve been coveting some fandom inspired hand-dyed skeins on Etsy, too. Anyway, the point is that I’ll be able to get back into knitting soon and have been looking for my next adventure. I have found it!

This adorable TARDIS scarf design called “Bigger on the inside” by Kate Atherly! (The pattern is in the link as well as a very sweet story of why she created it).

Look out, Whovian friends! One of you will be getting this for Christmas!

Why I’m not ok with “Okay”

A short ramble today, but it popped into my head. I’ll be trying to get myself on a regular schedule of posting once my work hours get sorted out. (Yay for employment and healthcare!)

We say it every day. It permeates modern English. It exists in two debated spellings, “OK” and “Okay”. It has a text speak abbreviation in “kk”. But for all that we love it this word does not belong everywhere.

For me, the fantasy realm is one realm in which the word “Okay” in all its forms is not permitted. Generally, “okay” is used to indicate a level of informality in a person’s speech. One would not say “Okay” to royalty or their boss, necessarily, even in this world. But the use of “okay” in fantasy settings is particularly egregious to me because that world is distinctly modern and, even more problematic, distinctly American:

OK

1839, only survivor of a slang fad in Boston and New York c.1838-9 for abbreviations of common phrases with deliberate, jocular misspellings (e.g. K.G. for “no go,” as if spelled “know go;” N.C. for “’nuff ced;” K.Y. for “know yuse”). In the case of O.K., the abbreviation is of “oll korrect.” Probably further popularized by use as an election slogan by the O.K. Club, New York boosters of Democratic president Martin Van Buren’s 1840 re-election bid, in allusion to his nickname Old Kinderhook, from his birth in the N.Y. village of Kinderhook. Van Buren lost, the word stuck, in part because it filled a need for a quick way to write an approval on a document, bill, etc. Spelled out as okeh, 1919, by Woodrow Wilson, on assumption that it represented Choctaw okeh “it is so” (a theory which lacks historical documentation); this was ousted quickly by okay after the appearance of that form in 1929. Greek immigrants to America who returned home early 20c. having picked up U.S. speech mannerisms were known in Greece as okay-boys, among other things.

The noun is first attested 1841; the verb 1888. Okey-doke is student slang first attested 1932.

~Online Etymology Dictionary

Even when I was unaware of this, seeing “ok” come out of the mouth of a grizzled old mage who had been living in the woods for the past forty years was jarring. Something about it just didn’t seem to mesh. Once I learned this (which was some time in high school history class), I knew why. How in the name of Eru would a batty old mage not of our world pick up popular speech from modern America? And speech that was so very American it was a cultural identifier on par with apple pie and John Deere tractors and bad Hawaiian print shirts?

Perhaps it’s the Tolkiendil side of me coming to the fore here, but language in a story is like the smell of baking cookies and cinnamon and bread that is the unique perfume of the holidays in my family. It’s the first method the writer has to start painting the world and the people who inhabit it. If this world isn’t ours, it stands to reason the characters wouldn’t speak as we do. “Ok” is a familiar word to us, and so a character who uses it becomes subconsciously tied to our world. It brings them down to our level and in fantasy where a good deal of the magic depends on heightening characters, that’s where the disconnect happens. Suddenly that magical world seems a little less new.
Of course, there are ways to make use of “ok” in a fantasy world that won’t knock the reader off the edge of your world. Characters from our world, for instance, would use it with impunity. Or if the setting of the story is a blended world, where Fae folk move freely across the borders and have picked up modern speech. (The high priestess of a secretive order of magic-wielding assassins on the other hand…not so much.). But the clincher for these situations helping to build the world is being aware of language and the role it plays in the mind. Words are incredibly vehicles of communication. Not only are they connected to a popular concept of meaning, they also carry emotional weight, cultural baggage, and uncountable other associations. Language is powerful, and it’s a power we take for granted. As writers and storytellers, we need to remember to step back and re-awaken ourselves to that power. Words are magic. Use them wisely.

Free Book Friday: The Thirteenth Unicorn

I’m one of those people who has a lot of hope for the idea of self-publishing and how the rise of ebooks makes getting your work out to readers less of a trek to Mordor and more of a jaunt over to Buckland (even if folk are strange there and mess about on boats…). That’s why I decided to test out something I’m calling “Free Book Friday”, where I review an ebook by an unknown author that I downloaded onto my Nook for free.

(Yes, I am a Nook person. They did touchscreen e-ink first and they support epubs. Also its name is River Song because I’m cool like a bow tie.)

And so, this inaugural Free Book Friday post covers The Thirteenth Unicorn by W.D. the-thirteenth-unicornNewman.

