Archive for August, 2011

The Wonders of Webcomics

If you’ve been a denizen of the internet for a while, you are no doubt aware of the existence of webcomics.

They are everywhere.

They run the gambit from amateur attempts with poor storytelling and art to epic fantasy worlds to nerdy takes on the world to combinations of all of the above and beyond.

Even if you’re not really into comics, I’d bet you can find one that you’d like.  It’d be near impossible not to, with the range of what is out there.  There’s scifi, romance, fantasy, mystery – short series, that last only a few months, and massive epics that last years.  There’s funny ones and serious ones and realistic ones and every sort of combination.

They’re also somewhat evil.  You stop by one, decide it looks interesting, and next thing you know, it’s four hours later and you have gotten nothing done.  Eeeevil.  And then you catch back up and have to wait for updates.  Alas.  And some update daily, but most do not.  Some do not have regular update schedules at all, which is VERY AGGRAVATING.

What are your favorite webcomics, Squiders?  Need any reqs?  (I have many reqs.)


Harry Potter Re-read: Prisoner of Azkaban

Just a quick note – we’ll do the Goblet of Fire discussion on Sept 19 instead of Sept 12.  I’d like to claim that this is because it’s the first of the more massive part of the series, but the reality is that I will be in Peru and will not be around to read the book or write about it.  We can talk, at that time, about whether we think the later books need three weeks in general, but since I read ~100 words an hour, I’m leaning towards keeping the two week schedule.

Anyway, onto Azkaban!  The book that introduced us to the Marauders – Remus, Sirius, and Peter are not mentioned at all in the earlier books – who prove to be extremely central to not only the upcoming war, but the war in the past.

Harry accidentally blows up his aunt, but unlike in CoS when Dobby did magic in Number 4 Privet Drive, instead of getting in trouble, Cornelius Fudge merely asks him to stay where everyone can keep an eye on him.  Why?  Well, it turns out notorious murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban, something no one has ever managed, and has come looking for Harry.

Now, we’ve been around the block a few times, so we know that Sirius is really a good guy, and it almost feels like Harry knows it too since he’s never really very concerned about the fact that this guy is apparently after him, even after Sirius manages to get into the Gryffindor common room a couple of times.

I’ve been marking places in the books as I go with post-it notes, but I think I’m going to have to stop because Azkaban has a worrying amount on it, and I imagine it’s only going to get worse as we go along.

Azkaban has the first signs that we’re reaching a turning point.  Peter Pettigrew gets away, Sirius is not redeemed (and never is, poor guy), and Harry has the first inkling that things are not going to go his way.  He realizes, after hearing Professor Trelawny’s prediction (her second ever) and stopping Remus and Sirius from killing Peter, that he may have orchestrated his own undoing.  (Also, Dumbledore notes that Peter will owe Harry because of this, but for the life of me, I can’t remember if this debt is ever repaid.  Can anyone help?)  Also, we start actually looking at Lily and James’s death – before, it’s mostly mentioned that they are dead and that Voldemort killed them, but here Harry hears their last words, their confrontation with Voldemort – and learns that one of their best friends betrayed them.  (Personally, if I were Harry, I would have occasional moments of doubt where I would wonder about Ron and Hermoine’s loyalty, but if I recall correctly, he never does.)

Things introduced here that are important later include: The Marauder’s Map (and the Marauders themselves), the Daily Prophet (mentioned obliquely in CoS but featured more here), the Knight Bus and Stan Shunpike, Crookshanks, Dementors, the first hints that the Defense Against the Dark Arts position may actually be cursed, a hint to the future existence of thestrals, animagi, the patronus charm, Cho Chang and Cedric Diggory, Hogsmeade, grindylows (featured in GoF), the secret passages, Madam Rosmerta, a hint that one of Dumbledore’s spies had heard about Voldemort’s plot against James and Lily (oh, poor Snape), the first hint that Dumbledore will not be able to fix everything, and, in the very first chapter, Harry is reading A History of Hogwarts by Bathilda Bagshot, whom Harry will go and visit in Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows.

Also, randomly, when Harry runs away from home, he gives Neville’s name to the people on the Knight Bus.  Throwaway comment, or a very subtle hint that Neville had the same possibility of being the Chosen One as Harry did?  I am probably reading too much into things now.

