Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond

I’m fairly certain that The Woken Gods is only the fourth YA novel I've read this year. But the blurb sounded promising and the idea of gods walking among men seemed close enough to my wheel house to all but guarantee that I would enjoy it, so I took the plunge. After reading, I've decided that the novel is pretty typical of the reasons why I read so little Young Adult fiction, yet continue to dip my toe in the water from time to time. This is not to say that I didn't like the novel. I did. Despite some disconnects, The Woken Gods gets a lot of things right and makes for an interesting and easy read. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker is one of those books that I’d meant to read a long time ago, but managed to slip through the cracks of my addled prose-addicted mind. It wasn’t until I started seeing the sequel making the rounds on Twitter that I went searching for the title. And I'm sure glad I did. An interesting blend of historical fiction, urban fantasy, and a old fashioned detective yarn, Thieftaker is a spectacular start to a series that I can’t wait to continue. Fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series will take special note, the rich sense of place and historical detail is likely to appeal as are Jackson's excellent sense of character and atmosphere.

Ethan Kaille makes his living recovering stolen property in Pre-Revolutionary Boston. But Kaille is no ordinary thieftaker, he is also a conjurer who uses his magical gifts to assist him in his profession. Due to the suspicion and fear surrounding sorcery, Ethan keeps his skills secret and avoids all but the most mundane assignments. When he accepts an assignment to recover a brooch stolen in the commission of a murder, Ethan finds himself embroiled in a mystery with ties to not only the turbulent and violent politics of the time but to a powerful conjurer whose skill far surpasses Ethan’s own.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Student Bodies by Sean Cummings

My experience with Young Adult fiction is pretty limited, and I typically read only the cultural phenomenon books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter or works by authors I already enjoy, like Chuck Wendig or Dan Wells. However, I choose a few books from Angry Robot’s YA line, Strange Chemistry, as an experiment. Sean Cumming’s Student Bodies is the first of those.

The star of Cumming’s tale is Julie Richardson, high school student and a witch with a surprising amount of magical power. When Julie and her boyfriend, Marcus uncover a supernatural plot to murder students at their high school, they are quickly swept into battle with an ancient evil that could easily destroy their entire town. With a surprisingly diverse cast of allies, Julie and Marcus must uncover the source of the threat and eliminate it, before time runs out.

I was a little disappointed when I realized that Student Bodies was the second installment in a series, with Poltergeekspreceding it. Cummings does an excellent job of making the story work without too much knowledge of what came before. There are plenty of references to the previous volume, but they convey the relevant information in such a way that it doesn’t hinder the pacing or confuse readers who come to the series in the middle, like I did.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bottom of the Sea by Zachary Jernigan

I don't read a lot of short fiction. In fact, I think I've only reviewed one collection of shorts since starting the blog. But it's not because I don't like them, because I do, but I typically only bother with them if I like the author's longer work. I'm certain that's short sighted of me, but it is what it is. In my limited experience with short fiction, I have concluded that when comparing short fiction to longer work by the same author there are almost no writers that are better in brief. Stephen King is the only one that immediately comes to mind. Zachary Jernigan seems to be poised to be another.

I received a review copy of The Bottom of the Sea from the author and was anxious to see how I'd like his shorts, considering that No Return is on my list of the Top 10 books I've read this year. But it's more than that; I like Zach Jernigan as a person. I've interacted with him on several projects and he's a likeable, self depreciating, witty, and all around awesome guy. So I really wanted to like these stories, and yet was terrified what would happen if I didn't. I'm glad to report that it only took about five pages before I knew I'd been worrying for nothing.  The Bottom of the Sea combines the gritty audacity of No Return with impressive and inventive story telling that asks as much of the reader as it does itself.

But I do have one complaint.

It's too short by half.

I was tempted to leave it at that but I'd like to think I owe the readers and Zach better than that. I'm going to forego analyzing each story individually because I really think to discuss them too deeply will rob the reader of some of the magic. So I'll hit the high points of each piece and then say a little more about the work as a whole.

Jernigan takes on genocide and prejudice The War is Over and Everyone Wins. It's set in a world where the Caucasian race has been wiped out by a a bio-engineered weapon.The growing population of former minorities has eliminated them for their excesses and yet the world seems to have suffered for it. But all of the crunchy morals about tolerance and the evils of racial supremacy are all but invisible. This is a tale of the dysfunction in a single family all tied to the central pole of the world at large. It's the subtler, more familiar flavor of family discord that is the high point. When the curtains close, it's not the answers that matter but the questions.

Fans of No Return will feel the most at home with Fear of Drowning. I actually wondered if this story may have had some inspirational effect on the novel. Our point of view character for this tale has been taken as a lover by a goddess, only to find herself drawn into the final confrontation between her lover and a powerful lover from the deity's past. Much like No Return, the world building is cast about offhandedly and yet maintains cohesion. Sex is handled very casually here and the godlike beings are definitely the center of the action. This is perhaps the collection's most straight forward tale. Even though it is the most predictable in its structure and narrative, Jernigan manages to deftly slip in observations on both the capriciousness of divinity and the ever changing face of the heart.

 If The Fear of Drowning is the most direct story, the story that gives the collection it's title is the most subtle. This story of a blind man who grows to rely on an equally damaged young boy is only genre fiction in its subtle window dressing. Jernigan creates a fully realized sense of locale while actually giving only the most meager of description. I'm inclined to believe it's the voice of the protagonist that sells it. A man so broken, so blind to the filth and poverty around him could only live in the dockside streets that he roams. Sure, there are fantastic things out there, but they are not for him. By the end of the sharply poignant tale of the foolishness of not reaching out, I couldn't decide whether to feel pity or rage for the narrator, and that's the genius of it.

I had the most trouble with Pairs, probably because it's the story that is the most conceptually 'out there'. The concept was meaty, based on the thriving trade on the souls left after the destruction of Earth and the mismatched pair that serve as the ferrymen for the alien merchants who sell them. The sparsity of detail required by the form seemed to weaken this one, and I felt that I could have enjoyed it much more with added length. Not to say it wasn't enjoyable, it is. I just wanted more.

Jernigan saves the best for last, with All My Ghosts. This one starts familiarly enough, with a man and his ill child trapped in a blizzard far from home. The twist comes with the revelation that the man is actually a god.  Not much else is important until the man decides to sacrifice everything to give his son a chance at survival. With that choice and his Herculean trek to return his child to safety, comes the parade of ghosts from the god's seemingly endless lifetime. As a father, this story resonated with me the most soundly, echoing the primal need to protect that all fathers have while simultaneously lamenting the burdens placed upon us by our own fathers as we pass them down to our own children. The end of the story is left vague, and the bracketing passages at the front and end of the story allow the reader to speculate an ending to suite their tastes, but it only highlights the importance of a single man/god's choice.