Ben Alderman and his sister Casey discover a portal to a world of magic, a world discovered, shaped, and settled by wizards. It is a world where elves and dwarves are locked in mortal combat against a witch who is trying to free the last wizard from exile. The witch has been defeated once before but with the combined power of the wizard, no one will be able to stand against them.

You can see why I chose to download this book. Elves, wizards, Dwarves and portals to magical worlds? Hell yes, sign me up! The Thirteenth Unicorn is the first of 3 in Mr. Newman’s Ben Alderman Series and was published in 2011. It’s geared towards younger readers, but I’m someone who loves YA and even children’s novels. I grew up in Narnia and I’m solidly in the Harry Potter Generation (Ravenclaws represent!). I’ve spent years in Tortall and Valdemar. A Wrinkle in Time, The Moorchild and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle are to this day among my favorite books. I’m not unfamiliar with stories written for children or pre-teen readers, especially when those stories are part of the fantasy genre.

I tell you this, dear reader, in the hopes that you will better understand the despair you’re about to witness and sympathize with me and how long it took me to finish so I could unravel this for you. Here we go.

An actual portrayal of me during this experience.

Lena Heady portraying me during this experience with stunning accuracy.

Warp: World of the Story

There are two worlds in this story, ours and “Camelot”. The portions of the story taking place in this world are mostly on a farm in South Carolina where the protagonist, Ben, and his sister Casey are sent to stay for the summer while their father is on a business trip. It seems to be a cattle farm of some sort run by the protagonist(s?) grandparents set in your standard country landscape: forty miles or more from big box stores, little more than a pizza joint and a local grocery depot. And a flea market where you can buy authentic emerald necklaces from “oriental ladies” after a bit of haggling.

The world of Camelot is…also fairly standard fantasy world fare. Elves? Check. Dwarves? Check. Fairies? Yup. Magic? All over. Gentle-giant shapeshifting bear man? That, too. Arthur and the Round Table? *chirping of crickets*

Contrary to what one might think, there is no Arthurian legend at play in this world with the exception of the names Merlin and Mordred. There is no mention of Arthur or knights, no use of the vast and almost endless variety of legends concerning the name Camelot, which makes me wonder why the author chose to use the name at all if he wasn’t going to draw on the associated lore whatsoever. Even young children will have a frame of reference for such a specific name. Mr. Newman’s “Camelot” is a parallel world discovered by wizards–Merlin among them–who needed to escape their own world (Zorn) which was dying of global warming (I’m not joking. That’s specifically mentioned). Through magical portal trees, they discover uninhabited Camelot and invite Elves, fairies, Dwarves, and even humans to live there and create a utopia which of course inevitably failed. How it failed is unclear, though in the most massive info-dump I’ve ever seen it’s implied that the failure was due to the inherent barbarism of humans and possibly also maybe Mordred getting his Morgoth on and wanting to claim dominion. But that’s also unclear. All that is clear is that Mordred did the thing 837 years ago and ever since the Elves have hidden themselves in a magical TARDIS forest called the Twilight and a witch has been running about killing unicorns so she can use their horns to release Mordred from the pestilence planet/world where he was exiled. This pestilence world apparently set loose a fog-like disease called The Blight that kills plants, Elves, and Dwarves (but not humans somehow) and…doesn’t really affect much of anything at all really. There are some evil species in this world, primarily things called snakers which I gather are snake people of some sort who operate under a hive mentality. There’s an ogre. There’s some disgruntled humans. There’s the witch and a thing called a shadow-cat, both of which make a blip of an appearance.

Mr. Newman very obviously borrowed heavily from classic fantasy, namely Narnia and Middle-earth, with little of his own embellishment beyond the snakers. Camelot operates on Narnian time, which the characters spend far too much time discussing. The name “Long Lake” I could let slide, as it’s so generic, but Nimrodell? Really? Even with the extra “L”, that’s still obvious Tolkien. The Elves and Dwarves are carbon copies of the Eldar and the Khazad, down to drinking miruvor and saying “at your service” with a bow upon introduction. “Camelot” is one hell of a sloppy patchwork quilt of frayed bits snipped from more complete–and more engaging– worlds.

Working Threads: The Characters

Have you ever watched Mystery Science Theatre? If you haven’t, I suggest you do. Back in the day 10 or so years ago, it became a thing in internet fanfiction circles to take particularly horrendous fanfics and deconstruct them in MST fashion. Thanks to the “Note” function, as The Thirteenth Unicorn wore on, I found myself doing much the same.