When Lupin showed up on the train, I said, out loud, “Poor Remus, things are not going to go well for you.”   Interesting to see all these characters now in more innocent times.  (Also, I noted, on page 80, that we were still not to Hogwarts yet.  It will be interesting to see if the lead-in times get less as the plot thickens.  I know Goblet won’t because of the Quidditch Word Cup, but past that.)

(As a neat parallel – in CoS, Ron and Harry go it alone because Hermoine is petrified; here, Harry and Hermoine go it alone.)

Onto the questions:

1. It’s been noted that animagi seem to turn into animals that closely match the wizard’s personality.  Why do you think no one ever suspected Peter Pettigrew to be a rat other than because he was easily frightened?

2. It’s easy to see where Sirius’s (a star in the Great Dog constellation) and Remus’s (one of the twins raised by wolves in Roman Mythology) names come from.  What do you think the motivation for Peter’s name was?

3. Why does Dumbledore allow Harry and Hermoine to go back in time to save Buckbeak and Sirius when there’s so much room for something to go wrong?

4. Harry saving Pettigrew’s life ultimately goes poorly for him.  If you were in Harry’s shoes, what would you have done?  Can you fault Harry for his actions?

5. Harry shows little trust in the adults in his life.  In CoS, he has an opportunity to tell Dumbledore about the voices in the walls, but does not.  Here, he considers telling Lupin about the dog he saw when he ran away, but again keeps it to himself.  These are people Harry thinks very well of – why does he not tell them?  How would doing so change the plot?

Subgenre Study: Hard Science Fiction

Science fiction can be divided into two subsections: hard and soft science fiction.  Hard scifi is focused on the actual “science” part of science fiction and is much more interested in maintaining scientific accuracy than other subgenres.

Hard science fiction also tends to have a certain feel to it.  The science tends to take a major part in the story, sometimes even to a greater extent than characters or plot.

It is interesting to note than many people think this feeling is more important than scientific accuracy.  If a story feels like hard scifi, but the main scientific principle is eventually proven to be incorrect, it is still considered to be hard scifi because the story was written as scientifically correct when it came out.

The last hard scifi I read was Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (the sequels are not hard scifi, however).  Other examples include things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, and then there’s some debate about stories like Brave New World, Dune, and even Ender’s Game.

There seems to be a fair amount of bad blood on the subject – some people swear that if there’s no science to be found, it doesn’t count as science fiction and it’s not worth reading.  Others argue that hard science fiction is boring and dry and, for all its scientific wanderings, is just not good for reading for entertainment.

Hard science fiction seems like it’s been harder to find lately.  I think part of this is because science tends to evolve so quickly these days that it’s hard to keep up.  And most hard scifi seems to be set far in the future involving space travel, and there seems to be a trend lately where science fiction is set in the near future and focuses on the changes in society.

How do you feel about hard scifi, Squiders?  Dry and boring?  Scientifically fascinating?  Do you need science in your science fiction?

Trying to Figure Out Middle Grade Versus Young Adult

I have this novel.  I wrote it in 2006, edited and polished until the end of 2009, and began submitting at the beginning of 2010.  My query kept getting me partial requests, but nothing beyond that, so I rewrote the first chapter.  A couple of times.  And sent it out some more.

I had written it as a YA fantasy, but this year I started to get some interesting feedback – first, from my friends, and then confirmed by an agent.  The writing didn’t sound YA; it sounded MG.

Middle Grade is a growing age category, stuffed somewhere in between chapter books and YA novels, and, to be perfectly honest, not something I had spent a lot of time looking into.

Then a reader told me a different project – also supposed to be YA – also read MG.

So here we are.

There’s nothing wrong with MG – if anything, it may actually be a better age range to be focusing on since it’s growing so fast right now.  But the fact that I thought I was writing YA and apparently am not…that bothers me.

I get a little bitter at times.  I wonder if, in order for something to be considered YA these days, it needs to be dark and sexy and full of unnecessary angst.

My friend and writing partner Sarah tells me that it depends on the focus of the book.  Tweens will read adventure, will accept different things as true.  Teenagers want something different. 

