Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm

"A wanderer and a cursed child. Spells and magic. And dragons, of course."
Welcome back to the world of Alagaësia!

Such delightful news indeed to announce that Christopher Paolini is returning the wondrous world of his The Inheritance Cycle, international bestseller and the first great Fantasy series I read on my own in the 6th grade (my father having read The Lord of the Rings to me the year before)! Of course, Inheritance fans have long known that we would get to return to Alagaësia – that Paolini was writing some sort of "Book Five" – but we never knew what form it would take.

Now we do: a new series no less if the Tales from Alagaësia - Volume 1 is any implication, and The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm looks like a truly wondrous book. Honestly, I would say more to express my excitement as my love for this series is second to none save The Lord of the Rings itself, yet cannot without violating my blog law of never writing spoilers! But oh, to see Eragon and Saphira again!! So here is the link, and my only grief is that I will now be able to start it once it comes out at the year's end, for I will of course still be reading Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. (Ironic, is it not? Forced away from true dragons by the Dragon Reborn.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Top 40 Fantasy Book Blogs (#36)

At Lake Cuiviénen by Ted Nasmith
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords." - J.R.R. Tolkien

As one can see by the badge now gracing the right column, it is my great honor and greater pleasure to announce that Stars Uncounted - Ian's Fantasy Bookshelf is now counted among the Top 40 Fantasy Book Blogs! This is an acknowledgement/award that I never expected to receive for the simple reason that I never believed this blog worthy of such; indeed, one of my family had to convince me to put my name forward and, even when I did, my hopes were not exactly high.
The lesson: that I guess I should listen to my own advice about always having faith in one's abilities so long as one puts their whole heart into it.

I must also, therefore, extend deep thanks to my friends who for years had urged me to create a Fantasy blog until I at last did so on Thursday, May 19, 2016.

So, with that out of the way, let the journey continue! To terra incognita!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to make your own System of Magic

Not long ago a old friend wrote to me saying, "I'm working on a myth-based fantasy book for the first time and I’m seriously struggling with building a magic system. Since you’re the master of all things fantasy - How do you usually go about it when you’re writing, or do you have any good reading recommendations for some inspiration, from your vast reading?"

Naturally this was/is an excellent question because reading about these wondrous & mystical realms is one thing, and writing one is a different matter all together. But often trying to craft your own unique system of magic can seem like the hardest part of all, so here – as I detailed to my friend is how I go about it:

The first thing you must decide is how ornate and prevalent you want yours to be. Some, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, have a restrained use of magic: You do not see Gandalf casting a lot of spells or throwing fireballs in The Lord of the Rings; when danger comes, Gandalf draws Glamdring (his sword). Yet there is still a steady presence of magic in Middle-earth, subtle yet bright, clear, and elegant.Then there are authors like Rowling, whose Harry Potter is full of flashing spells - but with carefully laid and complex rules behind and them, making the magic system work and adding realism and depth to it.
In general, the larger the role a magic system plays the more complex it is. Neither style is better, just different, as while the restrained kind is typically easier to craft, the often complex rules of the ornate system can help drive the story. The restrained kind often lends to a more epic feel, yet the ornate can be analyzed by the reader and bent in truly fascinating ways.

After you choose, the rest
i.e. the actual system of magic you are striving to create depends entirely on the world and characters you have crafted. For example, you will have to decide whether your system will conform/relate to one of The Nine Magics.

Inspirational readings I can also offer: The first five being some of the best myth-based Fantasies around, and the bottom two being the best examples or the more ornate yet unique/excellent systems of magic (beware, the two categories oft blur):
  • The Sea of Trolls trilogy by Nancy Farmer (Celtic and Norse myths) 
  • The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott (All myths, believe it or not) 
  • The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Copper (Arthurian legends) 
  • The Children of the Lamp series by P.B. Kerr (Arabian myths) 
  • In the Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip (Slavic myths) 
  • The Abhorsen Series by Garth Nix 
  • The Vows and Honor trilogy and its companion By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

Beyond this there is little more I can offer save one final recommendation: read the Sanderson’s First Law article, written by the acknowledged Master of Magic Systems, acclaimed Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A girl and her white bear

One often hears the time honored phrase "a boy and his dog." Well, I now coin a new one: "a girl and her white bear."