We have Ben Alderman, ostensibly our protagonist though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the narration. He’s your standard 7th grade nerd-turned-epic-hero who shuns (yes SHUNNNNNS!) sports. We’re told he gets picked on and shoves his glasses up his nose so he must be a poor widdle nerd. He likes to poke his sister in the ribs for no reason, wash soda cans before opening them, and call Wal-Mart “Wally World. When told specifically to keep quiet about the dimensional portal in the backyard, the first thing he does with that information is blab it to the neighbor boy in the hopes that neighbor boy will think he’s cool. At least, we’re told this happens. We don’t actually get to see it happen. He also spontaneously develops asthma when the plot requires him to suddenly be like the kid from IT and whip out his trusty inhaler weapon. His asthma is very accommodating, too. It lets him race against his sister and run around most of Camelot without incident, only flaring up once just at the right moment for the witch to grab him. How kind of it! He comes across as maybe 8 or 9 years old instead of his described 13 and is completely unawed by discovering an alternate world full of magic and danger. Ben commits the same crime as many of the “Girl Falls Into Middle-earth” fics written in the early 2000s after Fellowship of the Ring premiered: he has almost no reaction to being in this very strange and different world and is constantly being deferred to by people from that world who are also his elders, namely a set of Dwarves.

Casey Alderman is Ben’s 14 year old sister who is, of course, obsessed with boys and friends and malls because she’s a 14 year old girl and that’s what 14 year old girls do right? She also must be in possession of a Time Turner, since she manages to play at least 5 sports, two of which run concurrent seasons. Casey does very little, with the exception of being poked in the stomach and/or ribs by Ben, petting baby goats, and tagging along after the rest of the D&D group. And crying about Ben. She does a lot of crying. She at least is smart enough to keep the information about the inter-dimensional portal tree secret from the neighbor girl.

At this point I should mention that their mother is also in a coma due to a drunk driving accident. This information is told to us with a lack of passion that would make Vulcans applaud.

Louise Alderman is the grandmother, and the one who discovered the portal tree. She visits all the time to hang out with a shape-shifter bear man named Amos and she keeps the world secret  from her husband. It’s ok…let your minds go there. Mine did, too. Her only real function in the story is to provide an info-dump about these different worlds and wizards and things. She doesn’t do much else besides crying and tagging along and cooking until the end where she anticlimactically blasts Cthulu with a unicorn horn. Oh, also Ben and Casey’s mom isn’t in a coma because of an accident, it’s because the witch tried to kill Louise but she was wearing an emerald so the spell transferred to the next person she touched (which was Carol) because emeralds are super-rare in Camelot and are spellcatchers so she slowly went into a coma and then got hit by the drunk driver.

blink blink

Yeah.

Meg and Joey are the neighbor kids and they do literally nothing. I think they say 12 things between them the entire book. There’s zero characterization of them except to say they’re pretty to look at and the one thing they do could easily have been done by Casey and her grandmother alone. Chapters go by without them being mentioned at all. Hob, Nob, and Gob are …wait. Let’s make this a game! Three characters with rhyming names in a Tolkien-derivative children’s fantasy book.

“What are interchangeable Generic Dwarves?”

Correct! There is also Amos, the shape-shifter and your standard gruff but good giant and Ben and Casey’s real grandfather. There are some Elves named–wait for it–Gabriel, Marcus, and Jonah who seem to wear their hair like Bombur does his beard in The Hobbit movies and have the intelligence of brain-damaged sea slugs. (The lay of the land doesn’t change much in nearly 900 years? Traveling on a cold river will help hide your body heat from the heat-sensing snake people?

The villains in this story are essentially non-existant. The witch is never named and never speaks and aside from one attack in the prologue and one attack at the end in which she is so easily defeated you have to wonder why the Elves sat on their asses in the Twilight for nearly 900 years, she doesn’t appear and poses no actual threat. Mordred the evil wizard is stuck in Pluton the pestilence world and the nameless witch’s plan is to release him. Which is why she’s been killing unicorns for nearly 900 years because apparently their horns undo the spell or something? Mordred, though. Mordred is when I lost all sympathy for this story and all my remaining meager confidence in its author.

Mordred got trapped in Pluton because he didn’t realize Merlin wasn’t there with him because he forgot to count how many wizards were standing around him.

He.

Forgot.

To.

Count.

Them.

That’s right. You read that correctly. The villain of this entire series is so thick-skulled that it slipped his mind to make sure his archenemy was actually present when pulling off his great big plan to trap all the other wizards.

There's no other possible explanation.

Well, Mordred clearly was.

Pattern: The Plot

The short version?

i dont careI’m not even sorry for the gifs at this point. I’m that frustrated.