The whole thing makes me wary of my perception of age ranges in general.  Do the adult things I’ve written read like YA?  Should I shift everything one age range down?

If I try to write something specifically MG, will it still read too young?

Do you have a tried and true way to tell what age group a story you’ve written is for?  Any good tips for being able to tell the difference between YA and MG?

Get Off My Childhood

I tried to find a version of this that would embed, but alas, I must send you to Youtube instead. 

What you have here is the trailer for the new Thundercats series that has recently premiered on Cartoon Network.  I’m not going to lie, it looks kind of awesome, but seriously, can’t we come up with original things instead of rehashing my entire childhood?  (Also, where is Panthero?)

My childhood is rearing its head all over the place lately, and not in the fun, nostalgic way.  Apparently it has been decided that we need a redo on the entirety of the 80s, and By God, we are going to do it Right this time, if by Right you mean “buff everyone up, add more explosions, and sexify the whole thing.”  And they do.

Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Smurfs, both cartoon staples of my childhood, now have horrific live-action movies.  (Actually, add G.I.Joe in there as well.  Oh, yes, and Transformers.)  Aside from the new Thundercats cartoon, He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Strawberry Shortcake all have new series as well.  Even TRON, a cult classic, now has a sequel (though admittedly, it was pretty awesome).  And I hear they’re remaking Short Circuit?  But the original is perfect  The new My Little Pony I will forgive even though they have no noses.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand liking something when you’re a kid and as an adult, wanting to revisit it and maybe make it better.  I know I have shows and movies that I love that have always felt like something’s missing.  But seriously, I feel like there’s nothing left at this point.  We have redone everything good from the 80s, with varying levels of success, and all that’s left now is to make a Jabberjaw movie and then move onto the 90s.  (Live-action Dexter’s Laboratory, perhaps?)

And yet, despite all that, there’s still no remake of Rainbow Brite to be found.  Get your priorities straight, Hollywood.

Subgenre Study: Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is so pervasive these days that I mentally divide fantasy into urban fantasy and everything else.

Like the other subgenres we’ve discussed, its definition is a bit fluid.  Wikipedia says it doesn’t matter what time period the story is set in – if it’s in a city, it’s urban fantasy.  A lot of people say that urban fantasy has to be set in contemporary times, set in what is more or less the real world, with a sense of place.  (For example, The War for the Oaks – by some considered the mother of the subgenre – takes place in Minneapolis.)  Some people break these up into two subgenres – urban (taking place in a city) and contemporary (modern times) – but as far as I know, most people consider contemporary and urban fantasy to be the same subgenre.

(I have seen some confusion on what genre something is if it takes place in modern times but not in a city.  I guess the Contemporary Fantasy label would be more appropriate there, though I have a friend that refers to these as either Suburban Fantasy or Country Fantasy, depending on actual location.)

Urban fantasy tends to be tied fairly closely to Paranormal Romance, as they include some of the same tropes – the main character is usually a normal person who either stumbles upon the secret magic part of the world or discovers their destiny somehow involves a previously unknown fantasy goal (demonkiller, priestess, etc).  They normally have to work with someone who is part of this magic world (often someone of the opposite sex).  Often there are fantasy creatures who have been living among us forever and there is some great consequence if their existence became common knowledge (but not always – sometimes the stories involve life after that has been revealed and society has become integrated).

Characters in urban fantasy still often follow the Hero’s Journey in a slightly more subtle manner.

Urban fantasy is ubiquitous these days.  You can find it in almost all media, from television shows (Supernatural) to movies (Pan’s Labyrinth) to comics (Hellboy) to books (oh so many, but the Harry Potter series, technically, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, everything Patricia Briggs writes – even Peter Pan could be considered urban fantasy).

It almost makes one wonder if it’s a reaction to modern society, that we’re trying to put a little bit of magic back into life.

What are your favorite urban fantasy examples, Squiders?  Any recommendations for the class?

Science Fiction and Television

Science fiction and television don’t seem to be getting along very well lately.  For every long running series like Doctor Who, there’s a half-dozen series killed before their time, ala Firefly.