As a collection, I'd say The Bottom of the Sea fires on all cylinders. Fans of Jernigan's unconventional world building will not be disappointed, nor will those who were attracted to his carefully drawn and ultimately damaged protagonists.Those who have not read No Return will know whether or not to invest in a longer word count based on how much they enjoyed these shorts. The strength of the shorts ultimately rested on the excellent use of literary negative space, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and trusting the reader to be smart enough to get it right. It's no mean feat to use ambiguity to your betterment, but The Bottom of the Sea makes it look easy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part Four

This posting brings the roundtable to a close, and end one of the single most rewarding interactions with authors I've had since starting the blog. This project was an absolute joy from start to end, no matter the delays and challenges that moderating such a huge project (at least, for me) entails. I'd like to take a minute to thank Kameron, Zach, Doug, and Jeff for taking part and being such consumate professionals while I stumbled my way through this. Any success I'm having here is in direct proportion to the amazing answers they provided. 

With that I'll let folks get to what brought them here. Links to the earlier questions are posted below.

52 Reviews: Most of you have a background in some form of martial science, be it boxing, martial arts, or some other discipline. How have those experiences helped or hindered your writing of action scenes? Does your experience change the approach in any way? 

Kameron Hurley: I took four years of boxing and mixed martial arts classes, on and off, when I lived in Chicago. So when I was struggling to come up with some kind of martial art for the magicians in my books to practice, boxing seemed like a more fun and natural fit than, say, Tai Chi (for me, anyway). And it was more unexpected than me just throwing in the typical yoga-practicing magic user. It was also a lot easier for me to write about the correct way to stand, block a hit, and throw a punch when I created characters who trained as boxers instead of Kung Fu artists.

I’ve heard folks say that successful writing isn't so much about writing what you know as writing about the things that youlike. I may be a poor athlete, but I do like boxing a whole lot. There was something very real and visceral, for me, about putting two people into a ring with the sole intent of beating the crap out of each other under a set of prescribed rules. It has that weird "civilized brutality" dissonance going for it that both fascinates and repulses me.

Many martial arts philosophies are centered around teaching you to avoid or diffuse fights very quickly, and I still remember my instructor saying that once you square off into a fighting stance against an opponent, you have chosen to fight, and you must accept those consequences. There are all sorts of ways not to get into a fight. I diffuse fights and conflict all the time. Which may be way I liked the boxing. It didn’t ask me to avoid a fight. It asked me to seek one out within a prescribed set of rules.  I found that boxing was also very much about conditioning you to keep hitting your opponent longer than they could keep hitting you. It was the perfect metaphor for a society at perpetual war with their neighbors, as was happening with the folks in my books.  Extreme violence with limited rules. That's war.

You can read about fighting all you like, but the details you get from doing it yourself – from studying and watching real fights, too – really make these sorts of conflicts come alive on the page. One of the things I never realized when watching boxing, for instance, is how much stamina and endurance you must have. It’s not just about hitting harder. You think, “Oh, it’s only three minute rounds! Then you get a rest!” But boxing well requires a huge investment in cardio. I was devastated to learn that in order to keep up with the boxing drills in class, I needed to start running three miles a day, at least twice a week. I fucking hate cardio. I just wanted to hit things and lift weights. But you just won’t make it otherwise. So I took up running. Which I hated.   But those long nights pounding the pavement along the lake also ended up being great book fodder for describing scenes of wretched endurance. Everything's material, and all that.

There are other details – what it’s like to get hit, or the satisfaction one gets from knocking over an opponent, or how fast a series of punches can really come at you, and how quickly you can get overwhelmed – that I think are more believable on the page because of that training. After reading God’s War, a lot of folks came away from that book believing I had first-hand experience boxing (I was horrified to hear there were some identifying me as “a boxer,” which I am most certainly not by any stretch), which, to me, means I did my job on the page pretty well. It's very satisfying to fool readers into thinking you're smarter and more experienced at something than you actually are (more often, as writers, we're assumed to be the opposite. It's a tough gig).  

After boxing, my next favorites are probably kickboxing and Krav Maga. I like fighting schools that give the appearance of relying heavily on brute force without the aid of a weapon, even if, once you get into them, you discover it's just as much a mental and cardio game as anything else. 

Zachary Jernigan: Anyone who knows me really well would laugh at seeing me described as a person with a "background in some form of martial science." It is technically true -- I did practice jōjutsu for a couple years -- but the honest fact is that I don't think the experience contributes overmuch to my writing. How could it? I was quite young when I studied the art of wielding a stick against a sword. I've forgotten most of the details. In fact, I just stood up and tried to go through one single defense and attack (I learned thirteen before quitting), and couldn't remember anything but the beginning stances to a few of them.

Moreover, I hated studying jōjutsu. When, every once and a while, my teacher would cancel class (which consisted of only two students) and I would be so, so, so happy. It was like I'd avoided being run over by a car for two to three hours. In fact, my overall impression of martial arts was colored by my experience with that teacher. I've avoided martial arts ever since.

Well, hell... Now that I've written those last few sentences, I have to call myself on some bullshit. Can anything that influenced me that much rally have failed to come into my writing?

And now that I think a little more about it, I see that of course it's had its effect on me as a writer -- perhaps not in the way of being able to write perfectly choreographed scenes or describe how it feels to have a knife enter one's stomach, but certainly in the way of being aware of one's body as it engages an opponent. In No Return, there is a focus on the internal: even when the events are largely external, as in a fight, I tend to be interested in how the characters feel inside before focusing on which fist goes where.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this is better than another way of writing, or that it reflects the reality of all or even a significant number of combatants. I know many people who do not experience heightened awareness of their internal state before a fight. Indeed, many people seem to "turn off" parts of themselves when engaging in action. All I can say is that this has never been the case for me -- I am intensely aware of how I feel, perhaps even abnormally so, before an altercation; this has always helped me react with speed, as opposed to freezing me up -- and so my characters tend to express themselves in similar ways.

In this regard -- and perhaps unlike Kameron -- I'm writing what I know.