The plot of this thing is tedious. It’s full of build-up that goes no where, what’s supposed to be a tense and epic climax is a bland and implausible battle, an infuriatingly easy fight with the witch, and an even more infuriating break-in to her tower to steal the horns that could have been accomplished with ease by a shitfaced frat boy because the witch had no guards on her damn tower. The conclusion takes ages and is full of fluff. Important events, like character building conversations or revelations, are rushed while tedious minutiae like Ben creating the gorram ham sandwich are plodded through in excruciating detail. There are holes the size of my face. There’s mention of a prophecy that Ben fulfills, but we are never ever once ever actually told the prophecy and it is only mentioned once in relation to Ben after the fact of him having apparently fulfilled it! Like Judy Garland is singing above, there is no tension in this story whatsoever and I don’t care about a jot of it.

Construction:

It’s obvious that this has never seen any form of proofreading, at least not from an honest person. It is littered with grammar and spelling errors and reads like a first draft rather than a finished product. Mr. Newman suffers a fatal case of “Telling Disease”. It may be a somewhat cliched writing adage, “show don’t tell” but when you read a story like this that is almost entirely telling you realize just what good advice it actually is. We are told, rather than shown, everything. We never see Ben get teased, we’re just told that he is. We don’t get to read the conversation or experience Ben’s thoughts leading up to him revealing the existence of the portal tree to Joey, we’re just told that he did it. In fact, the most characterization or emotion anyone gets in this story is the poor ogre, who is killed after a few paragraphs.

Mr. Newman also does something extremely odd. He name-drops brands. He does it everywhere. Instead of describing a car once, he always refers to it as “the Honda” or “the Galaxy”. Instead of saying ‘watch’, he says “Timex”. Whenever there’s a brand to be named, it gets named without fail. I don’t even know how to explain this phenomenon, it’s simply strange and really very distracting.

Binding Off:

If you look up reviews of this book on Amazon or Barnes&Noble many of them will actually be fairly favorable. It’s called “perfect for young readers”.

There. Right there. That is what infuriates me. It may seem that I’ve been overly harsh on this book, but to my mind it deserves it. I suspect its poor quality is due to lack of experience on the author’s part and serious lack of proofreading, but those two issues are dismissed in the reviews I’ve read because….it’s a children’s book. As if children don’t deserve quality, well-paced, well-plotted books with complete worlds and engaging characters? Just because something is geared towards a younger audience does not excuse poor quality or exempt it from analysis. Children are smart. They can handle complex stories and even dark stories! I know because not all that long ago, I was a kid and I hated being pandered to with watered-down “kid’s versions” when that was really code for “not as good”.

This book is not perfect for young readers, not by any stretch. There’s so much potential in the idea of discovering a magic portal to another world, and while the prevalence of other such themes makes it hard find a fresh approach, imagination has no boundaries. There are countless ways to re-imagine this theme without parroting Lewis and Tolkien (sometimes literally).  The Thirteenth Unicorn is poor thread, poor weaving, bland colors, and completely see-through. It’s a first draft of an idea that should have been carded for far longer than it was before attempting to spin thread out of it, and certainly before trying to make it into a cloak.

Do not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.

Do not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.

All Your Wor(l)ds Are Belong To Us

Many years ago, a gangly teenager with a budding passion for storytelling discovered a magical place. It was a place full of rolling hills, sweeping plains, soaring mountain peaks, and dark forests. It was old, an ancient place with history stretching beyond the count of years. Entranced, the young writer devoured all the histories of this world she could find. Its people filled her head and their stories of good and evil, hope and despair, and the struggle for life began to shape her thoughts. It was huge, this world, sprawling off the edges of its own map. “Certainly,” thought the young writer. “There must be stories here that have never been told. Perhaps in this world there is room for me to tell them.”

And so she went searching. Along the way she found companions who shared in her quest and even some who traveled with her for a time. Of course, being young and awestruck, her path was fumbling and she was often lost but she was determined and her enthusiasm was dauntless and along the way she learned. This magical world became her teacher, and she soon learned to jump from world to world, finding untold stories in each of them and growing bolder in her pursuit. “Certainly,” thought the young writer. “There must be space for me to build a world of my own. Perhaps then others will find stories in it as I’ve found them here.”

So she began to weave her own worlds, but she never forgot the world that was her teacher or her quest for new stories in it. And sometimes, even with worlds of her own to polish, she travels there still.

