Cover Reveal: The Mage Chronicles

It’s here! The final cover for The Mage Chronicles:

Mage Chron front cover

The Gilded Empire: A magical empire so ancient it’s name has been forgotten to the mist of time. Its citizens believe they are in their golden age, but already the rot is showing underneath the gold veneer.

The Mage Chronicles: A mage level healer, Mary is unprepared when the Council of Mages wants her to intervene in a border dispute in a distant part of the empire. What does she know of nobility or war? Not one to back down, she must confront the harsh realities of life outside the central core, a legion of unstoppable warriors and the ghosts of her own past.

Coming soon!

Check out Aidana WillowRaven’s artwork on her webpage and see all the other incredible covers she’s done. 

 

Five Fantasy Stories to Read to your Kids

The best way to teach your kids to love books is to read to them. Here is my top five books to read to your kids. Some of them are well known classics and some are ones I’ve discovered at the back of library book sales. I’ve read all of them and I’ve read them to my son.


1. Watership Down
I have to admit that when I went to read this book to my son I hadn’t read it. I had no clue what an incredible experience we were both in for. Watership Down tells the story of a group of rabbits fleeing from a warren that has been destroyed by man. They are seeking a new home on Watership Down.
Make no mistake, this is no simplistic animal story, like so many kids books. The rabbits tell their own stories within the larger story. Their stories have a strong mythic feel to them.

2. The Hobbit
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It’s one of my favorite opening lines. I’ve read the hobbit a dozen times or more. Seriously, from junior high to high school I wrote a book report on the Hobbit every single year for nearly six years straight. The sad geeky truth is that I re-read it each time, too. Of course I introduced my son to the Hobbit as soon as he was old enough to understand the words.

3. The Magic Thief
My son actually found this book on his own in elementary school. One of his teachers was reading it aloud, a chapter every friday. He was so entranced and so eager to find out how it ended, that he checked his own copy out of the library. We took turns reading, a page each, and plowed through it over a long weekend.
One of the ongoing jokes in the book is Conn’s terrible cooking skills. One of the wizard’s other henchmen has to take over cooking just to have some bearable food. At the very end of the book there are two recipes for biscuits. We made both. Benet’s biscuits looked like biscuits and tasted great. Conn’s turned into a running pile of dough. Still my son insisted they were just as good and ate the entire batch.

4. The Harry Potter series
I discovered Harry Potter a year or two after it came to America, when it was still mostly a geek phenomena. I read the first three books to my son as I read them and then we had to wait for the next like everyone else.
I have a friend who made her son read them to her. I think that might be better approach. They grow darker and more adult as the series goes on, but if a kid is reading them for themselves, they keep pace pretty well. i.e. an eight year old isn’t going to plow through The Deathly Hallows by themselves, most likely, but if they fall in love with the first one at eight, by the time they hit number seven they’ll probably be ready for it.

5. The Hounds of the Morrigan
Pidge discovers an old Latin book at a rare book seller near the Irish cottage he shares with his Grandmother and little sister, Brigit. Opening the book, he accidentally releases an evil spirit. He and his sister must go on a mythic journey to return the serpent to it’s trapped state. Filled with celtic mythology and figures, the book is a delight to read.
I discovered this little gem by accident at the back of library sale. The spine was damaged and I picked it up for quarter. I loved the story and it became a treasured book. After my son was born, it was one of the first I read to him. We read it again later, when he was old enough to really understand the story.

Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

The recent discovery that half of Viking warriors were women has shaken a lot of people’s world view. Of course, it has also already led to a backlash of why “that’s not what the study really said.” As someone who read The Prehistory of Sex when it first came out in 1997 and who has followed this debate for some time, it’s another in a long string of studies that shows the same two things. Trying to determine the sex of remains by the type of grave goods found with them reinforces gender stereotypes and is highly inaccurate. Secondly, whether the ratio ever hit fifty percent or not, women warriors were not as uncommon as many would like to think.

The assumption of our sexist society is that our view of gender is rooted in ancient history and in practical concerns of those times. In the rugged kill or be killed world of ancient times, men were hunters and warriors and women mothers and gatherers. This is not, we have been taught, because of sexism. Men are simply stronger than women and that makes them better warriors. And yet the Vikings seem to fly in the face of all that.

Are men stronger than women?

The best answer is yes, but…

1. The Bell Curve

Statistics don’t lie, but they are a great way to mislead. Nowhere is there a better example than the relative strength of men and women.

For starters it depends a lot on how your measure strength. Men have broader shoulders and that gives them better leverage. On measures of upper body strength men tend to outperform women by a wide margin in many studies. Measures of lower body strength tend to be much closer to equal.

Men tend to be larger than women, so the average man has more muscle mass. Again this leads to men being stronger in many fitness test. But pound for pound, muscle is muscle. There is no male muscle or female muscle. If you test two people who are equally fit and have the same lean body weight, the difference evaporates.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Hernestein raised a lot of controversy by using the statistical method known as the Bell Curve to prove their sexist and racist assumptions about America. I have always found the title somewhat ironic, since the bell curve also shows the real problem with their assumptions.

If we plot a bell curve showing the average strength of men and women, we find the two curves overlap significantly. What that means is that while the average score for men might be higher, a significant percentage of the female population is stronger than the average man.

This is pretty much true of all gender based distinctions. They are true in general but the exceptions make up such a significant minority that it throws the result into question.