Kameron Hurley: This is interesting. I'm one of those people who "turn off" during times of heightened conflict/emotion. It's really handy when somebody's bleeding profusely or threatening to kill themselves in front of me, but it's gotten me labeled as "cold" and "emotionless" quite a lot. I find it really helpful, if only because, if I didn't turn off the emotion, I'd be completely paralyzed by it.

Being able to be totally aware of what you're feeling during a fight/conflict sounds terrifying to me. I always thought that awareness would be a handicap, not a strength. It's interesting to see this isn't the case for you.

52 Reviews: This is fascinating for me. I've been a martial arts instructor since the late 90's and I find myself in between the two of you. There is a moment of intense awareness at the outset followed by a period of extreme detachment when I'm actively defending myself largely with muscle memory. Of course, afterwards the emotional and fear responses slam back in to me. Much like the feeling of narrowly avoiding a car wreck. Just goes to show, we all react differently to stress of this kind. 

Zachary Jernigan: Well, crap. I guess I described that the wrong way. I meant two things, really:

I am abnormally aware of how I feel internally, as in how my body feels inside my skin. The pumping of blood, the tightening of the throat -- that kind of thing. I suppose that is technically external, because it happens outside the brain, but I don't think of the body that way. My view of the physical form is, perhaps, more holistic than some. That's part of what I mean about being "intensely aware of how I feel."

As for emotions, yes, I do feel them in a heightened way during stressful periods, but I (generally) don't allow those to show too much unless the situation warrants a display of emotion. I think I'm pretty cool under pressure -- then again, I would say that -- but that has little to do with whats going on inside. I think being aware of how I feel in that moment, where time seems to slow down, helps me better make decisions.

But that might just be me rationalizing my own reactions. Perhaps I'd be better in those situations if I were able to "turn off" to a certain extent.

Either way, I write most often from that perspective. Hopefully, there are some folks for which it rings true.

Jeff Salyards: It’s been a while since I’ve been active in any kind of martial training. Any training, really. I’ve pretty much been a sedentary slug. If it weren’t for the mile walk to and from the train every day, and the other odd bits of accidental exercise, I’d really be in sad shape.

But for a long stretch, I was pretty busy with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and armored up every weekend, and I’ve dabbled in some of Western Martial Arts groups. And before that, I wrestled in high school, so that has to count for something besides some minor cauliflower ear.

Unlike Eastern martial arts (which often have rich and longstanding traditions and training), folks studying European medieval or Renaissance swordfighting and grappling have had to do a lot more research, trial and error, studying medieval and Renaissance manuals and treatises to learn how to fence with longswords, sword and buckler, rapier, polearms, even crazy stuff like sickles and flails, and resorting to reinvention and educated guesswork to fill in the gaps.

Unfortunately, you’ll sometimes find derisive attitudes among some camps—some WMA groups look down their noses at the SCA for adhering to silly rulesets and using poor analogues for weapons, and some SCA folks throw stones at other groups for not going full steam. But in my experience, the best fighters I’ve encountered are those who cross-train, willingly exploring different approaches and rather than dismissing them. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the same fighting concepts apply across systems—timing, balance, range, footwork, alignment, drills, and the free play that allows you to put it together and experiment.

As for how that’s impacted my writing, well, probably good and bad, depending who you ask. As Kameron said, writing what you like might be a better mantra than writing what you know—the problem is, I like playing with swords and shields (yes, I’m a big man-child), and I know just enough about medieval combat to get myself in trouble.

Zack mentioned a bunch of comments back that he doesn’t really enjoy writing/reading about the mechanics of a fight, or at least not in great depth. I totally get that, and there are times I wished I had the same disinterest/restraint. I like my action to be grounded in reality--I’ve always preferred the climactic scene in Rob Roy to the more flashy action sequences in most Hollywood fair—and that shows up in my fiction. I try to describe the choreography of a fight in a way that shows how real techniques work and fail, while still being both clear and exciting. And I’m sure sometimes I go overboard, giving too much detail so it looks like I’m either wallowing or trying to write a treatise myself. There’s a fine balance here, and I’m sure I don’t always strike it, but I try to give the reader a real sense what it’s like to hit someone in armor and feel your arm go numb with reverberations or grow heavier by the blow as exhaustion sets in, to witness what happens when two equally matched combatants square off, or how dumb luck can end a bout or a life just as easily as skill or training can save it. And conversely, having dabbled and researched, I try to avoid perpetuating arms/armor/combat myths—a longsword didn't weigh ten pounds (not counting ceremonial monstrosities), folks in armor weren’t as helpless as overturned turtles if they fell (and even that might be a myth—maybe overturned turtled WANT you to think they’re helpless), a blade didn’t shear through mail, etc.

Which is all to say, I try to make a violent scene feel as real as possible, and I’m sure whatever martial training I’ve done plays into that. For good or ill.

Douglas Hulick: I'm not even going to pretend to be coy with this one. I've been fencing, with one weapon or another, for over twenty years, and teaching historical rapier combat for nearly half of that. Throw in a couple of years of aikido and other random eastern martial arts, along with my (sadly infrequent) attendance at Western Martial Arts conferences to learn about things like long sword and poleaxe and quarterstaff technique, and it's hard for me to not think about how this stuff influences my writing. The thing is, that influence can be both a boon and a bane, depending on the day.

A boon because, well, I know about this, don't I? The feel of a sword in your hand, the techniques and strategy and geometry involved in a rapier fight, the training and endurance required to be able to do this kind of thing even half well. I'm familiar with the muscles that get sore, the joints that get strained, the rush that comes from a perfectly executed attack and the feeling of quick-fire relief when you manage to save your ass through a combination of a sharp eyes, quick reflexes, and plain dumb luck. How one sword can almost seem to dance in your hand, while another feels like a metal bar with a handle at the wrong end. The reassurance of seeing someone take a guard you recognize (well or poorly, it doesn't matter--you know about their fight by the school they study) and the unease that comes with facing someone whose fight looks to be all instinct and hunger and chaos (the unschooled fencer is a more dangerous opponent in that they don't know when they are in danger, and so are both unpredictable and more likely to take you down with them). In other words, details and subtleties and shorthand that I can call on to add verisimilitude to a sword fight or, by extension, other kinds of action.