This adventuring writer is, of course, myself. The world I began roaming at the age of 12 was Middle-earth and my quest though it was fanfiction. Author opinions on fanfiction vary wildly, from open encouragement to active derision, though the list of those that support it far outnumbers those who cling to the notion that the inspired musings of fans shared among other fans for no other reason than pure love of the world and its characters is somehow damaging to their intellectual copyright. Or that fanfiction is somehow a “lesser” form of writing that only those of little true imagination grub about with. These authors seem to forget (or perhaps ignore?) that fanfiction has a long and storied (pun intended) history, and that even what we consider now to be great works of art are, essentially, fanfiction. As the writer of that quite brilliant piece states, “Fanfiction becomes an independent collective experience for the people who write it” and the incredible YA author and Youtube educator John Green says of novels, “stories belong to their readers”. Even The Professor himself (which is how I and other Tolkiendil refer to the sub-creator of Middle-earth) expressed a wish for others to add to his universe and experience the act of subcreation for themselves. Fanfic has been around for centuries and will continue to be around as long as people continue to create stories that readers and viewers adore and characters we love (and love to hate).

But this post is not about the validity of fanfic or its usefulness as a tool for young writers. That is another personal soapbox entirely. Oh, no. This is something that makes me whisper ominously in my best Galadriel voice.

Get ready for Kindle Worlds, a place for you to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. With Kindle Worlds, you can write new stories based on featured Worlds, engage an audience of readers, and earn royalties. Amazon Publishing has secured licenses from Warner Bros. Television Group’s Alloy Entertainment for Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries, with licenses for more Worlds on the way.

I amar prestar aen.

See? It’s like a reflex.

That’s right. Amazon has purchased worlds and us fanwriters can make money!!! Ring the bells, sound the horns! This is magical! But I’m a life-long fantasy fan. I’ve learned a thing or two about magic.

all magic comes with a priceIn the case of Kindle Worlds, that price, it turns out, is a high one:

Author John Scalzi was quick to voice concerns about the publishing agreement and the program’s potential impact on professional writers working in the media tie-in market. Wired spoke with attorney Jeff Trexler, who expressed similar concerns, pointing to a clause in Amazon’s contact that grants Amazon and the licensor rights to the text of the stories and any original elements they might contain.

“In short, if your fan fiction includes new elements that catch on with the general public, it’s likely that you’ll not be able to profit from them outside of the stories that you write,” he said. “For example, Time Warner could launch a movie series based on a character you created and not owe you a dime. While the terms state that you retain the copyright, you also give Amazon an exclusive license to your original work and Amazon in turn licenses your work to Time Warner in a license that provides nothing for you.”

Furthermore, says Trexler, if you decided to keep using that character outside of Kindle Worlds, you’d be violating the terms of your contract. [x]

What that means, fellow fanwriters, is that Amazon and Time Warner and whoever else they decide to sell your work to own your OCs. They own your plots. They own the pet names your characters give each other. They may even own your genderbent coffee shop AUs. This means you can no longer write them at your discretion. All your words are belong to them.

I don’t think even Rumplestiltskin would charge that much.

Contrary to the beliefs of anti-fanfic authors, fanfiction does contain a great deal of original content and is not entirely smut and slash (though those forms are just as valid, often making commentary on gender roles and portrayals of sexuality as well as serving the same function as a Harlequin romance). There is truly terrible fanfic (those who were in the LotR fandom 10 years ago might well remember the horror that was “Celebrian”) and there is some incredibly heart-wrenching, sumptuously written fanfic, such as the recent Roski ship (a crossover of Doctor Who and Marvel universes, speculating “what if?” scenarios if Rose Tyler and Loki were to meet) that made the rounds on Tumblr last year and had my eyes bugging out of my head with the imagery and emotion it evoked. But besides the stories that explore the world’s characters, there are fanfics that depart from the original plot (or canon) or center on characters created by the fanwriter who simply inhabit the world of Hogwarts or of Supernatural.

It’s those writers who I’m concerned about in this bargain Amazon is offering. My own fanfiction is centered on original characters of my own making, and even though they may play in worlds that someone else created, they are still my characters to do with as I please. Any foray into ff.net or AO3 or even the tags of Tumblr will show you “General Dislcaimers” from fanwriters, acknowledging what is and is not their intellectual creation in the story to follow and often a statement that they receive no monetary compensation for their writing. Fanfiction may be set against the backdrop of someone else’s world, but the players and the action are the fan’s. Of my OCs, (“original characters” for those unfamiliar with fanfic codes) many of them have since been transported out of their fanfic incubators and into totally original worlds of my own creation. If I were to sell any of those characters to Amazon for the chance of earning (or not) royalties, I would be robbed of years of work and at least three unique worlds of my own.

And there’s another issue lurking in the underbrush here: plagiarism.

The fanfic community is largely self-policing where plagiarism is concerned. Now this is not plagiarism as in claiming parts of the source material as your own, but plagiarism of other fanfic writers; claiming someone else’s fanfiction or OC as your own. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. However, with Amazon dangling checks over the collective alligator pond of the internet I am 98.999% positive that people (whether fanfic writers or not) will begin stealing qualifying stories from their actual fanwriters and selling them to Amazon as their own work. Theft within theft. Theftception. And what legal recourse does the true fanwriter of that work have?

