‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.
In the words of Emily Dickinson: “A little madness in the spring be wholesome even for the king” and, indeed, all over the world this season seems to be perpetually associated with madness, magic and mysticism. In the western world, spring is associated with two festivals in particular: May Day and Beltane. Traditionally an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, the pagan festival of May Day lost its religious character when much of Europe became Christianized. However, it still remained a national holiday in many countries and in the 20th and 21st centuries many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again. Also revived in recent years was the Celtic festival of Beltane (or ‘Bel’s fire’, named in honour of the deity Belenus), when fires were lit to signal the beginning of summer. However, spring festivals are by no means limited to Europe – in India the season sees the celebration of the raucous festival of colours known as Holi; Akitu was the spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia; and in Vietnam the celebration of Tet in February marks both the New Year and the beginning of spring. After a winter that (at least on this side of the pond) seems to have gone on forever, now seems the perfect time to celebrate the rites of spring.
This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you’re writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building – i.e. creating an entire world out of one’s head and putting it on a page – is a defining characteristic of fantasy fiction. Sadly, at least half of those worlds are rubbish - and I say that with the dubious benefit of having read as much of the good half as the bad half over the years! I’m far from the only one who finds this frustrating – no less a fantasy luminary than Ursula Le Guin once vented her annoyance at poorly written fantasy in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie about forty years ago. As a well-educated intellectual as well as a gifted author, her main criticism concerned the style of language employed. For Le Guin, the world that is created is indistinguishable from the words that build it. I personally think that she’s onto something – after all, her fantasy world of Earthsea is a grand example of what J R R Tolkien once called a ‘secondary universe’. But what is it that separates the likes of Earthsea and Middle Earth from the slew of identikit fantasy dross that plagues our bookshelves (and online stores for that matter) today?
From the beginning of time the subject of angels has inspired mankind. An angel is usually understood to be a supernatural being or spirit, usually humanoid in form, found in various religions and mythologies all over the world. They are intermediaries between God and mankind and it is chiefly as divine messengers (the word ‘angel’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘messenger’) that angels appear in the religious stories of Christians, Muslims, Jews and a number of other faiths. Another of the tasks of angels is said to be the care of human beings, each of whom is supposed to have a ‘guardian angel’ to help to protect them from evil. For some reason music always seems to be intrinsically associated with angels – poets and others have imagined them as a vast choir in the heavens. Whilst angels are supposed to be invisible to human beings, except on special occasions, artists and writers have imagined them as having human form and they are often represented with wings. There are said to be nine different types of angels: they are seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels and, lastly, angels. The malicious nephilim, meanwhile, are the half-breed offspring of angels and humans. Angels have inspired artists, musicians and writers over the ages to create poems, songs, paintings and fantasy novels. Angels, both good and bad, appear in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the TV series Supernatural and Daniella Trussoni’s bestselling novel Angelology. What has caused so many to surrender to the lure of angels and follow them into the most haunting reaches of the imagination?
James P Blaylock is one of the finest writers of ‘American magical realism’ (a genre which he virtually invented single-handedly), and is noted for a distinctive, humorous style, as well as being one of the pioneers of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The diversity of his writing is impressive, as I’ll go on to hopefully illustrate, but the best words to use to describe a typical Blaylock novel include ‘thoughtful’, ‘moving’, ‘unsettling’ and, of course, ‘unique’. Blaylock lives in California, which provides the setting for much of his work – including the fine novels Land of Dreams, The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, Night Relics, The Rainy Season and Winter Tides – all highly recommended. Notwithstanding the title of this post, although he is the author of several steampunk novels, Blaylock’s output is by no means limited to this sub-genre and he has also written straight fantasy, children’s fiction and short stories published in a variety of magazines and small press editions. As mentioned above, many of Blaylock’s books can specifically be termed magic realism - a genre where magical elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. He and his friends, fellow steampunk luminaries Tim Powers and K W Jeter were mentored by none other than Philip K Dick himself and it is arguable that Blaylock has already left behind a body of work that is comparable to Dick’s in its quality and influence.