It’s somewhat understandable.  Scifi series cost more to make than a sitcom or yet another reality TV show.  They may not appeal to people who have a limited view of what science fiction is or how it relates to them.  And people may not have time for another show, and they may be confused if they miss a few episodes.

Even knowing the seemingly inevitable fate of scifi shows, I tend to watch them anyway.  This is probably a mistake.  Last year, ABC had an amazing series on called FlashForward.  I adored it, liked it from the very first episode (and I normally take a few episodes to acclimate myself to a show), loved the way it made you wonder whether or not you could change the future once you knew what it was going to be.

It was, of course, cancelled after its first season.  It ended on a cliffhanger and I will never know what happened.

The last scifi series I picked up, Warehouse 13, is now on its third season, but it is on SyFy and that is, arguably, the safest place for a scifi series to be.

When was the last time a network scifi series made it to any great length?  I think it might actually be something like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in the early 2000s.  People ask me why I don’t watch TV and the answer, for me, at least, is that there’s nothing worth watching.  I don’t mind the odd sitcom or something like the Simpsons, but I rarely find anything that pulls me in and gives me a reason to come back week after week.

My husband and I have recently started watching a new science fiction show on TNT called Falling Skies.  It took a few episodes to get into, but it’s got me hooked now.  Hopefully it will get renewed; there’s some hope, since it’s not on a broadcast network.  There’s another new series starting on FOX in September called Terra Nova – people from the future (having destroyed the planet) go back in time and, from what I gathered from the previews, get eaten by dinosaurs.  Which, really, I like dinosaurs and I like science fiction so this show interests me (do we not care about disruptions to the timeline?) but FOX has a notoriously bad reputation for cancelling shows early on, so I don’t know if it’s worth my time.

What scifi shows have you in their grasp right now, Squiders?  Have you been watching Falling Skies?  Looking forward to Terra Nova?  (There’s also a fantasy/detective show coming out called Grimm that I somewhat have my eye on.)  Why do you think scifi can’t get a decent hold on non-cable television?

Harry Potter Re-read: Chamber of Secrets

I’ve always subconsciously broken the HP series up into two sections – the first three books and the last four books.  The first three read like Children’s books with a mystery that is, more or less, wrapped up in the end.  (There a few loose ends with Azkaban, but we’ll get there in two weeks.)  The last four books read darker, more adult, and while some things are resolved, they’re really just building up to the climax.

Chamber of Secrets (henceforth called CoS) has always been my favorite of the first three books.  I know most people like Azkaban the best, but there’s something about CoS that appeals to me more.  (I even own the book in two different languages.)

Well, enough of that.  On to the discussion.

CoS tells the story of Harry’s second year at Hogwarts.  We’ve somewhat lost the dreamy view of the magical world that Harry had in the first book because he’s more familiar with how things work now.  (Although, I noted that the Chamber of Secrets was not actually opened until about halfway through the book, so there’s still a lot of Hoorah Magic World going on.)

Perhaps most importantly, CoS tells us that there are purebloods, half-bloods, and “mudbloods,” and some people actually care about such things. (On that note, I’ve never quite understood why Harry is considered a half-blood when both his parents were wizards.  Are you a half-blood if you have any muggle-blood in your lineage at all?  Or is it because he’s only one generation removed from non-magic family?  Also, randomly, you’ll note that between Harry, Ron, and Hermoine, they represent all three groups.)  You learn that not only did Slytherin hate muggle-born wizards, but Voldemort as well, and there’s the barest hint of Voldemort’s backstory, of his muggle father whom he hated.

Things introduced here that are important later: Malfoy Manor, Mundungus Fletcher (mentioned in passing by Mr. Weasley), Borgin and Burkes AND the Vanishing Cabinet, Aragog, the Whomping Willow, Polyjuice Potion, Dumbledore’s Office, the Sword of Gryffindor (and the fact that only a true Gryffindor can pull it from the hat).

Also interesting is, while we do encounter the first horcrux here in the form of Tom Riddle’s diary, there are actually hints of their existence and the climax of the series in two quotes:

“Albus Dumbledore is the greatest headmaster Hogwarts has ever had. Dobby knows it, sir. Dobby has heard Dumbledore’s powers rival those of He-Who-must-not-Be-Named at the height of his strength. But, sir” – Dobby’s voice dropped to an urgent whisper – “there are powers that Dumbledore doesn’t…powers no decent wizard…” (American paperback version, page 17)

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Lord Voldemort – who is the last remaining ancestor of Salazar Slytherin – can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…”

“Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Harry said, thunderstruck. (American paperback version, page 333)

Brilliant, is it not?

