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George Lucas on Storytelling

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George Lucas interviewed by Dasha Zhukova (Garage, Fall/Winter 2016):

The art of telling stories began even before language, with images. Before humans could talk, we drew pictures. In the beginning, the pictures were of animals, because we worshipped animals. Our whole existence depended on an antelope coming at the right time of year. Our world was defined by these great mysteries, and the mysteries were shared through art.

Mythology has been the content of art for thousands of years – it’s a key component of the glue that binds a society together. Humans are, by nature, fearful, so they crave something that makes them comfortable. When we are faced with things we do not understand, we get very nervous, which creates chaos.

We needed something to help us comprehend things larger than ourselves. Religion and mythology helped us make sense of them. For a long time, nightfall seemed like the end of the world. People thought, “What if it doesn’t get light again – what if it just stays dark?” The idea that somebody – a god or goddess – was carrying a large torch across the sky in a chariot made us feel safer.

In order to build a society that’s bigger than one family, there had to be commonality. We collectively decided on a religion, on the rules, on why you should follow the king – because he’d done all these great exploits. To pull all these things together, we started telling stories.  

I suspect this will give any anthropologist kittens. But setting aside the pseudo-historical handwavery, there's something immensely powerful, and joyous, about the idea that that stories build commonality. Great (pop) cultural events pull people together - irregardless of background, demographics, politics, you name it. We may not be alike in any other sense, except that we love Star Wars. We have nothing in common, except for Harry Potter. That's why this stuff is important: fantasy worlds, built well, create new places for us to meet one another.

/steps off soapbox

/watches Rogue One again


A Closed and Common Orbit, Moonraker's Bride and The Season

Moonrakers BrideHappy almost Valentine's Day!

To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified. 

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Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one. 

Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.

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Moorcock's 100 Best Fantasy Books [with Links!]

The Worm Ouroboros
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (Illustration by Keith Henderson)

Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn's Fantasy: The 100 Best Books is a terrific selection of classic (Western) fantasy. Organised chronologically, the authors' reviews are a combination of passionate and snarky. They make for very fun reading.

Below, I've pulled out all 100 books (100+, really, as there are a few series), and added links to free, legal sources where I could find them. (Publication dates and titles are as the authors had them. Where possible, I've left series together, even when it screws with chronology.)

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The Wizards and the Warriors & The Kings of the Wyld

Wizards and the WarriorHugh Cook's The Wizards and the Warriors (1987) has one of those timelessly awful late-1980s covers, and a generic cover quote - saying it'd be perfect for fans of David Eddings. In hindsight, someone in marketing really dropped the ball on this one. Maybe in the heady days of the 1980s, when Eddings was Martin, all you needed was a quest and a sword to earn that comparison. But for fantasy readers - or, hell, Eddings fans - buying the book on the strength of this platitude, Cook's debut must've come as one hell of a shock.

Wizards is, sort of, about a quest to stop an evil sorcerer. Kinda. We begin mid-journey, as three wizards have trekked halfway across the world in search of a fourth - a traitor that has unearthed an ancient artifact of doomslinging. Ostensibly linear, Wizards whirls about like the Tasmanian Devil. First, a pair of strapping mercenary warriors - in service to a corrupt local Prince - are recruited. But, well, not first, as they have their own problems to deal with before they can be convinced to join.

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Erin Lindsey's Bloodbound is back, still great

BloodboundErin Lindsey's Bloodbound was first published in 2014. The trilogy, continued with Bloodforged and concluded last year with Bloodsworn. The series is now - finally - out in the UK, which gives me an excuse to rave about it again. 

Here's how Bloodbound starts: a cavalry charge.

Alix Black, one of the scouts for the Kingdom of Alden, is watching a battle unfold. Her king is being overwhelmed by the invading forces of the Oridian empire, and, much to her horror, she can see that the King's brother is very much not executing his part of the plan. Treason is afoot, and both the King and the Kingdom are at risk.

