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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

#AtoZ Challenge: Z Is For Zzzz(Bee sound) and Roger Zelazny

Today we come to the final letter of the alphabet in this series of posts on the theme of SF and fantasy ... Z! 

And because there are not too many books starting with Z which I have read, although one of those is one I should have read - Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti - and even fewer authors with a name starting with Z, I’ll cheat a little here and begin by slipping in a book that doesn’t actually start with Z, because it has a bee theme and so.... Zzzz, the sound of bees.

How To Bee, by Aussie children’s writer Bren McDibble, won last year’s Australian Children’s Book Council award for younger readers, among others. It’s set in a future Australia where bees have become nearly extinct - there are a few in captivity, in an attempt to bring them back. Just imagine what this means for humans! We’re already having problems with bees running the risk of dying out and this story is not too difficult to believe. 

But Peony, the ten year old heroine, is living on a fruit farm, hoping to be promoted to the job of bee, when she will be one of a group of children whose job is to climb the fruit trees and fertilise them. The farm community are living a fairly primitive lifestyle -Peony and her sister are living with their grandfather - but are happy and proud of what they do. Then Peony’s mother, who has been working in the city to raise extra money, takes Peony to live with her in the home of a wealthy family as servants, and Peony finds a very different life from the one she has known... 

A children’s book, but a children’s science fiction book, well researched and based on a believable premise. It is easily available as it is new. 


Roger Zelazny in 1988. Fair  use

And finally, by request, the late, great Roger Zelazny...

I confess I haven’t read much of his work - my sister was the Zelazny fan in our family way back when - but I have read some of his books, including collections of his short stories. 

And he was the guest of honour at my very first science fiction convention, Unicorn 4, held in Melbourne many years ago, so I’ve heard him speak. I remember him sitting on the stage, puffing on a pipe. I recall someone from the audience asking why a certain character smoked so much. He explained that, before he started smoking a pipe, he smoked cigarettes and whenever he got stuck on a scene, he would light up while thinking about it and then say, “Oh, yes! ‘He lit a cigarette...’” An interesting insight into his writing process! 

He is best known for his Chronicles of Amber, starting with Nine Princes In Amber. Amber, by the way, is a place, not a gemstone. 

He is also known for a number of books based on various mythologies, such as Lord Of Light(Hindu) and Creatures Of Light And Darkness(Egyptian). The thing is, these gods aren’t actually gods, as such, though, with their powers, they might as well be. But the novels are set across a number of planets and among other things, Osiris has turned bits of his enemies into household goods, such as a nervous system carpet, so he can step on it and enjoy the pain, and an ashtray which can also feel pain... 

He was quite a prolific writer, so if you enjoy his work you should have a fair few to read. 

I loved the introductions he wrote to his short fiction. My favourite one was explaining how he learned something from Ernest Hemingway, who said that the best way a writer can get depth into his or her work is to write a scene that tells you something about your character...then cut it out. Then the reader will feel there is more about the character than they have been told. Zelazny had done that and was publishing the missing bit of one story in the collection. 

If you aren’t familiar with his work, you might consider starting with his short fiction, which is well worth reading and doesn’t require the same time investment or focus.

Here is a link to his Wikipedia page, which tells you quite a bit more about him than I can give in one post. 

His books are available both in print and in ebook. I’ve been buying the ebooks. 
Well, that’s it for A to Z 2019, though tomorrow I will be posting a short reflection. I hope you enjoyed this theme! If you did, feel free to follow this blog. I post fairly regularly, an average of a couple of times a week. My blog theme is children’s and YA and genre fiction, with the occasional non fiction, mostly history. 



Sunday, April 28, 2019

#AtoZ Challenge: Y Is For Jane Yolen

Today’s letter is Y and author is American fantasy writer Jane Yolen.

There is literally a Jane Yolen book for every day of the year. I’m not kidding, I’m more or less quoting from her web site. She has 365 books to her name, including fantasy, SF and children’s books, including picture books. So no, I haven’t read the lot! Nice to know I have so many to look forward to. And plenty more short stories. 