Which is exactly where it becomes a pain. Because while I can block out a sword fight in my head from beginning to end, or even free-style it on the page, I can also pour in WAY too much information. The mechanics of the fight that Zack hates? That's my first draft in spades when it comes to my fight scenes: every move, every action, every thrust and counter is right there on the page. I throw in not only the kitchen sink, but all the plumbing as well. This is where my writer's group and beta readers save my behind--they tell me when there is too much, when they can't follow what's going on, when the gymnastics on the page drag things down instead of move them along. I pride myself on writing good action scenes, but that doesn't do me any good if what's happening on the page doesn't make it to the cinema screen in the reader's head. I may write the initial draft for me, but the final version has to be for everyone else. 

There's an old saying in fencing: that a good bout is like having a conversation in steel. Each fighter says so much about themselves by they way they fight, how they phrase their strategy, the pauses and exchanges and punctuation they choose during a bout, not to mention how the other person responds. It's very visceral, very personal. Very unique. I try to convey this when I write my combat scenes--try to give even the lowest thugs or spear carriers a sense of individuality through their weapons and actions. It's said that good dialog reveals more than just information, it also reveals character. I think a good fight scene can do that same thing, whether its written precise and detailed, or broad and emotional. 

If actions speak louder than words, then how much louder can we make a conversation in steel?

Generation V by M.L. Brennan

I normally don’t read much in the way of vampire fiction, having little interest in the sub-genre long before it became the hot property following the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. But being a genre reader, especially considering the amount of urban fantasy I read, coming across vampires is unavoidable. I just rarely read a novel with a vampire as the lead character. I find the inherent cliche and unavoidable attempt to make something as antique and overdone more modern and relevant to be largely off putting. So I’d dismissed M.L. Brennan’s debut, Generation V, as not my bag, and moved on. But when Brennan contacted me directly for a review, I accepted. It’s always incredibly rewarding when an author likes your reviews of other work enough to seek out your opinion. I will admit to some trepidation before cracking the cover, but Brennan quickly set me at ease with her unconventional and quirky tale of fledgling vampire, Fortitude Scott.

Fortitude Scott is not your typical vampire. For in Brennan’s mythology, vampires are bred not made. And Fortitude has yet to embrace his sinister genetics, choosing to be a vegetarian to abate the cravings that hint at his gradual descent into full blown monster status. He lives apart from his family, who rule over a large swathe of the United States from their palatial estate in the playground of the wealthy and powerful, choosing to live an impoverished existence while working a thankless job at a local coffee shop. But try as he might to ignore his parentage and the supernatural forces moving beneath the surface of his community, Fortitude is drawn into the very world he has spent his entire life trying to avoid. When Luca, a European vampire, enters the territory controlled by Fortitude’s mother, and uses her promise of hospitality to allow him to abduct and murder young girls without fear of consequences, Fortitude cannot stand idly by and continue to think of himself as human.

Brennan does an excellent job of separating Generation V from the run of the mill vampire tale right out of the gate. Readers spend the first few chapters thoroughly immersed in the mundane aspects of Fortitude’s life. Even though Scott’s elder brother Chivalry makes an appearance, it only serves as a counter point to just how different Fortitude is from the full-fledged vampires of his family. His job is a nightmare as is his impoverished living situation and his train wreck of a relationship. Fortitude is nothing like your typical vampire protagonist, seemingly content to let life run roughshod all over him. While this approach might be a little short on action, making the story a bit of a slow starter, it is absolutely necessary to establish Fortitude’s humanity. This is the crux of his character and what drives his choices throughout the novel. Fortitude is a person first and a vampire second, and this is what gives Generation V enough legs to get past the vampire fatigue that many long term genre fans experience.

Brennan’s world building also does an excellent job of distancing the novel from others of its ilk. The nature of vampirism is very different from the age old model of each new vampire being the victim of an attack from its sire, with each new vampire being bred from human hosts in a perilous and disturbing process, which I will leave for readers to explore more fully on their own. This distances Brennan’s vampires from the tortured victims of many vampire tales of the past, and instead paints them as monsters that are more and more removed from their residual humanity as they age. Fortitude’s siblings, Chivalry and Prudence are used to demonstrate this to good effect. Chivalry is emotionally cool but still has his own code of morals, while Prudence is a chilling example of a supernatural sociopath. This is a stroke a real genius, allowing Brennan to use the familiarity of the concept to her advantage while paving the way for more original ways of approaching the trope. The contrast between Fortitude and his siblings also serves to better illustrate what Fortitude has to lose if he embraces his supernatural heritage.

Vampires aren’t the only supernatural beings in the world of Generation V. Brennan also includes the kitsune of Japanese folklore, elves, and witches in her world building. Other than the kitsune, who get major screen time due to Fortitude’s bodyguard, and seeming love interest Suzume, the other supernatural elements are mainly window dressing, though they are used to hilarious effect and defy reader expectation at almost every turn. The kitsune are an ingenious addition to Fortitude’s story, especially since the reader’s exposure is almost completely due to the presence of Suzume, who chews up the scenery with her antics and pop culture rich wise cracks as she steals almost every scene in which she appears. But Suzume is far more than comic relief and literary eye candy. She’s the catalyst that sets Fortitude in motion, not just against the novel’s antagonist but to a place where he finally begins to take charge of his life rather than letting others bully him at every turn. Suzume is rife for more exploration and I look forward to learning more of her back story as this series continues.

While the story starts at a slower pace, it really picks up a head of steam around the midpoint as Fortitude and Suzume start to get traction in their pursuit of Luca. The action sequences are pulse pounding and feel surprisingly harrowing since Fortitude is more than over matched at almost every turn. I applaud Brennan’s restraint in not turning Fortitude into a super human ass-kicking machine for her convenience. Keeping Fortitude an every man keeps the story from derailing into stereotypical territory and ups the ante for the reader in the final scenes.

Taken as a whole, Generation V is a fresh take on an old saw that benefits from Brennan’s excellent world building and the authenticity of its cast. Fans of urban fantasy who are weary of the same old, same old shouldn’t miss this engaging mix of action, humor, and coming of age tale. I’ll definitely be around for round two.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 3

As this series is getting more and more attention in the blogosphere , largely due to getting posted on Redditt, I decided to once again hasten the release of the next question. Round tables are a bear to manage, both in the keeping things moving, adjusting the fluctuating schedules of a group of busy professionals who are doing this simply as a favor, and then compiling and posting the results. The authors that took part in this were a pleasure to work with and it is intensely gratifying to see their efforts draw so much attention in the genre community. When I came up with this idea, I was told by another blogger I respect that this sort of project couldn't be done. I'm glad we've managed to prove that assessment wrong. If you haven't already read the first two installments, links are provided below. 

Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part One
Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part Two

52 Reviews: Doug's point that simply throwing more blood on the page misses the point and that violence needs to pull double and often triple duty to pull its weight in the story is something I think that bears more discussion. Can each of you give an example of how you use violence in your work to accomplish more than the obvious visceral reaction?
Jeff Salyards: First, let me say that I’m honored to be a round tabler here. The answers have been fantastic and really thought provoking. Which stinks, because the bar keeps getting raised. So allow me to lower it again.

I don’t think there is anything inherently bad about a violent scene that is purely visceral, or just moves the plot along. Or even an entire book like that, really. To each their own. My dad used to read Don Pendleton novels—the ones where Mack Bolan waged a vigilante vendetta against the mob, and killed like 10,000 of their foot soldiers over the years. Formulaic, pulpy, and never mistaken for Umberto Eco or Octavia Butler. My dad was off the charts smart, but that was his mind candy. He knew it wasn’t literary fiction--he read Norman Mailer and Pendleton and chose the latter, preferring to check out and just be entertained.

And it does take skill to orchestrate exciting action sequences, to draw the reader in and make her feel the windows rattle from an explosion down the block, or shudder as she imagines what it’s like for a pike block to stand firm against a cavalry charge. It’s easy to dismiss pulpy or “cheap” violence that has no grander purpose underpinning it, and frankly, I think that’s a mistake. There’s something to be learned in a Pendleton book for instance, about crafting a page turner that resonates with the reader and keeps them hooked. It’s not as easy as it looks, and plenty of high-minded authors write muddied, confusing, inert, or otherwise crappy action scenes. And to me, that’s a bigger sin than writing a compelling bit of violence that is purely plot-driven or designed to thrill.

All that said, I do think a book is more compelling when the violence is doing double or triple duty, if it challenges the reader in some way, or reveals something more interesting than the blast radius of a pipe bomb or the best way to string a warbow.

For me, I tried to make the violence in Scourge of the Betrayer meaningful and have some weight—partly because I (hopefully) made it feel real, that no character was safe, that there were consequences, psychic and physical. There are no magic circles around anyone, and even the bad-ass main characters slip in the bloody grass, suffer injuries, and die. But beyond the realistic treatment, several of the violent encounters stand out (again, hopefully), because the narrator is a reedy scribe with no martial experience at all, and his naive and somewhat delicate sensibilities are in direct contrast to the hardened soldiers he accompanies. He signs on to record the events, thinking it will be a grand adventure, only to discover that the reality is a far different (and messier) thing.

The idea was that Arkamondos, the narrator, was in some ways a surrogate for the reader (at least the ones who aren’t exposed to violence very frequently in real life)—he’s met soldiers, but never seen them in action or traveled with them, and he’s equal parts horrified and fascinated by what he witnesses, the violence in particular. This group of covert operatives with their rough, course, and aggressive camaraderie, is so far outside his comfort zone that the conflict and tension ratchet up the longer he serves as the chronicler for the company, until there is a sort of tipping point, when he becomes less a terrified and overwhelmed observer, and more a somewhat unwilling (and pretty incompetent) participant. Arkamondos doesn’t transform into any kind of badass, but by necessity he does act and loses some objectivity in the process, questioning not only the actions of the men around him, but his own role and loyalties.

But at the very least, I hope the actions sequences at the very least succeed on the choreography/verisimilitude level, that they engage in a visceral way. If they manage to go beyond that for a reader, cool beans.

Kameron Hurley: What, where was I?

Stories. Violence in mine. Right.

There’s all sorts of tension and conflict you can build into books, especially books that aren’t explicitly about violence and what it does to people. Maybe your hero’s transformative experience happens on a fishing trip when she decides to throw back a prize-winning fish, or the first time she comes in before her mom during a race, or the day he watches his father die of cancer. In my series, starting with God’s War, I wanted to create a society of people shaped by the terrible violence of constant war, who had to do terrible things to survive, and I wanted people to *understand* them by the end of the book/series. Not like them. Just... understand why they were who they were. In a novel that’s all about violence and what it does to people – well, you’re going to end up showing a lot of violence. Because I think we forget what it means sometimes, and what perpetuating it can do to people. I wanted all of that on the page, instead of just the ride on to glory parts.

My “heroes” are incredibly damaged and complex people. Nobody survives this long in this place without doing things they regret, and paying for past choices. My protagonist's revelation that she’s chosen her path as a bloody bounty hunter for herself – and not, in truth, been forced down it by others – happens during a sword fight with her former mentor where she pops his eye out. The first book’s climax is a bloody boxing match that ends with razor blades and shotguns. It’s a match where my protagonist has to face, in the ring, the sister of a boy she killed, and know, understand, and confront what that death has done to this woman (and to my protagonist). There are certainly other ways I could have conveyed this information.... maybe, but I had explicitly set out to look at what happens to people when they’re born into and hope to survive within a society at endless war. If you want to understand these people, you need to know what it is they have to do to survive.

If you’re at war – on and off – for centuries, with this particular type of tech/magic, in a resource-strapped environment, how would people change? What would be the same? What would their moral code look like? Because everyone in the book has a moral code, just maybe not one we’d recognize as such. In a lot of traditional fantasy, you’ll find characters who commit violence without any real psychological ramifications. They still get the girl or the guy, save the world, and get the happily ever after. We all know happily ever after is kinda syrupy, but I wanted to show *why* it was so hard to swallow after you Defeat Evil. Because defeating evil means you must become evil yourself. How do you live with that? These people cannot live the lives that they do, doing the things that they do, and have what we consider “normal” human relationships afterwards. It’s not like, “Hey, we defeated the dark lord! Babies and picket fences for everyone!” You end up deeply damaged by these events.

I wanted to show that end result. But I couldn’t get there unless I showed clearly, explicitly, what types of actions these people engaged in every day. If you don’t have an idea of the atrocities they commit, it’s harder to understand why they aren’t shitting rainbows at the end.

There's this assassin in the Serenity movie who says something about how, in the perfect, peaceful society he wants to create, there will not be people like him. A perfect society won't need ruthless killers. By the time we hit the end of my series, I explore that bit as well in the last book. What happens to these bloody, broken people when peace breaks out? What do they do with their lives? Unless you'd experienced that journey with them, unless you'd seen what they'd done, it would be more difficult to empathize with them at that point, too. What happens to somebody who's done all these horrific things when the world has moved on? It becomes this grim happy tragedy of "oh yay peace" and "oh God I created a world that has no place for me in it what do I do now?"