In move that defines Alix - and to some degree, the entire series - Alix plunges recklessly into battle. There's only the slimmest chance of victory. Hell, there's only a fractional chance of survival, but Alix makes up her mind, trusts her gut and goes barrelling forward. 

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The Face in the Frost and The Obsessed

The Face in the Frost
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
(1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.

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A Planet for Texans and The School for Good and Evil

A Planet for Texans

Lone Star Planet (A Planet for Texans) by H. Beam Piper (1958) has been skulking on my shelf for ages, and, I'm pleased to say, there's (slightly) more to it than just a goofy cover. In the far future, the entire population of Texas has picked up to go settle a frontier planet - they're keen to get away from the rules and regulations and gov'mints and such. Our hero, the plucky ambassador from the Solar League, has been tasked to woo them back. There's an alien invasion on the horizon and New Texas would be better 'in the tent pissing out'... at least, so the League think.

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Two Dozen 'Five Star' Comics

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I use Goodreads weird (bear with me, this is going somewhere, eventually). I like the site as a way of tracking my reading... and that's it. I don't use it to track 'want to reads', I don't use it to discover new books, and I never, ever use it to share reviews.

And to double-weird it: I don't rate books. Except, as a visual shorthand, if I think 'this book is interesting, and I'd like to talk about it', I'll slap five stars on it. That makes it easy to sort, and leaps out when it is buried in a long list. If someone misconstrues that as an endorsement of perfection... eh... no harm done.

ANYWAY, this is all really interesting - or at least, relevant - because that has always been the way I use the site. There is, however, one notable exception: comics. For some reason, my 'five stars' for a comic book is a lot less complicated. I read a ton of comic book collections. And I stick five stars on the stuff that is really good. You know, kind of like the rest of the world uses Goodreads. Go figure. All my deeply-rooted biases against 'objective' reviewing come crashing to a halt.

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Wargames for Girls? (1964)

Vol1i3_0000Recently, I found the archives of the Avalon Hill General, easily one of the most important publications when it came to the formation of modern wargaming.

Published by Avalon Hill, and devoted to their military games, it helped to link the many, many tiny cells of wargamers around the country.

As well as rules discussion, hints, tips and challenges, the General contained regional editors (fan volunteers), an index of local players and 'want ads' for play by mail games. From a pure marketing standpoint, it was brilliant: a collection of user-generated content that turned isolated players into a community of (Avalon-Hill-Buying) regulars.

It is also a really interesting look into the demographics - and the culture - of early wargamers. There are, as you might expect, a lot of high school boys, ex- or currently serving military men, and a few middle aged men. The list of active players in the newsletters is all male (although some women may be hiding behind initials), and virtually all with Western European surnames. Basically: white guys.

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Review round-up: The SPFBO Finalists (Part 3 and Wrap-Up)

29416933The third and final batch o' SPFBO reviews: three books and a bit of wrap-up thunkery at the end.

You can read the first clump here and the second clump here and follow all the scoring from all the judges here.

The Music Box Girl by K.A. Stewart 

The gender-swapped steampunk Phantom of the Opera that you never knew you wanted! Stewart's story takes place in a shiny alt-history Detroit, complete with steam-powered robot servitors, mechanical glories and, of course, airships. 

The Music Box Girl follows three point of view characters. Tony is our Christine - he's a young man from a (hand-wavey) other country, here to make his destiny as a singer. He gets a job as a stagehand at the prestigious Detroit Opera House, but his after hours crooning earns the attention of the Opera House's very own phantom. Bess is Raoul. She's also from (wherever) and is a childhood friend of Tony. But whilst Tony is carving out a living as a prop-duster, Bess is an international tomb raider. Tired of society and its conventions, she carries guns and buckles swashes and dashes and dives in and out of adventures. But, secretly, she might be craving something a little more... romantic.

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