Jane Yolen, who at the age of 80 is still going strong, is best known for her adaptations of fairy tales. She is called the American Hans Christian Andersen. She has won so many awards she has  probably run out of space for them, and has six honorary doctorates. 

She has done some interesting things with fairy tales. The novel Briar Rose sets “Sleeping Beauty” during the Holocaust.  Mapping The Bones does the same with “Hansel And Gretel”. 

The short story “Granny Rumple” sets the story of “Rumplestiltskin” in Poland in the 19th century. It’s seen from the viewpoint of the Rumplestiltskin character and his wife. See, the miller’s daughter’s father has bragged about her ability to weave fabulous gold cloth and sew, and she can’t do either to save her life... Instead of a king, it’s the mayor’s son. The local Jewish moneylender, a young man recently married, feels sorry for her and offers her an interest free loan the first time, then asks for interest on the second, as he is, after all, running a business. The money is not looking as if it will ever be returned although she is now wealthy, so his wife goes to ask for the money. It’s near Easter. What follows is a pogrom, with a lot of damage, but only one victim...  The author points out that in the original fairytale the only character who actually kept his word was Rumplestiltskin. 

You can read this and many others in the latest collection of her fairy tale-themed fiction, How To Fracture A Fairytale - I’ve just downloaded the ebook, plus a verse novel, Finding Baba Yaga. If you are familiar with Eastern European folk tales, you will know about Baba Yaga, the witch who lives in a hut that runs around on chicken legs, and flies in a giant mortar and pestle (You may even know about Koschei the Deathless, a scary character whom I would swear must have inspired Lord Voldemort). But this author, like many others, admires the witch, who can be helpful as well as villainous. Australian-based Kiwi author Juliet Marillier
is one who has used the character in her short fiction. 

With 365 books out, and more to come, some of it has to be out of print, but there is plenty to enjoy, including in audiobook

I do recommend her web site, which includes detailed descriptions of how many of her books were inspired, plus information about what’s coming next. You will find her at

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Attention All Readers... Back To Google Accounts!

Hi guys! After several days of removing anonymous comments, some of them advertising and many simply irrelevant or gibberish, I am switching back to Google accounts only. This doesn’t mean you can’t follow this blog if you don’t have a Google account, just follow by email. It just means you can’t comment. And that will be a loss to me, but the anonymous spam comments are driving me nuts. I removed about ten from my moderation box today alone, having to be careful not to delete legitimate ones  - enough already! Someone obviously has too much time on their hands. Next time they attempt to slip on to my blog, they will notice the anonymous option is gone.

Over this month I have noticed that most commenters do have a Google account, even if they’re blogging on Wordpress. And I’m now following several of them by email.

So, I’m going to check once more, then goodbye spammer!


Friday, April 26, 2019

#AtoZ Challenge: X is for Xanth, Xenocide and Xena

Today’s letter is X. There are plenty of books with X in the title, but I haven’t read most of them, so I’ll keep this short, stick to stories I have read, and mix it up. 

X is for Xanth, the very silly universe of light fantasy novelist Piers Anthony. I’ve only read a few of these books, but it’s still going after many years. I’ll give you a link to the Wikipedia page, which lists the lot. 

It’s full of puns - even the world’s name is resemble the name Piers Anthony. Xanth! Get it? The country is one where you have to show some signs of magical ability or off you go to Mundania. If you are a fannish type you will recognise the term as connected to “mundane”, not just a word for ordinary, everyday, but for non-fans, as Muggle in Harry Potter. 

The puns and jokes are an integral part of the stories. One pun I liked when I read this years ago was the shoe tree. Here in Mundania a shoe tree is something you stick your shoes on when not wearing them to keep them in good condition. In Xanth, it’s an actual tree whose fruit grows into shoes, which you can pick, clean out and wear. 

There are many creatures from our fantastical bestiaries, centaurs among them, and they aren’t, thank goodness, the kind you find in Harry Potter, who have no interest in what’s going on outside their tribes and even banish one of their kind for being too friendly with wizards. 