And I find all of that stuff endlessly fascinating.

Zachary Jernigan: Well, isn't this just peachy? I started responding to this three times and could think of nothing to say. I finally though, What the hell? I'll just wait for Kameron to answer and maybe that will inspire me. If I'm really lucky, her answer will be short and kinda crappy.
Look how that worked out. What a great answer. And I have nothing to add.

Nah. I guess I'll give it a whirl.
The thing is, I'm not a huge fan of the action scene as a beast of its own, out of context. I know some folks love reading about gals and guys punching/stabbing/shooting the crap out of each other -- it may be the favorite part of a book for them -- but it ain't me. In fact, any active scene (even sex scenes) get boring to me if they're there just to show me what's occurring physically, to get the visceral reaction. I suppose some folks have a technical interest. But even though I've practiced martial arts a bit and been in a few fights, ultimately I'm not into the mechanics of violence enough to invest myself in the descriptions themselves. I can, I think, tell when most violent encounters are portrayed unrealistically, but even those will get a pass from me if it occurs in an emotionally realistic context.

In other words, I'm not interested in the fight itself. (Perhaps this is why I write pretty short fight scenes.) I am, however, very much interested in why people -- two people, three, rarely more than four -- are brought to the point of violence and, like Kameron, what having been violent means to them.

Though I'm not violent by nature and never have been, I try to place myself in context with others who are either by nature or profession. I have no own inclinations toward aggression (they just happen to not be expressed physically all that often), and I know full well how wonderful it feels to give vent to it when you feel justified. Likewise, I know how awful it feels to give vent to it -- yes, even when justified. I'd like to think this says something good about me, in that I haven't reached the place where I fully enjoy laying into someone else. There's always a wage for letting your heart pump loudly enough for your fists to follow. There's always a measure of regret, of guilt; otherwise, you've stopped being fully human.

I try to explore this fact when I write about violence -- that it can be a glorious thing, a justified thing, but it is never a good thing. Every scene of violence in No Return reflects this mindset.

Douglas Hulick: So far we've been talking about the consequences of violence--especially beyond the obvious, such as skinned knuckled and perforated spleens and defeating the baddy and Dong-Dong the Evil Lord is Dead--and the kinds of psychological toll it can take on people. With the rise of more character-based stories, this only makes sense, and I for one am glad people like Jeff and Kameron and Zachary are looking into it. Because, you see, I'm not--or at least, not to the same extent.
One of the things I wrestled with early on when creating the world of the Kin was how violence was going to be seen and reacted to by the main characters, and especially my protagonist. Since it is written in a very tight, first-person POV, what Drothe said and thought and felt was what would be presented to the reader. His attitudes and assumptions would color every aspect of the book. And, let's face it, he exists in a violent subsection of his society -- a place where people don't think so much about the consequences of violence as they think about using violence as a consequence. The knife isn't used to save the princess or defeat the monster or cast down the unjust: it's used to send a message. Did you screw up? Cheat your boss and get caught? Maybe cross the wrong line or step on the wrong toes? Then it's very possible that you'll get a visit from a couple of hard customers who will, at the very least, threaten painful consequences, if not deliver them. Violence is as much a calling card and a short-hand telegraph service as it is anything in the back streets of Ildrecca.

Where did I get this notion? Again, from research. Not just the modern mob, but also historical criminals and judicial systems. In a society where you can lose body parts for some legal transgressions, its not hard to imagine that being reflected in the criminal elements of society and their attitudes towards humanity in general. If the darker portions of a society are in some ways a bloodier, more twisted reflection of what that civilization holds up to the light, then it only makes sense that the darker corner's view towards humanity and life are appropriately (and darkly) reflected as well. In both cases, it's still about power and control and enforcing respect, be it institutional or personal--its just that the criminals don't have all the tools that law and normal society has, and so they tend to be blunter about it.
That doesn't mean different people don't have different takes on it, of course. I have two crime lords in the book who have very different managerial styles when it comes to enforcing their will and keeping their people in order. But in both cases, the threat of violence as a consequence for trespasses is still there--its just how far you have to trespass before you get the knife. In a world like that, the consequences for violence start to become much more pragmatic, and things like honor and truth and loyalty--arguably much rarer occurrences among the Kin--become worthy of reflection instead.

That's of course the macro-level take. On the micro-level, it comes down to what the violence needs to accomplish in the scene, and how it can move other elements along. Probably the simplest example, for me, is the first true fight we encounter in the book. In this instance, Drothe and his friend Bronze Degan are ambushed in an alley during a conversation. The ambush itself has nothing to do with the overall plot--it's just a street gang trying to tap a couple of easy marks--and their reaction to it says as much. But that in itself--that they see it to some degree as an interruption, that the two of them immediately evaluate and divide up the challenge in fewer words than it takes to tell, that Drothe has to strategize about and play out his fight, while Degan handles his "off camera" with far less effort--tells the reader a lot, not only about their relationship, but about who each man is. In terms of the overall story-arc, it may seem unimportant at the time, but that little alley fight introduces us to a relationship that becomes one of the key points of tension and internal conflict for Drothe in the book. Could I have done it a different way--via a conversation, or over dinner, or what have you? Of course. But in a violent world like I was planning for Drothe and the Kin, showing it in the midst of a physical conflict seemed the most appropriate. Plus, you know, I got to write a sword fight, so Yay!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 2

I know I'm a bit early with this update, but the amount of attention this round table has gotten has been far beyond anything I could have expected. Not wanting to keep anyone waiting, I decided to get the second installment up as soon as possible. In round two we have what happens when the we talk a little more about the real world vs fiction, grimdark, keeping up with the Sandersons, and a little more Game of Thrones.   

If you haven't read the first installment of the discussion, I'd suggest doing so.
Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part One
 I expect the third installment to be ready withing the next few days.


52 Reviews: As mentioned today's audience is much more desensitized to violence, even to  the most graphic of examples, due to the influence of both news and entertainment media. Do you as writers feel a need to 'up the ante' in terms of the level of violence in response, to make those scenes more vivid and memorable for your readers or does your handling of violence serve only the story itself?

Zachary Jernigan: I was going to say no, and then I realized that yes, I do feel a pressure to do that -- but violence is not all that different from any other subject in that regard. There is more exposure to everything nowadays, a fact I'm forced to consider whenever I write anything. Of course, much of this exposure is vicarious, and so some things are easier to pull off. Back in the day (here I'm referencing the days when armies were larger and more people had, y'know, actually punched another person) it would be harder to pull off much of what we know take for granted in more overblown scenes of violence.

