Saturday, June 30, 2012

Romance in Genre Fiction

Romance? Bleurgh.

I've recently been rather irritated by two books because of how they've approached romance. One is from the genre publisher and the other is from a specialist press that only sells books relating to a number of game settings, and both were largely marketed as Strong Female Character Who Is A Warrior Goes To War And Kills Stuff type books. One is marketed as YA, the other as an 'adult' (i.e. non-YA) read, and within 100 pages of either I was tempted to throw them across the room as they both shoved forced romance plotlines down my throat.

Let me say this straight away - I HATE it when a book is marketed as something it isn't. I have been screwed over numerous times by publishers misrepresenting their books as fantasy (or, more rarely, sci-fi) when in fact they're basically romance novels set in fantasy settings - see the marketing for contemporary urban fantasy and paranormal romance as a prominent example. I also HATE badly written romance - there is a borderline-YA trilogy by an Australian author with a female protagonist that had two very strong entries before the third turned on the romance tap and became a 600 page tome of a terrible love story that made no sense (to me, I hasten to add) whatsoever.

A non-genre romance story that I loved.
I don't dislike romance stories - some of my favourite books are actually feature romance in a big way - but I cannot stand forced or bad romances, and there's many of both in mainstream genre fiction. I don't believe that women are the sole reason for bad romance, although I must concede the point that the majority of books I've read with romance I didn't like were written by women, but maybe it's disproportionate due to the way the market stands. Most books are written with male protagonists, whereas I seek out books with female protagonists and these often have female authors.

In the two books I referred to at the start, there is a protagonist who is shown to be somewhat detached emotionally, and also a more than capable fighter. They get thrills - guilty or otherwise - from violence, where they truly become themselves. They then meet a mysterious man who manages to somehow break down those walls just by existing, giving the protagonist strange feelings that they never really had before (or rarely so), and they know then and there that this person is someone that they wish to be with. Someone pass me a bucket, please.

Maybe if this was one book, it'd be a stroke of bad luck. But it seems to me that I find this situation time after time after time. The specifics sometimes change - the woman might not be a fighter, but she will still be considered 'strong' in some manner, yet she will invariably tremble at the knees as soon as she catches sight of Convenient Romance Male #1 - but it still annoys me massively.

Sarah Beauhall. Lesbian, lover, ass-kicker.
As I've said above, I don't dislike the idea of romance in books. Sexual tension can be a great thing - Sam Sykes used it well in Tome of the Undergates, and I'm sure Ari Marmell had some going in The Goblin Corps (of all books!) - or you can do what John Pitts did with his Sarah Beauhall books and have the romance already exist. But these things were never coming up page after page. They had their place in the story, and they were never forgotten, but they didn't crop up in inopportune moments. If your character is in a sort of duel for dominance, they're not going to be thinking "Phwoar he's a bit of alright, innhe? Love to give 'im a bit of an 'ow's yer father if I'm honest", they're going to be wholly focused on the fight at hand.

So, what I want is this - I want authors to stop writing terrible romance in the first place. If it's meant to be, it will work. Don't force a romance arc. Ever. I want publishers and their marketing departments to stop disguising romance-centric stories as anything but that - it's almost like a betrayal of trust. You want my money, right? Well, represent a series accurately and if I'm interested I'll bite - if I buy a book and it turns out to not be what's on the cover, chances are I won't continue with that series or I'll buy the following ones used, and who benefits from that?

Romance done right can be beautiful, but done badly it can turn a great book into something absolutely terrible.

Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: Judge Dredd - The Complete Case Files Volume 19

Oddly enough, this is my first substantial foray into the world of Judge Dredd. I've read a couple of 2000AD issues, I've read the short stories contained in the Sweet Justice collection, but I've never really had a good solid story to get into until now, thanks to winning a Twitter giveaway.

The Complete Case Files 19 contains stories from Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, John Wagner and John Smith, as well as the debut of Grant Morrison. Most of these authors have since become big names in comics - Morrison, Ennis and Millar are all very well-known - whilst Wagner, I believe, is known as one of the better Dredd writers. These stories all come from roughly 1993, somewhere around the halfway mark of 2000AD's life (at the time of this release and review).

The writing in this volume isn't that bad, and it's certainly the strongest and most solid element. The jokes, subtle and otherwise, can be good (such as a judge with 'Lardas' as his name badge) and you will get a few little laughs, yet there's no real laugh-out-loud moments here. Inferno, the story that takes up a large chunk of this volume, is Grant Morrison's debut and it concludes an arc from a previous volume (one I've obviously not read), which sees the return of an exiled Judge with a bunch of dangerous criminals and a highly dangerous virus. It's something like 11 or 12 parts long, and it sadly outstays its welcome within four or five issues. It teases the reader by making you think the end is about to come but it's quickly apparent it won't, and this happens numerous times, driving me to the point of annoyance rather than excitement.