The books are available on line, both in print and ebook, great for a light read. 

Xenocide is the killing of non humans, which happens in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, far less cheerful than the Xanth series. The first book is military SF, but with a difference. The boys at Battle School are fighting the aliens from their computers. Spoiler, but not really, is that they think they are doing simulations. Not too much of a spoiler, because I figured it out very early in Ender’s Game, and I’m sure you will too. I read the original trilogy soon after the books came out, though there has been more since then. There was a film of it, which I haven’t seen. The hero, a young boy called Ender Wiggins, is horrified to learn what he has done - and the whole war was a mistake anyway - so he takes the final egg of the Hive Queen(the enemy were an insectoid race)and goes looking for a planet where her people can settle. He becomes a Speaker For The Dead, someone who is asked to speak at funerals, but also, in his case, he speaks for the race which has almost been wiped out. 

The author’s political and social views are controversial, but there is no doubt that the Ender books are powerful writing. 

These books are easily available on line. 

So, who enjoyed Xena, Warrior Princess? I confess I have only seen the earlier seasons, but they were a lot of fun. I sort of lost interest when they started to get more serious, but the earlier episodes were hilarious. 

Xena, played by Kiwi actress Lucy Lawless with an American accent, was a warrior woman who first appeared in the sister series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, as a villain! Then she got her own show and wandered a world of Greek mythology that looked suspiciously like New Zealand, with her faithful companion Gabrielle, doing good and encountering gods and monsters and whatnot, and eventually falling in love. They were considered gay icons before that happened and the actresses came here to Australia for Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, gowned up and waving at their gay fans. 

I have another admission to make: well before Xena appeared on the scene, I wrote three stories about a warrior woman called... Xanthia. My stories were having fun with the swords and sorcery genre, set in my own world. Two of them were published in a small magazine called Eye Of Newt, long gone, alas! I did commission a Xanthia painting from a local fantasy artist, Esther Mace, who had illustrated the published stories. It hangs in my lounge room, over the sofa, a treasured possession. I can’t share it without the artist’s permission and I haven’t a clue where she is now. 

I haven’t been able to do anything else with these stories since Xena showed up. Female fighters are common in fantasy, but I can’t see anyone taking these now. I have re-used the universe, though. 

So... have you got any favourite fantastical beings or worlds starting with X? 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

#AtoZChallenge: W is for John Wyndham

John Wyndham - fair use 

Today we will be checking out British SF writer John Wyndham(1903-1969). He wrote some of his early work under the name John B Harris. His full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. He wrote some stories as John Beynon, some as John B Harris, and finally his books as John Wyndham. That’s the name under which he is best known. 

He wrote far more short stories than novels, mostly for science fiction magazines such as Amazing Stories(the one I’m sharing is the cover of an edition with his John B Harris name. But it’s him all right!) There are several collections of his short stories, including some published posthumously. 

Public Domain 

Two of his novels, The Day Of The Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, were filmed, the latter under the title Village Of The Damned. That film featured George Sanders in one of his few non-villain roles. I can remember one of his short stories, but not the title, that also became a film, with Joan Collins playing one of her few non-bitch roles. It was a universe-hopping romance in which a man finds himself in an alternative universe in which he is married to a beautiful, decent woman, whom his other self has treated dreadfully. I read the story and when the film turned up on late-night TV I thought, hang on, I know this story! John Wyndham! 

John Wyndham’s novels tend to be about humanity faced with one monster or another. Triffids, for example, has a suddenly-blinded human race being stalked by genetically-modified plants created to be harvested for their oil. The hero is one of the few who wasn’t blinded by the meteor shower everyone was watching, because he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged. Triffids would not be out of place in Professor Sprout’s Hogwarts greenhouse. 

