Tough Travels: Fairy Tales are Not Just Stories



Each Thursday, inspired by ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ we have in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.


Fairy tales are real in fantasy land.  They may seem like stories told to kids, but in fantasyland they are very, very real.

Ok, it is Wednesday night and I just remembered Tough Travels.  But this is too good a topic to ignore, so here goes!

Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett – This actually comes to pass more than once in Discworld but Witches Abroad is the most obvious example; people can be shaped by stories.  So when the Fairy Godmother will stop at nothing to make sure the story turns out right…

Well, lets just say it may take a coven of ugly witches to make sure that people matter more than the story.  (I also wonder how much of Shrek 2 was borrowed from this particular book).

Dreamer's Pool (Blackthorn & Grim, #1)Dreamer’s Pool -Juliet Marillier – ‘Once upon a time Juliet Marillier wrote a fairy tale and it was wonderful.’  I just quoted my own review.  I thought this was an original story but it turns out it is very loosly based on an old fairy tale, The Goose Girl.  Thanks to random stranger Natalie on Goodreads for letting me know.  And if you didn’t know, this book was wonderful.

Snow Glass Apples by Neil Gaiman and Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente – Snow White was a boring movie and a fairy tale I could care less about.  Yet two of my favorite literary remakes of fairy tales are based around it.  Go figure. Snow Glass Apples could be read in a about five minutes and can be found all over the interwebz.

Join us next week as we look at MILITARY GENIUS

Let’s face it.  Fantasy life is often a life of war.  One can only hope to serve under a commander who has some clue what they are doing.

If you have a topic you want to see us cover, or if you have an entry for next week’s post but don’t have your own blog to put it on, please head over to the main Tough Traveling page and fill out the form at the bottom.  For a list of upcoming topics just keep heading back to this post.

As always thanks for joining, feel free to join along at any time, and please check out my fellow travelers!

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Reviews: ‘Last Song Before Night’ by Ilana C. Myer and ‘Updraft’ by Fran Wilde

UpdraftOn the surface there is almost nothing to compare between Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer and Updraft by Fran Wilde. Last Song Before Night is a very generic fantasy world with a seemingly unique hook. Magic in the form of poetry has been made mostly impotent and after a string of murders a small group works to bring back the magic against the wishes of the royal poet who still seems to control it. With the power of language right at the front this had potential to be a fantasy with something to say. Updraft on the other hand is a world I have never seen before; living towers growing high above the clouds house the remnants of humanity. With people relying on gliders for travel and trial by (air) combat one could rightfully expect this to be an action adventure with a bit of weird.

In both cases my expectations were wrong; once for the better and the other, unfortunately, not. So why am I comparing these two books?

Let me lay down a promotional quote for one of these books.

‘Themes of censorship, patriarchy, feminism, and the power of art as an engine for social change run throughout…’

Now to be fair I realize the author has nothing to do with these quotes and more than once I have seen books get a bad shake from their promotional material. But in this case I think the quote is quite favorable for the book in question; certainly I do believe that there was a general aim to look at censorship, patriarchy, etc in the book in question. I compare these two books because while the above quote was meant to promote Last Song Before Night I think it was given to the wrong book.

Yes it is Updraft that surprised me, a much deeper book than the high flying (catch that pun?) premise put out front. In this very solid debut we see a land where language, and especially songs, can be used to control the populous. Those truly in power have very different versions of the songs being used to teach.  They also control their secrets religiously. Yet in this sky based world there is the illusion of fairness to the system of oppression, in part because the oppressors have some real justifications for what they do. In fact they believe whole heartedly what they do is for the best. And so trial by combat is allowed; with challengers having the chance to take on the guardians who control them. But even here the illusion is easily broken; silence is a must and the trials themselves are of course questionable in their credibility.

So Updraft looks at censorship in some depth. It also looks at ‘art as an engine for social change.’ Living is sky cities paper is obviously not a possibility and as such writing is at a premium. Small pieces of carved bone, with a combination of symbolism and art, is one of the driving catalyst that moves things forward. And while it is hard as a cis male to make any claims to know feminism I would humbly proclaim that a land where an ingrained patriarchy is not present (evidenced by the fact that the young protagonists’ gender is never a hindrance) is a good example of breaking from some common fantasy pitfalls that promote a patriarchal worldview.