This isn't a book with any sense of consistency. Characters almost die in one issue and are fine within the next. The Judge's base of operations will be ablaze in one story, and then get blown up the next, and then appear fine straight after. That constantly changing aspect is either a blessing or a weakness depending on how it's used. It stops poor stories completely changing the universe, but it can mean the larger effects of bigger and better stories never really come into play.

The art constantly changes due to the different artists, and it never quite becomes enjoyable. There are some excellent panels within stories, but often it seems to be a little... odd. In one story, we have two male Judges (Dredd and another) and a female judge, and the uniform is form-fitting but slightly loose on the male judges whereas the female judge has a supermodel figure, a rounded bottom and a large chest, all contained within a more-than-skin-tight suit. How is that even close to 'fair'? The racial depictions also leave a lot of questions hanging in the air, many of them being grotesque and almost offensive. This would be almost understandable if we were talking about comics from the late seventies or early eighties, but judging by the copyright notices in the book, these comics are from the early-to-mid nineties which makes the art very worrying indeed.

Rebellion and the 2000AD team have also dropped the ball with the credits. Only about half of the stories have credits, so once you get beyond Inferno the stories tend not to be credited, meaning you don't know who worked on most stories, nor are the stories even named! There are also no breaks between the majority of stories so it's possible to start reading the next without realising that you've moved on to another. This means there's no pacing to the volume, nor are the stories introduced with any sort of information relating to where these characters have appeared before. A simple title page between each story would have sufficed to break it up into easier chunks, but also to allow the appropriate credits to be given.

The Complete Case Files Volume 19 is really only something hardcore Judge Dredd fans will find any enjoyment from. Newcomers or part-time fans may end up questioning the potential of the comics if this is a jumping on point for them, as it's a collection of weak stories that aren't particularly enjoyable or that even make sense. There are some moments of strength and hope, such as the arc with the Jigsaw Killer, but these are few and far between. For a volume with a shelf price of £23, the lack of information or credits is questionable and leads one to wonder just how much effort Rebellion are putting into these volumes. It's dampened my interest in Dredd a little, but nowhere near enough to put me off.

Not recommended unless you're a big, big Dredd fan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Marriage Equality

In a rare turn, I'm going to put the genre stuff to one side and talk about marriage equality.

A number of months ago, I talked about an American organisation who sought to remove an issue of Life With Archie from the shelves (and, have since, tried to do the same with a recent issue of Astonishing X-Men), but the debate has once again come back to the UK. We had, earlier this year, a prominent member of the Scottish Catholic church speak out about marriage equality, and it clouded the issue, and it's happened again this week but this time from the Church of England.

Now, I don't hate religious people. The religion, perhaps, but not the people. There have been polls and surveys that show large swathes of the religious people in the UK are supportive (or perhaps at the very least not bothered by it) of marriage equality - over 50% in most cases. This is great news and needs to be thrown about in the media much more.

But I'm a secularist, and this debate alone shows why secularism is needed. We have prominent religious figures wading into a civil debate and obscuring the issue. To make matters worse, I have not seen a single shred of evidence to even imply that same-sex couples are worse for children than the 'traditional' family - and even then, that should be unrelated to the marriage debate. The arguments from the religious side tend to revolve around centuries-old scripture and deep-rooted homophobia, as well as apocalyptic visions of doom. Marriage equality will bring this country to its knees - things like that.

The closest to a 'real' counter-argument is the existence of civil partnerships, a sort of marriage-in-all-but-name, often colloquially referred to as a marriage. But is that not a case of Equal But Different? Did we not learn about that from the treatment of African-Americans after the abolition of slavery? Different bathrooms, drinking facilities, seats and so forth. It's not on the same level, I'll admit, but it's similar in that the same service is provided but it's "for them".

The other popular counter-argument is that it goes against the definition of marriage. This is, frankly, a complete load of rubbish. Definitions of words and phrases can and will change over time. The ceremony can and has changed, and even what marriage represents has changed. We live in a society where people largely can marry for love, yet there are times in history where marriage was a political device. There are even people in the Bible in marriages we would not think of today - King Solomon is a prime example, with 700 wives and about 300 concubines - something that wouldn't exist today under modernised Abrahamic religions..

I've also heard the idea marriage is about having children. Really? Well... what about heterosexual married couples who don't want children? What about those who get married and cannot have children, for medical, physical, emotional or other reasons? What about if two 70-year old people want to get married and spend their twilight years together? Should that not be allowed, because after all they won't be having children!