I’m sure there will be a decent enough number of fanfic writers who take Amazon up on this offer. After all, Amazon doesn’t own all worlds and there will be some it will never be able to acquire, and some types of stories (slash, crossovers, Mpreg) will likely be excluded. And if someone wants to sell their 10 part Stelena AU, who am I to say they shouldn’t?  And it may be that for some this will become their foot in the door of the professional writing world, and to them I will say “huzzah! You did it! Have some mead!”.

But for myself, and I think for any fanwriter who works with OCs or even AUs: Amazon, I raise my eyebrow at you and say “good day”. I will be keeping Grace and Jayashri and Eurik and Nomiki and Joshua Cromley and Telden and Imilin and a very special pair of Elven twin sisters under my pen on my own paper, thanks.

Because even though they were born in Middle-earth and on the high seas of Disney’s Pirates franchise, they won’t live there forever.

Food, Fashion, and Fun with Werewolves: Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

I’m tempted to throw up a picture of River Song and have done with it, but for the sake of those about the interwebs who may not have yet been converted into Whovians, this is your warning that the following Unraveling will contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.soulless cover

First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

Soulless is author Gail Carriger’s debut novel and the first installment of her Parasol Protectorate series, first hitting the shelves in 2009. It could be classed equally in paranormal romance or in fantasy. It received the 2010 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was a finalist or nominee for several others (including the Locas Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer).

The Warp: World of the Story

In weaving, the warp is the vertical threads held in tension over the frame of the loom and the other thread (called the weft) is drawn through them. The world of the story serves the same function, as the characters (the weft, or working thread) are drawn through it. And like in weaving, the world must be tight and strong or the fabric will be less than successful.

Gail Carriger’s steampunk alternate London is delightful. It’s full of dirigibles and glassicals and brass octopi and, of course, parasols. This alternate world is built on the premise that supernatural beings–ghosts, vampires, werewolves–made themselves known to the public sometime in the 1600s or thereabouts and that even before that reveal their social structures were influencing those of mortal society. By the time of Queen Victoria, supernaturals are fully integrated into English society even having their own official government department, BUR (the Bureau of Unnatural Registration) and official advisers to Her Majesty. Supernaturals in this world are immortal, which is a change from most uses of them where often vampires are the only ageless beings. There are also the preternaturals, soulless mortals who have the ability to negate a supernatural’s power by physical contact. They are rarer than other non-humans and their existence is kept secret.

This being the Victorian era and a steampunk world, scientific exploration is all the rage. There are various theories on the nature of the supernatural tossed about throughout, but the prevailing notion is that humans with an “excess of soul” (typically the artistically-inclined) are able to become supernaturals, while those with a normal amount of soul are not. This is another departure from the typical modus operandi of vampires and werewolves, who in many stories are able to change anyone they like and provides a solid in-world reason for the insular nature of the supernaturals as well as the background for what I suspect will be a unifying conflict throughout the series.

A smallish tidbit of the worldbuilding that I enjoyed and made me chuckle was that America was very much still Puritanical, openly persecuting and executing supernaturals as the spawn of the Devil. The attitude was derided as out of fashion and barbaric, just hedging on political commentary but not quite.

The Working Thread: Characters

The working thread (weft) is the substance and color of a weaving or knitting. And like those crafts, the characters of a story have to be vibrant and drawn through their world with care.

Let us begin with our heroine. Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a dry-witted, brass parasol-wielding “bluestocking”, a term used to refer (with some derision) to upper-class women  who pursued the intellectual. Considered less than marriage worthy due to her Italian complexion and unseemly habit of speaking her mind, she is summarily “shelved” by her mother at age 15 and thus never given much attention or encouragement in society, which could really be devastating for a woman of that era. When your only real hope of escaping home is to marry, and hopefully marry well, being told from day one that you have no prospects would definitely create some psychological issues, and Alexia is not immune to this. Unlike many spunky heroines in overtly sexist societies who seem to exist mentally in a little safe bubble of their spunkiness, never affected by the mores of the world they inhabit, Alexia has completely internalized the idea that she is physically undesirable and spinsterhood is her destiny. This is nicely portrayed, given casual mention in the narration now and then and only really coming into play when she is confronted with a sincere marriage proposal. A confident and intelligent young woman with very real insecurities that nonetheless don’t totally cripple her is refreshing.