‘Themes of censorship, patriarchy, feminism, and the power of art as an engine for social change run throughout…’

On the other hand I read Last Song Before Night. It had a very generic setting seen often in Last Song Before Nightfantasy; that of royals, nobles behaving badly, and an ingrained patriarchy that leaves nothing for the women outside of drudgery (and prostitution or course). To rise above this bland background it was a book that needed a strong hook. And that hook was supposed to be poetry as magic. It pulled me in, I love the thought of a book looking into the power or language in a new way. Language is powerful, magical language should be even better. Unfortunately the lost magic of poetry was treated as nothing more than a lost magic. The poetry, and the language of it, it didn’t matter at all; it could have been any generic lost relic that was causing magic to fail and had the same effect within this story. With that realization the censorship being enforced by the Court Poet was no longer a complex act; it was just an evil power grab. There was no subtlety, no complexity, no reason to really get interested.

Once the realization came that there was no subtle play looking into censorship or the power of language the whole book unraveled for me. Because the lack of subtlety became a theme throughout. The most evil poet in the land is evil. The main character is fighting patriarchy… kind of. Really she is getting away with a little bit that other women can’t because of some lucky influence. When she does make a breakthrough it is unconvincing; a powerful man says it is OK so suddenly she is a trailblazer. A secondary villain is a stock bad guy; beats women, kills for fun, and plays cruel games of seduction. Only a couple of characters had any depth that allowed them to seem human i.e. make and learn from mistakes.

The problem was not that Last Song Before Night was badly written rather that it never holds up to its promise. It is perfectly readable, and while I am not a fan of dreamland like dimensions used to wrap things up I would say it is solidly plotted throughout. It just lacked any kind of depth and wasn’t the type of book trying to overcome that shortcoming with action. This made it an easy to read but never engaging story. It was a book that I was looking forward to ending, which probably sums up my feelings better than anything else.

Compare to Updraft and the difference is night and day. I said Updraft has surprising depth but it also had a great amount of action. It was easy to read and ultra-captivating; mixing death defying acts of flight with some real soul. It succeeds in mixing its pace up so as never to overload the reader. And I was racing to the final page not to get it over with but because I really had to know how it would all end.

Two books, nothing at all alike outside of seemingly having some similar themes to explore. I wish I could have loved them both but I am very glad to have read Updraft.

Tough Travels – The Good Thief


Did I like The Grim Company, Scull’s epic fantasy debut from last year? Of course I did. Hardly over hyped it was the type of book that felt designed to hit all the right notes of a popular series. Yet despite its familiarity almost by the numbers feel (*cough* First Law *cough) I never felt that it was derivative of the works it could be compared to. It took a well-worn feel and gave it a life of its own. I immediately was ready for Sword of the North to come out so I could continue the adventure.

Sword of the North is a very different animal than its predecessor despite keeping the same general feel. The Grim Company had its feet firmly planted in the Grimdark thing (call it a genre, sub-genre or whatever have you). It started with a man using magic to drop half an ocean onto a rival’s city after all. From there it followed a familiar path of people trying hard and ultimately failing in their futile efforts; that things were only going to get worse was perfectly clear.

I felt there was actually a bit of hope, a bit less chance of tragedy, hell a little bit of happiness hidden in a few pages. Don’t get me wrong, this book still walks on the darker side of fantasy complete with high body counts, betrayals by people you actually like and nasty people getting big wins. But unlike ‘grimdark’ books I found that characters I have liked through two books have for the most part stayed likable. I feel that there are people who actually care in this world, which of course takes out some of the caricature feel common in dark fantasy. What’s more, some characters actually show some will to improve themselves. What a concept! We are halfway to a comedy (by classical definition).