I shall counter thusly; Marriage is largely a ceremonious gesture in today's culture. It is not uncommon for people to have had more than one marriage, and on top of that children born out of wedlock are no longer taboo for the most part. There are people who make a mockery of the 'traditional' view of marriage, getting married and divorced like it's going out of fashion, and those who do it for money or other reasons rather than love. All of these people are heterosexual (a few may be bisexual, but in 'heterosexual' relationships), and could one not argue that indeed those people are the ones weakening the "institution of marriage"? There's hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative couples wanting to get married for love. Not for money, for fame or anything else. For love. How is that against the modern idea of marriage? If nothing else, it's the definition of it!

All marriages, at their root, are civil. Whether you're Jewish, Sikh or Christian, only your civil marriage will be recognised by the state - NOT the religious ceremony. Opening that to other couples does not change the religious aspect, and in fact a number of religions are open to offering the ceremonial aspect for couples who currently cannot get married.

Marriage equality will do one thing, and one thing alone. It will allow people to marry those they love legally. I think it's also important that if civil marriage is extended to non-traditional couples (I hate that term), that civil partnerships are extended in the opposite direction, if not removed and 'absorbed' into a civil marriage.

Friday, June 8, 2012

REVIEW - Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Tome of the Undergates, published by Pyr (US) and Gollancz (UK) in 2010, was one of the most talked-about debut novels. Coming from one of the youngest authors in genre fiction, it almost divided those who read it - some enjoyed it, others didn't. Set in a new world and the start of a new trilogy (The Aeon's Gate), Sam Sykes took us on a journey with Lenk and his adventurer comrades as they engaged in the search for a magical, titular tome - along the way facing ship battles, demons, a strange island and, most dangerously of all, each other.

Despite it being a Big Fat Fantasy Book (which I rarely get along with as I wander off in the first half more often than not), and a slightly bloated one at that, I enjoyed it.

I've also found out that it's a bloody hard book to review.

See, Tome is a really interesting book with some great moments and a consistent undercurrent of potential, but it never fully realises it, yet perhaps that's why I enjoyed it more than most.

A lot of this novel feels as if it should be trimmed down. Arguments between the characters are too long, frequent and repetitive, combat sequences are also too long and stretch the limits of what should be possible and, in general, it just feels a little rough. Most of this can be explained simply by pointing out Tome is a debut novel by a younger author, and it's a labour of love that took almost a decade from conception to publication. It does show at times, but rarely does it stop the book from being enjoyable.

If there is one aspect of Tome that is stronger than any other, it's the characters. They're natural, unique and are all a pleasure to read about in their own ways. Whether it's Lenk, the main protagonist, Asper the priest (a sort of secondary main character) or Quillian, a supporting character who appears in a tertiary role in the first third or so of the book - they're all distinct and have their own presence in the book. When Lenk speaks, you know it's him, as he doesn't talk like Deanos. When Deanos talks, it's clear he's not Gariath. This, along with the character-specific insults, makes following the dialogue quite easy for the most part.

There's a sort-of-not-quite-character, however, that I wasn't particularly enamoured with. It's obvious from the start that Lenk has a voice in his head, but for 90% of the book it's not really explained who or what it is. It's just there, saying odd words in his head. It does lead to some interesting character moments, but largely I felt it was too much of an unanswered question, even by the end.

The humour is largely juvenile fart-level jokes, but they work and I'd be lying if I said this book didn't make me laugh a number of times (more so than some books by the king of comedic fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett). The tone also extends into a near-fetish for bodily fluids, something seemingly prevalent in mainstream fantasy at the moment, often used to imply how characters feel or to show how violent the combat can be, but there are moments where the tone and humour contrast each other to create a particularly funny scene.

Sam Sykes is, without a doubt, an author to watch. In Tome alone, he shows a level of creativity and a natural approach to characterisation that makes him stand apart from the rank and file. But for all its crudeness, for all its flaws, Tome of the Undergates is a compelling book that shows more potential than most debuts I've read. Yes, it's hard going at times. Yes, it's a little bit over-long. But once you hit the last ~10% and come to the end of the book, you'll put it down and be glad you fought through it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Reinvention

Yes! I have decided to give this blog a new coat of paint (and myself in the process to some degree). Over the coming days and weeks, I'll likely continue to tweak it (if and when I remember), so don't be surprised if it changes a little in that time.

Whilst the colours changed fairly easily, as did the title and a number of my links, it's not happened entirely smoothly. I've lost a number of blogs from my sidebar, so if you're missing from there or wish to be featured, please get in touch via social media or even the comments, and I'll be sure to correct that as soon as possible.

As for the future? Well, I'll work on getting some more posts done, along with a couple of the reviews that have been coagulating in a corner. Hopefully I'll also manage to get some more features and special posts done.