One last random thing I’ll note before we get on to the questions: On page 228 (American paperback version), Harry notes that Snape has given them so much homework that he’ll be working on it until sixth year. Just a throwaway comment, if you just look at it, but if you think about Snape and sixth year…

Discussion Questions:

1. While we meet ghosts in Sorcerer’s Stone, they’re much more prominent in CoS between Nearly-Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle.  Why do you think so few people choose to stay as ghosts after they die?

2. Do you think Dumbledore knew Harry and Ron were in Hagrid’s cottage when Cornelius Fudge and Lucius Malfoy were there? How?

3. Ginny and Neville become much more central characters later in the series.  Why do you think their development is so slow at the beginning?

4. What on Earth was Dumbledore’s motivation for hiring Gilderoy Lockhart for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position (aside from, as Hagrid notes, that he was the only applicant)? It seems that he was aware of Lockhart’s tendency to obliviate people and take their accomplishments as his own.

5. JK Rowling has said that she was initially going to include some of the HBP storyline here in CoS. Would it have changed things, to know Snape’s backstory this early in the series?  (As a side question, are you aware of the Mirror Theory, which states that mirror books echo each other: 3 and 5, 2 and 6, 1 and 7?)

Subgenre Study: Dark Fantasy

Oh, dark fantasy.  Supposedly my husband’s favorite subgenre.  But like so many other speculative fiction subgenres, one that is very hard to stick to a definite definition.

Dark fantasy, in my own personal opinion, is fantasy that strives to point out the dark, the gritty, the horrific.  It sometimes, but not necessarily, borders on horror.  Wikipedia says, “Dark fantasy is a term used to describe a fantasy story with a pronounced horror element,” but I am unsure I agree with it (especially since the article goes on to be increasingly wishy-washy about a definition).

It’s the problem faced by so much of speculative fiction – that the lines are fuzzy and open to interpretation.  When I think “horror,” I think slasher flicks and things that lurk on the edge of your consciousness.  I think Lovecraft and Freddy Kruger and Pet Cemetery.  I don’t think Neil Gaiman, Interview with the Vampire, or China Mieville.

Fantasy runs such a huge gamut as it is.  It’s hard to say what it encompasses beside some sort of fantastical element, which could be big or small.  Dark fantasy, while it may incorporate gore or suspense or paranoia from Horror, still is much closer to fantasy in my head.  (Besides, there is a lot of Horror that uses supernatural and fantastical plot elements itself.  I think much has to be said about intent, in this case.)

What are your favorite dark fantasy books and movies?  Where do you draw the line between dark fantasy and horror?  (Or dark fantasy and other subgenres, such as epic fantasy?)  I am not a huge fan of dark fantasy myself – a lot of times it seems like it’s trying too hard to be shocking – but my husband is a huge fan of Tim Lebbon, especially Dusk and Dawn.

Subgenre Study Guide

In celebration of the first anniversary of Where Landsquid Fear to Tread, I am putting together a Subgenre Study Guide for you.  I will be updating this post periodically with new subgenre studies as they come out (every Friday, at the moment), so if you would like, you can just favorite this one and everything will be in one convenient place.

This is also your place to request any subgenres that you would like to discuss in the future.

Subgenres within the Science Fiction genre
Dystopia/Apocalyptic Fiction
Hard Science Fiction
Military Science Fiction
Space Opera
Space Western
Time Travel

Subgenres within the Fantasy genre
Arthurian Fantasy
Comedic Fantasy
Dark Fantasy
Fairy Tale Fantasy
Fantasy Romance
High and Low Fantasy
Historical Fantasy
Mythic Fantasy
Off-world Fantasy
Quest Fantasy

Sword and Sorcery
Urban Fantasy

Subgenres that either fall within both scifi/fantasy and/or could be considered their own genre
Alternative History
Science Fantasy
Superhero Fiction