We continue to follow characters met in the first book; Brodar Kayne as he heads North to check on a rumor about his family along with the grim man who goes by Wolf. Cole, who should be a celebrated hero for his deeds in book one, instead wakes up in a penal colony. Sasha, following her sister into a confrontation with The White Lady (would be savior from The Grim Company). And the half-mage; a man digging into secrets that could prove important at a later date (and pissing off important people while doing so). The land is learning that anyone powerful to dispose of a despot should probably be looked into, war is coming to the north (with the help of some barely under control demons) and lots of dying people is pretty much inevitable.

I enjoyed each of these character’s paths, save one. The story’s expanded scope, and an overall villain much more interesting that that who ruled the first book, was well woven and entertaining. Minor anachronisms are forgiven (and Pulp Fiction homages are noted but ultimately ignored) for sake of a good read. But the grizzled barbarian who helped carry the first book, one Brodar Kayne, was given the short end of the story this time around. It felt like the author knew what to do with each piece of his puzzle save this one. So on a travel quest he goes! Picking up as large of a quest party as possible along the way, one piece at a time, just to keep the story going I suppose. It led to an entire POV that I wanted to skip each time it came up, never a good thing and for this reader slowed the story down greatly.

This is a shame because in a lot of ways I think Scull is giving us a more creative and in depth story this time around in every other aspect. As inevitable as ‘same as the old boss’ style mechanics may be it always breaks the heart when it turns out to be true. And the new bosses minions are one of those little unique touches that always makes me smile when I read fantasy. I can safely say that for the most part this book clicked all around for me. It just falls into that common trap of having too many pages that don’t add anything to the story.

3 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.


U.S./Canada Giveaway: ‘Robot Universe’ by Ana Matronic

I have a treat for everyone today.  Ana Matronic is best know as the co-lead singer of Scissor Sisters, a wonderful band that my wife and I love to sing along with.  She also is apparently a robot enthusiast and has taken her life long love to the obvious next step; writing a book about them!  Robot Universe is a non-fiction book that looks at all things robots, from the ancient past to the far future.  Thanks to the good folk at Sterling I have a beautiful hardcover copy to giveaway to one lucky reader.

I don’t even have to hype this, the promotional material is awesome on its own, check it out!

image002Explore the Robot Universeand discover the hundred most epic androids and automatons from myth, through popular culture, to modern-day machines. Robot aficionado Ana Matronic—vocalist with world-famous band Scissor Sisters—explores their creation, design, purpose, and how they have comforted, fascinated, or terrified us across the ages and galaxies, profiling key sidekicks, servants, saviors, murder machines, cyborgs, and others in every genre. In-depth features cover special focus topics, such as robots in art and fashion, video games and comics, and music. This richly illustrated collection deftly shows how we have defined and redefined robots, why they capture our imagination, and why they’re here to stay, ending with a look at real-life robots from early prototypes to what lies in our robotic future.

image004About the author:

Ana Matronic is a musician, performer, radio presenter, DJ, and visual artist best known as the female lead of the internationally acclaimed band Scissor Sisters. A lifetime of loving robots inspired her stage name as well as the bionic circuitry tattoo on her right arm. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Seth Kirby, and her cat, Izzy.


I am looking forward to diving in and I assume you are too.  Just fire up the rafflecopter below and good luck to each participant.

This Contest ended 10/25/15 – Thanks to all participants.

Tough Travels – Pure Good



Sci-Fi Review: ‘Ancillary Mercy’ by Anne Leckie

Over at The Speculative Herald I posted a review of Ancillary Mercy.  I really, REALLY liked Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)it.  Find it HERE.

How does a series with galaxy spanning implications draw to a close without leaving a small, singular section of space? More importantly how does it do so in a satisfying manner when dealing with an opponent that has unlimited bodies spread all over space? Pay attention friends, this is how a series is done right.

Lisa asked me to be an occasional contributor to her wonderful new site.  I wont be the most frequent poster over there but expect to see me once in a while; at least until my inability to meet a deadline or contain my profanity forces her to kick me off.

Fantasy Review Barn will still be my home but I would like to see my writing spread around a bit.