In The Midwich Cuckoos the scary things are a bunch of blonde children, all born at the same time in a small English village. The opening line is “One of the luckiest accidents of my wife’s life is that she happened to marry man who was born on the 26th of September.” Because of this they were off in London celebrating his birthday, so missed the weird goings-on at home in Midwich, after which all the women became pregnant with these scary kids. 

In The Kraken Wakes, it’s something from under the sea. 

Chocky is different again. A child’s imaginary friend turns out not to be imaginary after all, but an alien. I believe that one was made into a British TV serial, with Jeremy Bulloch playing a role - you probably know him as Boba Fett(Star Wars) or Edward of Wickham in Robin Of Sherwood

But my first encounter with Mr Wyndham’s work was a YA dystopian novel called The Chrysalids. Well, I consider it YA, anyway. We had to read it for English in Year 10. I read it in an evening and loved it. My English teacher was not happy with my speed, as he hadn’t prepared our assignment yet. 

The novel is set in a world where there has been a nuclear war which has left a lot of radiation behind. The descendants of the survivors are living in small rural communities on the edge of the badlands. They have rewritten their scriptures to fit in with their religious beliefs. 

Apparently God hates mutants. 

Children are examined at birth. Any child who doesn’t fit in with their idea of perfection is taken to the radiation-filled wastelands and left there. Some people manage to hide their children’s extra toes or whatever. 

And the teenaged heroes have a mutation that can’t be seen so easily. They’re telepaths. Eventually they have to go on the run. 

I reread it a while back and still loved it, though it might be a bit dated in style for today’s kids to read. Good readers who enjoy the classics might still enjoy it. 

All his books are still in print, including ebooks(both Kindle and ePub) and several in audiobook, from the usual online outlets. They are well worth following up.

#AtoZ Challenge: V is for Villains!

Today I will be discussing a vital part of any form of fantasy or SF: the villain! You just can’t have a story worth reading unless there is someone or something for the hero/heroine to fight, even if it’s the weather on another planet. I’m not even sure you can have a decent mainstream story without a villain of some sort, even if it’s just a nasty boss or a dreadful school Principal.

Which is why I’m 60,000 words into a YA fantasy novel and have stopped till I can sort it out. There was going to be a villain, but I suddenly realised she wasn’t villainous after all. Okay, she stuck the heroine’s mentor in a tree for fourteen years, but she had good reason for doing it...Which left me without a villain.  There was one who was meant to arrive late in the novel, but without an ongoing baddie, the story was not as good as it could be. 

Anyway, there are huge numbers of villains in speculative fiction, and I am not planning to write a book-length post, so I will just pick a few of my favourite villains from books I have read. 

What makes a good villain? I prefer my baddies to be more than two dimensional baddies. Even if we hate them, there has to be something that tells us they might be real. That said, there is very little you can say about the likes of Sauron apart from the fact that he is evil, and always has been. If you read The Silmarillion, the prequel to The Lord Of The Rings, you will find him talking the rulers of Numenor(Middle-Earth’s Atlantis)into doing things they shouldn’t. That’s before he becomes a scary Eye. He has never had any reason we can think of to be what he is.  Yet he is one of fantasy fiction’s most splendid baddies, don’t you think? 

Keeping to Tolkien for a bit, the villain of The Hobbit is the dragon Smaug. It’s because of him that the Dwarves are wandering and have lost their homes. Smaug sits on gold because that’s what dragons do, but when he has finally left the caves where he moved when he almost wiped out the Dwarvish community living there, Thorin Oakenshield, a brave, heroic Dwarf King who has been one of the good guys, starts to get a sickness for gold and treasure himself and refuses to share any with the people who have helped him and his followers and who have, themselves, lost family and homes to the dragon. It’s not just magic. When he is dying, he tells Hobbit Bilbo Baggins that the world might be a better place if more people enjoyed the simple pleasures of life like the Hobbits. He was vulnerable to the gold fever that overtook him because of something in him, not just the dragon’s evil. Thorin might have made an interesting, three-dimensional villain. But he died first, repentant. 