As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
For the Celts and ancient Britons, most features of the landscape were imbued with significance. Fires caused by lightning were sacred, bogs were evil, and there was not a mountain, tree, river or spring that did not have its own spirit. Amid such numinous surroundings it was unwise to tread carelessly, for fear of offending the gods, and respect was shown by the making of offerings. The Celtic deities of the natural world were often synonymous with the places themselves. Trees in particular were revered as symbols of seasonal death and rebirth, and they also formed a bridge between the earth and the heavens. The greatest tree of all was the oak, from which pagan priests collected their sacred mistletoe. Oak trees feature strongly in Welsh myth, where they are often associated with magic. In the story of Lleu, oak blossom was one of the flowers used to conjure up the fair maiden Blodeuwedd. Among the holiest of all sacred places were oak groves, and the word nemeton (‘grove’ or ‘sanctuary’) is found in numerous ancient Celtic place-names, such as Nemetobriga (“Exalted Grove”) in Spain, Drunemeton (“Oak Grove”) in Galatia, and in present-day Nymet and Nympton in Devon. But the respect afforded to trees may well have been tinged with a healthy degree of fear, for there was also a dark side to the veneration of the ancient oakwoods. Anglesey’s sacred groves, for instance, may also have been the scene of ritual human sacrifice, if Roman sources are to be believed. The wisdom of the trees, it seems, was often bought at a steep price.
As someone who has been reading The Wheel of Time saga right from the very beginning – that’s almost two dozen years of my life – writing a review of the final book was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Sad, inevitably, because, like it or not, the wheel has finally turned full circle and this really is the end; happy, hopefully, because the series could (and should) go out on a high note. Once I finished reading A Memory of Light I did indeed feel a conflicting range of emotions – but not the ones I was expecting! Yes, there was sadness, yes, there was joy, but there was also irritation, frustration, resentment and more than a little confusion. I purposely avoided Amazon and every other site that might have featured a review of the book until I finished it, for fear of spoilers and other people’s views colouring my own experience of AMOL. Once I did look at the reviews of the finale of the WOT I have to say my confusion only grew. Take the US Amazon page for example – at the time of writing it featured around 400 five-star ratings and 300 one-star ratings! I’ll go into more detail concerning the reasons for this massive diversity of reviews but, suffice to say, I found that I had very little in common with the opinions of those at either end of the spectrum. Instead, I found myself nodding as I read many of the two, three and four-star reviews. If that’s the sort of rating that those of you reading this post gave AMOL then you might agree with a lot of the things that I’m about to say – equally you might find yourself violently disagreeing! Either way, this is my own like-it-or-leave-it, bias-free, non-commercial take on the final volume of the series which, more than any other (sorry George R R Martin fans!), has dominated the fantasy bookshelves for the past two decades.
When pagan gods are mentioned, it’s fair to say that some pantheons are rather better known than others. Most people in the western world are fairly familiar with the likes of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades from the Greek pantheon; Odin, Thor and Loki from the Norse Aesir; and the Egyptian deities Ra, Isis and Set. However, few can name even one of the pagan gods of the Chinese, the Japanese or the native tribes of North and South America, Australasia or Africa. The Loa, for instance, are West African deities, transplanted through slavery to the Caribbean and the New World in the 17th century. They are best known as the gods of the Voodoo or Voudon religion, called upon to raise zombies by black magic practitioners in any number of horror B-movies. Both the Loa and Voudon in general are, however, at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented by the mainstream – largely because so little is known about it in comparison to other faiths. Also, make no mistake, Voudon is very much a living, breathing religion in many parts of the world and the Loa are regarded by those who follow this faith as all too real. So be careful when you speak of the Loa, lest you call down their attention upon you…
The Elves of Middle Earth, also known as the Eldar, the Quendi and the Firstborn, stand at the absolute heart of Tolkien’s legendarium. Even though the word ‘Elf’ existed long before anyone heard of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, today the Elf is a very different creature because of Tolkien’s writings. The oldest and wisest people of Middle Earth, the Elves possess great nobility and power. They do not age, nor do they die, unless wounds, grief or some artifice of the Enemy takes hold of them and ends their existence. To other peoples they seem at once aged and ageless, possessing the lore and wisdom of experience, together with the joyful nature of youth. But above all, they are the only race never to have willingly served the Shadow. For they revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. But in their hearts, they also possess great sadness, knowing that all things pass, and that they cannot preserve them. It is this melancholic aspect of the Elves which makes them so central to Tolkien’s mythology, for they seem to encapsulate one of the major themes of his writing – the passing of ‘The Elder Days’, of a more enlightened and spiritual age, and the loss of its ideals in the face of the relentless rise of man and modernity. But this characteristic also links them with the Elves of folklore who, as depicted in fairy tales like The Elves and the Shoemaker, at first appear very different from Tolkien’s firstborn – smaller and more frivolous in every way. However, it is possible, however unlikely, to link the two conceptions of Elves, if one takes into account Tolkien’s explanation for their literal and metaphorical ‘dwindling’ – an explanation which involves them fighting the inevitable extinction of their species, better known as the ‘Long Defeat’. For this, however, we must go back to the very beginning, and Tolkien’s earliest inspirations for the children of Varda.