Lyra (& mouse-Pan) and Iorek Byrnison
To the left is Lyra Silvertongue riding her armored bear friend Iorek Byrnison (who gave her said last name), from Philip Pullman's unquestioned masterwork the His Dark Materials trilogy. This image is so striking, a girl riding atop an apparent polar bear, that it has for decades been ingrained within the Fantasy genre's psyche; as it should, given the unforgettable story it helps bring to life. Yet that is also why I was so startled years ago to see the image below as the cover of a book called East by Edith Pattou. 
Rose and the white bear
Indeed, I instantly called to my Dad over from a few shelves away (we we in a book store) and said, "Mmm, a girl with a polar where have we seen that before?" He replied in kind, saying that image had certainly been appropriated by Pullman. As a matter of fact we already had the book, but had more or less forgotten it, so seeing it served as both a reminder and sparked my curiosity, though I naturally assumed it must be at least somewhat based of His Dark least until I read the back-cover and then, a few years later, when Dad and I both read the read. Pattou's work is, as it turns out, little like Pullman's (save for the love and adventure part), East being an adaptation of an old Norwegian folk tale entitled East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Which is interesting because the Iorek and his kin call themselves "panserbjørn", which is Norwegian and Danish for "armored bear".

I would thus speculate that His Dark Materials is derived more from old lore than is commonly thought. In fact, the proper name for The Golden Compass is Northern Lights, just as North Child is for East. Just as compasses also bear a prominent roll, and a far journey to the distant and mysterious and magical north. And, in both epics tales of loves and destiny, the girl and her white bear grows to share and unbreakable bond.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Golden Age of Fantasy

How fortunate that we live in a Golden Age of Fantasy! I mean, truly, is there any doubt? Fantasy literature has passed from a little-noted genre to a mainstream phenomenon, given large sections of all bookstores and libraries, a whole theme park in the case of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, with GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire recently breaking into the world of TV series in the form of HBO's The Game of Thrones. Indeed, following The Game of Thrones came the The Shannara Chronicles as an adaptation of Terry Brooks' Original Shannara Trilogy, and now BBC is developing a TV series for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Then one has phenomenally popular authors like Garth Nix,  Brandon Sanderson, Patricia A. McKillip, Rachel Hartman, Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Patrick Rothfuss, Diana Wynne Jones, Christopher Paolini, Michael Scott, John Flanagan, Kristen Britain, Kristin Cashore, Alison Croggon, Neil Gaiman, Jo Walton, Kelly Barnhill, Brian Jacques, Jonathan Stroud, and so many others (and these are just the ones I personally have heard of). All of whom have in the last decade or two written amazing works with substantial and dedicated fandoms.

Furthermore, all the while the old masters remain readily popular and available. The Founder of Modern Fantasy J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings of course, but also others just as the recently passed
Ursula K. Le Guin whose
Earthsea Cycle took a different approach to the genre. Much like Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence and Pullman's aforementioned
His Dark Materials. Actually, several of the authors listed above are old masters; I merely listed them up there because have until recently or still are writing.