Darth Vader was a villain until he died in his son’s arms, repenting what he had done. But he was never totally evil in the first three movies. His men didn’t seem to be afraid of him and could discuss the issues at hand, and he would explain why he was doing what he was. He kept the powers of the Dark Side to use against those who made the mistake of not taking him seriously. When he was sneered at for his belief in this out of date religion, he casually choked the man who was sneering and wiped out that laugh. At the end of the second movie, he let our heroes escape and I have to say, it was this scene that convinced me he actually was Luke’s father, despite all the arguments fans had about it afterwards. 

It did spoil the character for me when he was shown in his youth as a whining young man who had no problem with killing even small children. This was supposed to be the explanation of why he turned to the Dark Side, because he was lied to, and was afraid of losing his wife, yadda yadda... However, I preferred the Vader of the original trilogy, whom I felt I understood better. 

In fact, a lot of fans at the time felt the same. A friend of mine, Nikki White, wrote a series of fan stories with him as the hero, before she even saw the second movie. His armour is a cultural thing rather than something to protect him. There was a fan written novel in which Vader has, in fact, been sponsoring scientists to come up with remedies for the injuries he received when he had an accident with the Force. So when the rebels defeat the Empire, he just takes off his armour and flees. The authors had only seen the first film. There has to be something about a villain who can inspire so much fan fiction in which he is the hero, from only one film. 

The Harry Potter series has a number of splendid villains. There is, of course, Lord Voldemort, whom we eventually meet as a horrible child. He has, in fact, never been a decent person or even understandable. He comes from a family we might call the Ewells of Harry Potter, but he wasn’t brought up by them. By the time Dumbledore comes to pick him up from the orphanage, he has already done nasty things to other children there, and though he is treated kindly at Hogwarts, he is already a villain in waiting. But even he gets a little bit of compassion from the author when she says that Hogwarts has been the only home for the two orphan boys, Tom Riddle and Harry Potter. He had a chance to repent, but couldn’t. 

However, there are other villains in the series. Professor Umbrage, that dreadful woman we first met in The Order Of The Phoenix may have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but she is totally believable as someone who is happy to grab the chance for power when offered, even if it’s a petty power over the staff and students of Hogwarts. There are people like that in any place where power is abused and I can assure you, she is real. I once had to work with a Principal so like her that my jaw dropped as I first read the book. How, I wondered, did this author know?  But there are others like her in real life. They are known as workplace psychopaths. 

There are other villains in these novels who are more than just two-d mini-Saurons. Bellatrix Lestrange, that Voldemort groupie, is one of them. She is truly evil, but she does love her sister Narcissa and both of them were kind enough to Kreecher the family house-elf to get him on side. In fact, Hermione is the one who realises that our heroes have been treating him badly, mainly because Sirius Black didn’t like him, while Narcissa and Bellatrix were kind to him. Sirius is one of the good guys, but had nothing but contempt for Kreecher - and showed it. 

Narcissa and her husband, Lucius Malfoy, are Death Eaters all right, but in the end, they realise that their son, Draco, is more important to them than the Cause. 

Draco is the baddie of most of the series, but by the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, has become just a frightened teenage boy - and Dumbledore believes he has a soul worth saving. In Deathly Hallows, he doesn’t give Harry away to his evil aunt, though he clearly  recognises him, and he nearly dies later in the novel rather than leave behind Goyle in the burning Room of Requirement. So, a villain with a bit more to him than we might think. And - May I give one tiny spoiler for The Cursed Child? He is not a villain any more in that one and he had one delightful line: “I’m being bossed around by Hermione Granger - and I’m enjoying it!”

I won’t include Severus Snape, who may not be nice, but isn’t a villain in the end. But there are far more villains in that series than I can list here. 

I’ll finish with a novel that doesn’t seem to have any villains, but sort of does, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. In it, a demon, Crowley, and an angel, Azirophale,  are working together to prevent the end of the world, which is not far away. Crowley was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, under  orders to “get up there and make some trouble.” Azirophale was the angel with the flaming sword at the gate, but felt sorry for Adam and Eve and gave it to them to keep warm. They like it on earth and don’t want to see it destroyed. 