The question I always find myself asking is: Should I be more realistic and show how violence really seems to occur (and has for me on the rare occasions I've been in violent encounters), or should I push it to the max and strain credulity in an effort to blow the reader away with pure craziness? Thus far, I think I've erred toward the realistic as I see it, but I don't think it's the only way to respond.

Kameron Hurley: Ok, first, congrats to Zach for not using the word “elitist” even once in that response….

As for the “up the ante violence” question - well, you know, since the success of 50 Shades of Gray I’ve felt this need to up the ante by including more graphic S&M scenes in my fiction. I mean, what’s good fiction anymore without a mention of anal beads?

If I was in this to write what everyone else is writing I’d skip writing fiction. It pays far too little to be sitting around on your hands worrying all the time about feeding the market. I do that for my day job, and it’s soul-sucking. I want to create something different, something people haven’t seen before, and I’m not going to do that by playing “Keeping up with the Sandersons” or even “Keeping up with the Jemisins.” I’m in this to surprise myself, and hopefully a few other people along the way.

I lived in Durban, South Africa for a couple of years, in a province where one in three women would be raped in her lifetime and one in three people had AIDS, and also had, according to a quote I read around that time: “the highest crime rate in the world outside a war zone” (I think this was overstating things, but it was bandied about). You couldn’t go to a party or meet up or have a round of drinks without somebody talking about how they’d been mugged, carjacked, robbed, or knew someone who’d been knifed or killed that week. It really took a toll on your psyche. Even in the nice areas, you just didn’t go outside after dark alone if there was any alternative. People were really twitchy.  But the folks I met were also some of the kindest I’d ever encountered, and living life there felt all the more precious and brilliant to me while I was doing it, because the threat of violence was always just a heart skip away.

Yet I couldn’t help but realize, years later, that many spec fic writers looking to create a fictional society with that level of violence would only write about the violence, and would forget about the kindness, and the brilliantly joyous living folks did at the edges of it. Why? Oh, I don’t know. Likely because of that age old BS one hears from people who’ve never been anywhere or studied anything: “It’s just not realistic!”

I’ve spent a decade studying war and violence and atrocities and the truth is that what writers put on the page – everything I’ve ever read – pales in comparison to what people actually did (and do) to one another. But the real surprise is that people kept on living their everyday lives, laughing and playing with their children, writing poetry, and eating dinner together, amid all this violence. That’s where the interesting stories are, to me. It’s not the violence. It’s what happens between the bouts of violence. Because violence doesn’t matter, unless you have something worth losing.

Otherwise, you’re just writing torture porn.

Jeff Salyards: I’m not entirely convinced about the whole desensitized thing, at least not on a global scale. While it’s undeniable that between all kinds of entertainment chock full of explosions, serial killers, and garden variety sociopaths, and the nonstop media coverage of real life atrocities, people are exposed to violence (or can choose to view it) like never before, and there are plenty of people who try to use studies of the effects of violence to promote one agenda or another. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole here. But people still read Jane Austen. And watch children play in fountains. And experience horror when they witness violence in front of them, in real life, real time.
And while there has arguably been an escalation in science fiction and fantasy genres (the whole “grimdark” debate about one novel trying to out gruesome another, which I think is specious really), as others have pointed out, violence is nothing new there, and even the depiction of it isn’t exponentially more shocking than what preceded it (Robert E. Howard had amoral antiheroes running around sticking people with the pointy end, and anyone who has seen a Shakespearean revenge tragedy knows all about buckets of blood.)

There are readers who are drawn to quiet, personal, intimate fantasies. The Long Price Quartet by Abraham immediately springs to mind. There’s plenty of character-driven conflict, and even an impressive war in the third and fourth books, but violence takes a back seat for most of the series and when it does occur, it’s potent because you’ve come to know and care for the characters, not because each set piece is bloodier than the last. Abraham’s stuff is somewhat atypical, it’s true, but even his The Dagger and the Coin series, with more traditional fantasy tropes and trappings, he still keeps action and violence secondary, and in service to the characters and stories when it happens.
It’s just a matter of taste, really—the genre is vast and offers something for any audience. Not everyone wants to see the violence ante upped.

Even in books where there is a fair amount of bloodletting, there is a way of handling it where it isn’t gratuitous or for cheap thrills. Going back to Martin for a sec, countless character arcs careen wildly and go into unexpected territory due to the violence in the story. (THERE BE MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD….) Jaime Lannister earned his Kingslayer moniker through sudden violence and begins Game of Thrones by committing a pretty heinous deed involving incest, love, and attempted murder, which in the hands of a different writer might have branded him irredeemable black-hat villain for all time. But Martin delights in challenging reader expectations, and Jaime is no exception. After he has his arrogance trimmed considerably in later books and suffers some pretty serious violence of his own, and can no longer rely on his martial skills, he has to reinvent himself. It’s the effects of the violence that are compelling, more than the act or depiction in isolation.

Same dealio with Arya, a small girl who witnesses unspeakable horrors and bloodshed, bad leading to worse, until she finds herself transformed on the road to becoming like the oh-so damaged Hound—callous, cold, revenge-driven. It’s sad and powerful and poignant and disturbing because Martin explores the consequences and reverberations of violence, makes it propel characters, change them, haunt them.

With my own work, I adopt the same sort of approach, or try to. There’s more violence than in Abraham’s books (or Jane Austen’s for that matter), but as much as I enjoy writing a visceral and engaging action sequence (and as Zack will attest, some of them are on the longish side!), and try to keep it as realistic as possible, at the end of the day I’m more interested in how it showcases something about the characters—ingenuity in concocting a clever ploy or recovering from its failure, someone overcoming or succumbing to cowardly impulses, and most especially its aftermath. What happens after the blood is spilled, and casualties and losses are seen and felt? How do the characters respond to grief? Do they compartmentalize it or succumb to its full effects?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting totally escapist fiction or a cathartic release. But I don’t feel any pressure to outdo Abercrombie or Moorcock or Shakespeare in terms of how many buckets of blood to use either.

Kameron Hurley: Yeah, I think this exploration of "What does this violence actually *do* to people" is something that gets lost a lot in less nuanced work. Some writers make it all about the explosion, not the aftermath (Hollywood is especially guilty of this). Though I may have no interest in upping the ante when it comes to "more gore! More, more!" I do feel a need to create deeper, more complex characters than I did, say, 10 years ago. And that's all about responding to changing expectations in the sorts of protagonists that I, as a reader, am interested in. I have less patience for static, milquetoast protagonists who are just going through the motions without reacting and adapting to events - violent or otherwise.