Of course, social fitness is not all Miss Tarabotti lacks. Like her father, she is a preternatural. While her soulless state doesn’t make her emotionless, it’s implied that it gives her some trouble with her moral compass and therefore she makes in-depth studies of philosophy and ethics. Alexia is then something of an outsider among both sets of London high society: a spinster in one, a “soul-sucker” in the other. Her abilities are present but understated and she holds the use of them to her own particular etiquette. And etiquette is very important. For all that she’s an outcast character, she thinks and acts very much in accordance with the social rules of her world. This leads to some really enjoyable moments of internal dialogue, such as when in the heat of a most improper embrace with Lord Maccon (we’ll discuss him and the bodice-ripping portions of the story in a moment, rest assured!) she decides she must escalate their groping session in the interest of testing the accuracy of books on werewolf anatomy. In other words: I must passionately make out with this gorgeous Scottish werewolf. You know, for science! But for all her very Victorian attitudes, Alexia is most definitely not so prudish as her society wants her to be and it will be interesting to see if/how she develops over the next four books in the series now that she has both things she wanted but was sure never to get: a husband and a job. It’s also nice to see a voluptuous female lead who is pleased with her figure and has no shame in her enjoyment of food being appreciated (and with some…fervor) as a desirable woman by a seriously distracting hunk of wealthy werewolf.

No paranormal steampunk romance is complete without a dashing romantic lead! Enter Lord Conall Maccon: Alpha werewolf and public servant of Her Majesty with an occasional brogue and questionable manners. Now, my friend and I have a game that we sometimes play in bookstores, where we find the most ridiculous romance novel we possibly can. The reigning champion of this game features a time-traveling, telepathic, Highlander Scotsman vampire. (Many romance novels involve Scottish men, I’ve noticed. I’ve yet to discover the reason for that…future post, perhaps?). Reading this book, I couldn’t help but be a little reminded of this, especially when Lord Maccon is first introduced. He has all the hallmarks of the perfect heart throb. He’s gruff, a bit brooding, protective (but only reasonably so, he’s no Edward Cullen), and very, very male in that way that only exists in novels (to my and many others’ eternal disappointment). It was clear from the moment of his introduction that he and Alexia were the author’s endgame OTP, as we like to say in the Tumblrverse. I was surprised to see that we were treated to his perspective a few times, which gives a chance to see a side of him with a bit more complexity. Besides his bodice-ripper hunk persona, he’s intelligent in a sort of 1940s PI kind of way, easily bewildered by mortal social customs (which his second-in-command, a professor named Lyall, has to translate for him), and at times even a little vulnerable.

There is a host of supporting characters, both supernatural and human and I actually hope Miss Carriger either develops them more in later books or even gives one or two their own story. Lord Akeldama, the oldest vampire in London and one of Alexia’s closest friends, is perhaps the most important of these. He is flamboyant in the extreme and his manner of speech wanders freely into the realm of ridiculous but he is also cunning and is a bit of a tragic hero figure. Like his drones (the willing young men he feeds from), his foppishness conceals a sharp mind and a great deal of wisdom. Another of the supporting cast I could read more about is Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta (his right hand man). He’s a slender, bookish man with an appreciation for proper dress and elegance. Even his transformation from human to wolf is elegant, something it’s mentioned he takes great pride in. We’re given a brief glimpse into his perspective, and it left me wanting to know more about him and his life and his liking for good waistcoats. Alexia does have one human friend, Miss Ivy Hisselpenny, a some what silly girl from a less wealthy family with an unfortunate predilection for hideous hats. Ivy at times felt a little one-dimensional and is clearly Alexia’s foil and sounding board but the exchanges between them are light and witty and fun to read. Alexia’s family, her mother, step-father, and two properly pretty step-sisters, are clearly influenced by the Austenian family dynamic. They are all shrieking bonkers. Obsessed with fashion and balls, spending money left and right, shaking their heads in disgust at the idea of science. They are clearly meant to be insufferable to the reader and Alexia is meant to be an outcast even among them, but I felt this could have been accomplished without falling quite so far into the stock Austen-Mother and Ditzy Blonde tropes. (Though as a blonde myself, I do have an especial personal hatred for the Ditzy Blonde trope and I tend to sprout fangs whenever I see it).

The villain of this story, Mr. Siemons, was perhaps the most disappointing character. This is unfortunate for me, since a good villain is what makes the heroes’ triumph even more fulfilling. His mysterious club of scientists, performing torturous experiments on supernaturals in order to discover the secret to defeating them and their “supernatural agenda”, is quite chilling but he himself is a bit too much of a mustache-twirler for my tastes.

Construction: Writing Style

For the most part the voice remains with Alexia’s perspective but does make several departures into the heads of Lord Maccon and Professor Lyall. Normally that sort of switching irritates me, but I was happily intrigued by the goings-on inside the werewolves’ heads. It was an opportunity to see more of them as characters and more of the werewolf side of society. I actually wish there had been a little more of it.