  The Antichrist has been born, but the baby went to the wrong family and has been brought up by an ordinary English couple in a peaceful village, instead of an American diplomat and his wife. As a result, the boy is human and a nice kid, but that isn’t going to stop the forces of heaven and hell from fighting it out, not as good versus evil, but just because both sides believe they can win. So, really, I’d argue that Heaven and Hell are both the villains, willing to wipe out the planet just because they can. 

What about you? Who are your favourite villains? 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

#AtoZ Challenge: U is for Unicorn!

Today’s theme is unicorns. They have appeared visually and in writing for centuries. 

Public Domain . By Maerten de Vos 1532-1603

Did you know unicorns were mentioned in the Bible? Well, the King James Version, anyway. The translators who translated from Hebrew to Greek thought the word should be “monoceros” and the Latin word for that was “unicornis” and... Never mind. And never mind that the creature concerned was probably a single-horned now extinct wild ox or maybe even a rhinoceros. 

Apparently, they are all over the place, including the ancient Indus Valley. 

So, what do we know about them? They really should have cloven hooves and a goat’s beard and tail. Calling someone unicorn bait means they are virgins, as unicorns were supposed to calm down when a virgin came along, so they were used to trap the unicorn. What would you do with the animal? One legend is that the horn purified your drink so you wouldn’t be poisoned. There were quite a few of those horns around in the Middle Ages, probably taken from narwhals, which are known as the unicorn of the sea. 

Let’s check out unicorn appearances in some fiction.

Admiral Kirilli and Maggie the unicorn by Robert Jan

They appear in Harry Potter, of course, twice. The Potterverse unicorns are the traditionally beautiful white creatures, innocent and glowing. Drinking silvery unicorn blood will save your life, but the side effects are not pleasant.  In The Philosopher’s Stone Voldemort gets Professor Quirrel to drink it for him. In The Goblet Of Fire, the replacement teacher, Professor Grubbly-Plank, teaches the class about unicorns in Care Of Magical Creatures, while Hagrid is hiding out in embarrassment. After studying Blast-Ended Skrewts, the unicorn is a relief. 

The Once And Future King has a unicorn hunt, by the Orkney princes, who get a peasant girl to come along as their virgin. They kill it, cut its head off and... regret it. 

Unicorns are not always shown as pleasant creatures in fiction. In Terry Pratchett’s Lords And Ladies, the unicorn is the pet of the thoroughly nasty Queen of Faerie. It’s insane and when it comes out into the human world, it runs around menacing and killing. But a virgin can still tame it. And one does. She is able to bring it into the village using a single hair from her head, and has the blacksmith give it silver shoes. It is just an animal, she says, and not responsible for what it has done. 

Another scary unicorn appears in Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. Peter Grant is a policeman and a wizard in training. In the course of the novel Foxglove Summer, our hero encounters the fairy otherworld and a terrifying unicorn that can and will kill you. It’s connected with a couple of little girls who think it’s something out of My Little Pony. 

Then again, there are unicorns which are not vicious, but not pretty either. In Gillian Polack’s The Wizardry Of Jewish Women, a mother and daughter perform a spell that brings a Shetland pony sized  unicorn into their garden. 

The first place I ever saw a Shetland unicorn was on Lost In Space, where daughter Penny Robinson finds one on another planet. It sounds a bit silly, but I got the idea from this episode and used it in my own fiction - first in Star Trek fan fiction, then in my YA novel Wolfborn

In Wolfborn, a mediaeval werewolf novel, a young man called Armand has been bragging about his many girls. However, when he is stuck in Faerie with his mountain pony, Dapple, he discovers to his horror that Dapple is a disguised unicorn - it’s a self defence thing, to make them less attractive to hunters. In Faerie, they appear as they really are. Armand’s best friend, Etienne(the novel’s hero) falls about laughing. Armand is not impressed. 

There are plenty more references to unicorns in fiction, but these are a few I have read(or written!). What about you?