Zachary Jernigan: Not to sound elitist or anything, buuuuuuuuut...

Just kidding. For me, Jeff's book struck me as arriving at its violent scenes in the most honest, passionate way. These are not scenes that exist to titillate: they are scenes that exist because they were what he genuinely wanted to write, and because he's a compassionate dude who's interested in the entire spectrum of experience, he also showed the aftermath. Echoing Kameron, the most disappointing scenes of violence -- for me -- are those that don't attempt to account for the violence. 

"BOOM! EXPLOSION AND FIRE! Arms and legs everywhere!" is kinda cool, I guess, but the event becomes so much more interesting when the camera sticks around to see how it impacts those left in the aftermath.

Jeff Salyards: Aww, thanks, Zack. I want to hug you. And kind of punch you. You know, to see what happens and how I feel about it later.

I agree--summer blockbusters or pulpy books can be fun, and sometimes I just like to check out. But something that has layers and depth and explores the effects of violence (or as Kameron said, all the lovely, everyday wonderful stuff that keeps on keeping on in spite of the violence) is vastly more interesting to me.

Zachary Jernigan: I want to be punched, Jeff. I'm so desensitized to violence from living vicariously through TV and movies and talk radio that being punched is the only way I can feel alive anymore.

Kameron Hurley: The acceptance of bro love only when it's expressed in terms of violence is an interesting phenomenon related to the celebration of and bonding over violence, too. But perhaps that's the subject of another roundtable...

 I'm going to start sounding like an academic paper if I don't stop.

Jeff Salyards: We could punch you, too, Kameron. Don't want you to feel excluded from the manly-man expressions of affection.

Kameron Hurley: Just over here bonding with the bros. Good times, good times.

I do think it's funny it only took two questions in a roundtable about violence before we all started punching each other.

Zachary Jernigan: I'll not be punching anyone. I make a bad enough name for myself with my words. 

Plus, I have very easily cut knuckles.

And... Now that I look back on it, I see I misinterpreted something in Matt's question. When I read, "'up the ante' in terms of the level of violence in response, to make those scenes more vivid and memorable for the readers," I thought, Well, sure I try to make those scenes more vivid and memorable. But I've never felt any need to actually make the scene more, y'know, actually violent. I think a scene of violence is exactly as violent as it needs to be for the -- uh -- violence to occur.

If someone's weak-ass knuckles get cut on somebody's hard teeth, then I'll write that. I personally wouldn't get all that into the sensation -- hell, it sometimes hurts a bit when you punch someone -- but some writers would. I try not to question why somebody chose to depict a certain act in and of its self. But violence, as we've hammered home, doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's going to say a very different thing to me if the author seems to have no awareness of this fact than if the author seems cognizant that violence is never a random occurrence. 

When something is perceived to be random, then all the stops can be pulled with no regard for the complexities of the situation. In such self-indulgent scenes, the violence begins to feel comical, ungrounded to any sense of reality.

Douglas Hulick: I find it interesting that one of the underlying assumptions in this question seems to be that writers are reactionary. That we somehow look at other work (be it literature, film, games, various other media, or even current events) and feel the need to tailor or adjust our art to "keep up with the Jones." I'm certain there are writers out there who do this--who write to market, or feel like they have to push the envelope that much more than it was just pushed, or out-whatever someone at something--inspiration and motivation come in a lot of forms, and if that's what does it for you, rock on. But that's not me, and it's not most writers I talk to.

This isn't a competition. I don't sit down and say, "By God, that Martin: I'll show HIM some blood on the page! Rawr!" Nor even, "OMG! Abercrombie just slaughtered half an army and I only have five bodies on the page. Quick, more corpses!" It's not that...I dunno, basic? Visceral? Dare I say, conscious? Because we all do react to other works, of course, and are sometimes even inspired by them--but it isn't (or rarely is) a Point A to Point B kind of thing, where I read something someone has done and then turn to the keyboard to give it my swing. Heaven knows I have enough going on in my own head when I'm writing that I don't have time to stop and worry about what George or Joe or Lynch or anyone else did last year. I've got my own problems to deal with in this damn book, ya know?

Stepping back for a moment to what Jeff said in response to the first question--that he doesn't fully buy into the whole desensitization thing when it comes to society--I think he has a point, especially with regards to this follow up question. Maybe it’s less a case of desensitization (on a societal level) and more a degree of acceptance, or even expectation, when it comes to violence in different forms of media. It's not so much "Has GRRM opened the door to darker violence in fantasy" (which, as has been pointed out, he hasn't--he's just the latest incarnation), but rather "Has the fantasy reader, on a certain level, become more open to, or even anticipatory of, this kind of depiction on the page?" Not because they don't react if it’s not there, but because, in certain types of work, they now expect it? You can argue that either way. A lot is going to depend on what you like to read and what you like to write. I know Michael Sullivan and I have, quite amicably, told each other that we have no interest in reading the other's work because what we each of us writes doesn't appeal to the other. Michael doesn't like grim or dark books, and I got tired of heart-of-gold rogue stories back in the 1980s. But each kind of writing still has an audience. And, as was said, people still read Jane Austin.

Kameron mentioned violence in real life, and how even as writers of fiction we can't get close to conveying reality on the page at some points. That's very true. I've done a lot of research on organized crime, criminals, and the like over the years for my books. Some of the stuff these guys did? I don't want to put on the page. Other things, it's more than I'm willing to put down. Not because it icks me out, but because I have to ask myself: does that really serve the story? Does it reveal something new about my characters? What does it convey besides the obvious? Yeah, I can put in something utterly heinous some guy did in Queens back in the '60s (or in Russia last month), but just because I can doesn't mean I should. If you're just throwing blood on the page to get a visceral reaction, you're shorting the reader and yourself. Everything in a story should, ideally, do double or triple duty beyond the obvious, and that's especially true of the violence. Violence is easy--its action and conflict and risk all rolled into one--but it needs to serve some deeper purpose, or its just window dressing. Even the beginnings of most James Bond movies, which inevitably start with huge amounts of action, loop back into the bigger plot later on. Sometimes you see it coming from the start, sometimes you don't, but it isn't *just* there to get your heart pumping from the word go. That pulse bump may be the most obvious reason, but it can't be all of it. Not if you're doing it right.