The narration in Soulless is…unique. It’s a very formal voice, referring to the main character more often as “Miss Tarabotti” than by her given name and referring to details that seem out of place. During a fight with a vampire, Alexia passingly hopes he has not fallen on the treacle tart, because she is very fond of it and very hungry (and she was promised sandwiches). During the climactic scene, there are asides about the state of her favorite dress and even when clapped in manacles with a moon-mad werewolf charging about the room, Alexia speaks in a very clipped and proper manner. This creates an odd distancing effect, setting the reader at one-remove from the action and the emotional tenor. It was so strange that the first time I tried to read the book, I put it down after the first chapter. But I must not have been in the right brain-space for it that day, since when I made my second attempt this odd style seemed a perfect fit for the character (who, being soulless, also experiences things at a bit of a remove) and for the world.

As for the romance portions of this book…readers may find themselves in need of a fan and a glass of ice water. O_O

Binding Off: My Final Thoughts

Soulless is a fun, witty romp through an intriguing alternate world. The supernatural elements are portrayed in fresh ways and the world itself is detailed without overwhelming the reader with unfamiliar information. Alexia is both wonderfully competent and vulnerable, an unfailingly polite action heroine and a clinical-turned-enthusiastic romantic lead. Despite the removed narrative style, she evokes sympathy especially in moments where her secretly low self-confidence is revealed. And she has more than one cheer-worthy moment of badassery.

The plot feels a tad bit thin and rushed in places, most notably for me in the reveal of the villain and in Alexia’s relationship to Lord Maccon which could have used some fleshing-out. I felt their pairing off was a hair too obvious and it jumped a bit too suddenly to them being a romantic pair, even though there was a good deal of nicely complicated fallout. I wanted to know more about how they met (and how the hedgehog was involved). But the couple of sexy scenes between the two of them more than make up for any earlier lack of tension.

It’s not the tightest or brightest woven story, but it’s fun and exciting nonetheless with a touch of the fashionable absurd that makes sure nothing ever becomes too heavy. Perfect for a turn about the garden and some light diversion. All with your parasol to hand, of course.

Casting On

Ikat weaving.<br />A nearly universal technique and likely one of the oldest.

Ikat weaving. A nearly universal technique and likely one of the oldest.

Spinning, weaving, and knitting have been around so long no one can say for sure when they were invented or how. They are some of our oldest crafts. Until the Industrial Revolution, just a little over 200 years ago, they were meticulous, time-consuming activities, requiring innovation, practice, and skill. It’s a remarkable process, really; taking pieces of your environment and transforming it into something new and beautiful and infinitely useful.

Storytelling is also one of our oldest arts and it works in much the same way. It’s just as old as our fibercrafts, if not older. If not the oldest. No matter what the manner of transmission– paintings on a cave wall, oral history passed from

Part of the Chauvet cave paintings. What story could this have been a part of?

parent to child, ink on bound pages, or patterns of pixels on a screen– a story is a spinning of our experiences woven in together with our dreams. It makes a tapestry that reflects pieces of who we are as individuals, as cultures, and as humans.

I’ve always thought of stories in thread-like terms. A good story was “tightly woven”. A not-so-good story was “threadbare”. When I took up knitting a little over a year ago, I began to realize that I thought of the writing process itself in much the same way: pulling a mess of strings together, tightening some, loosening others. Missing stitches. Undoing stitches. Puzzling over knots and what comes next.

So since I love stories and making stories and thinking about stories (and often knitting or the like at the same time), I’ve decided to share my brain tangles. Here’s what Story Strings is going to be (if my brain cooperates, that is).

  • Unravelings: I read at warp speeds, generally clocked at 4 through 7 or so (In the summer of 2007, I achieved warp 9 during the reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Unless I take on something of Tolstoyan proportions, I’ll be able to read 2 books and make 2 reviews every month. I’m planning to make one of those an ebook by a newish author, since so many stories are being told through that vein of publishing nowadays.
  • Ramblings: 2 (or maybe more) write-ups on an aspect of storytelling that catches my interest. In the weeks I’m not reviewing, I’ll be rambling. Those ramblings will cover all kinds of stories, not just printed ones. Film and television is fair game for unraveling, too.
  • Fibercraft links and pictures of my own progress in learning nifty things like card weaving.
  • General fandomesque excitement

For the most part, this blog will be focused on science fiction, YA, fantasy, speculative fiction, and classics because those are the genres I find most engaging. They may not be the most recent of releases, since my bank account has insisted I find most of my subjects at the library, but for the most part they’ll be new to me and that will make them exciting.