But now I think a bit of history is in order. How did we find ourselves in this wondrous Golden Age of Fantasy? The answer, unsurprisingly, begins with J.R.R. Tolkien.
No one denies that Fantasy literature owes its bones to The Lord of the Rings; it essentially swamped all previously written works of Fantasy, and it unquestionably created "Fantasy" as a marketing category. Indeed, all the author's I have listed site Tolkien as a defining influence, from GRRM to Jones, from Rowling to Paolini, from McKillip to Croggon. Knowing that Tolkien came first, you cannot read any other books without seeing his hand-print. Indeed, in the immediate years following LOTR, its popularity created an enormous number of Tolkienesque works (using the themes found in The Lord of the Rings).  
Then, in 1977, Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara came out. Some now call the it a LOTR imitation, but I disagree utterly; it is Tolkienesque, for a certainly, yet is its own story and the Four Lands has a  history/lore unique to that of Middle-earth and populated by engaging characters; furthermore, to call the two subsequent books in the Original Shannara Trilogy LOTR imitations is nothing short of madness. Regardless, however, the key fact is that Brooks' was breakthrough success that publishers had been yearning for: the first true master Fantasist since Tolkien and Shannara became the first Fantasy novel to appear on, and eventually top the New York Times bestseller list. As a result, the genre saw a boom in the number of quite popular titles published in the following years, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Then came The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (which is one my to-read list) and The Blue Sword and its companion The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

Yet the Golden Age had yet to begin. It needed a push. Well, several pushes, actually, and the next of those was Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time (which took decades to complete and is my current book), followed by the more swiftly finished Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams. Both international bestsellers, with Williams' work setting the seeds of inspiration in the mind of George R. R. Martin and the much later and regrettable rise of Grimdark Fantasy.

Yet still the Golden Age had not begun. Fantasy was present and popular, yes, but it needed, frankly, another Tolkien; another The Lord of the Rings. Another undeniable literary classic to inspire another whole generation of readers. And we got it in The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling...hence my name for her, the Heir of Tolkien. One does not need me to list the virtues of Harry Potter nor how it differs from LOTR, but it was the classic that started the Golden Age of Fantasy – pushing the genre forever into the canon of Great Literature increasingly intertwining with mainstream fiction. A process aided by the international popularity of other works such as Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan, and so many others that have have listed.

Now, with both Rowling and Tolkien to draw upon, Fantasy has blossomed into a still-growing and flourishing garden of authors and worlds one can spend literal decades reading (I speak from experience). Truly the popularity of the Fantastic is not lessening but rather the opposite, as noted in the first paragraph. Let us glory in this Golden Age of Fantasy! This Golden Age of Imagination!

"At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet." - Patricia A. McKillip

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." – Albert Einstein 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Dragon Age Inquisition - The Dawn Will Come

I have never played the game Dragon Age: Inquisition so there is little that I can say about it. But I am always searching for inspiring music regardless of the source and, upon finding this, was moved in a way few songs ever touch me. And why not, for it in many ways encapsulates the values and spirit of the High Fantasy: a sense of moral high-minded optimistic realism, wisdom, and personal integrity. Trust me, you do not need to understand or have any knowledge of the game's story to feel the power of this scene and song.
Shadows fall and hope has fled
Steel your heart, the dawn will come
The night is long and the path is dark
Look to the sky for one day soon
The dawn will come

The Shepherd’s lost and his home is far
Keep to the stars, the dawn will come
The night is long and the path is dark
Look to the sky for one day soon
The dawn will come

Bare your blade and raise it high
Stand your ground, the dawn will come
The night is long and the path is dark
Look to the sky for one day soon
The dawn will come

Friday, August 24, 2018

Gandalf the White, not Wight.

Why does it keep coming back to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm? So, in brief, George R.R. Martin says that J.R.R. Tolkien’s killing of Gandalf was influential in his decision to kill off his own characters:
“By the time I got to Mines of Moria I decided this was the greatest book I’d ever read… And then Gandalf dies! I can’t explain the impact that had on me at 13. You can’t kill Gandalf… Tolkien just broke that rule, and I’ll love him forever for it. The minute you kill Gandalf, the suspense of everything that follows is 1,000 times greater. Because now anybody could die. Of course, it’s had a profound effect on my own willingness to kill characters at the drop of a hat.”

I have always said that GRRM got the wrong message from Tolkien, but this is pitiful 😑 Gandalf was reborn as Gandalf the White, not Gandalf the Wight. Frankly, this statement is senseless per GRRM's own previous words saying that Tolkien should have kept Gandalf dead. I would say more but, seeing as I already have in an earlier post, there is no need.