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

When people say things like men are x% stronger than women, many of us have this image of lining all the men and women up side by side. And the men will all lift x% more than the woman next to them. But that’s not how it works. Some of the men will be stronger than the woman next to them and some of the woman will be stronger. Once you’ve tested everyone and regrouped them according to strength, you will find more men in the stronger category, but a fair number of women as well. Do you tell this minority of women they must stay home from the war because their sex is, on average, weaker? If you are a smart Viking captain the answer will be no. Take the strong, leave the weak, regardless of gender.

2. Practical differences

The second problem with the notion that men are stronger than women is that no one questions to what extent this statistical difference translates into a practical one. According to this post on the average joe, the average man can bench press 145 pounds and the average woman 60 pounds. That’s modern Americans and that’s a pretty big difference. They can squat 165 pounds for men and 105 for women. There are a number of reasons why ancient Viking men and women were probably much closer in strength.

How important is this strength difference in combat? That’s a fair question.

Here is a list of medieval weapons with their size and weight listed. Looking at the list we see that a scandinavian sword from the ninth century was 30 inches long and weighed just under three pounds. The largest two handed sword on the list runs about 14 pounds. The common fantasy trope of a woman picking up a man’s weapon and staggering under the weight is an exaggeration at best. None of these weapons are too heavy for the average modern female to lift or swing, let alone a shield maiden.

Swing: I am transgender. I am also a hippy. I used to live in the country. We chopped wood and heated our trailer with a woodstove. I got good with an axe. I still own that land and we still go out there on the weekends. Now that I have transitioned and I don’t have the testosterone I once had, I don’t have nearly the same upper body strength. My sixteen year old son is probably stronger than me, but I can out chop him with the axe because I have more experience. The secret is to use the momentum of the axe, rather than brute force.I have no idea how I would fare on a Viking battlefield, but the same dynamic applies with swords and battle axes. It’s not always the one who can throw the most brute force behind an attack that’s going to win. A weaker warrior, with better skill and timing can bring down a stronger one readily.

People who really want to make the argument that stronger (male) is better than the weaker (female) can always look to the late medieval period, when plate armor and heavy sword and shield combinations were common. But to argue that a relative small difference in strength made women unfit to wield a Viking axe or sword is difficult at best.

Stab: So what if women’s upper body strength does translate to a disadvantage on the battlefield? The idea of two Viking men dueling mono a mono with swords is largely a myth, one they themselves perpetuate in their saga literature. Those duels were major events of the sagas, but a minor portion of their battlefield tactics. Many Vikings fought with spears. Spears are a thrusting weapon. It relies much more on lower body strength, especially in a charge. Even if you don’t have them wielding axes and swords in combat, a group of shield maidens charging with spears is just as effective as a group of men.

Shoot:  The Viking bow had a draw strength of up to 90 pounds. The average modern American woman might struggle with that, but a conditioned woman wouldn’t. And shooting a bow is a matter of skill, not brute strength. Here is another place where men and women have a practical equality even if men are statistically stronger.

Think: There is a lot more to fighting and war than charging blindly into battle. A crafty warrior often defeats a bigger, stronger one. Strength is but one factor on the battlefield. If you think women can’t be as crafty or devious as men, you don’t know many women.

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Survive: History buffs will know this already, but in ancient times it was not uncommon for armies to lose more men from starvation and disease on the way to the war then in battle. Life was difficult in the best of times. For soldiers in the field it was brutal. They marched for weeks on near starvation rations. Poor hygiene led to epidemics of disease. Poor sanitation and no knowledge of infection meant that many of those injured in battle died of infections between battles.While statistics almost invariably show men to have greater brute strength, they just as consistently show women to have greater constitutional strength. In natural disasters women tend to have a higher survival rate than men. (A lot of this can be chalked up to simple estrogen and body fat. Higher body fat gives women a bigger cushion against malnutrition.) If you are considering who to take on a long campaign with you, this might figure into your thinking. The point of all this comes to this: being able to lift more weight over your head doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better warrior, or having a better chance at survival. There are many factors and brute strength is just one of them.

3. Outliers and Modern Athletics

If the difference between men and women are insignificant, why do men outperform women in almost every athletic field today? Doesn’t that prove that the difference is significant?

Not really. The problem is the highly competitive nature of most sports and outliers. Outliers are people that fall outside the statistical norms. Because of the competitive nature of most sports, professional athletes are all outliers, people who score well outside the normal range on any number of physical measurements.

The practical issue is that even a small difference of mean scores can translate into large differences at the end. For example a bench press weight that puts you in the top 5% of men might be the top 1% of women. For a real life example, Becca Swanson, the strongest woman in America can bench press 600 pounds. The number of men who have achieved that extraordinary feat numbers about 58. Becca proves that some women can compete with men even in the arena of brute strength, but she also shows just how outnumbered the women are at that level of competition.

When you are dealing with professional athletes you get a statistical double whammy because the events and results are also at the very edge of the statistical norm. Tiny differences in conditioning and training can equal much larger differences in the end result. The fastest marathon time by a man is twelve minutes faster than the fastest time by a woman. A marathon is over 26 miles, so that man ran about 46 seconds faster each mile. Meanwhile if you compare Usain Bolt’s men’s world record 100 meter dash to Florence Joyner’s time for women, the difference is just a hair shy of one second.

And, yes, at that level of performance biologically driven difference between men and women probably plays a role. Men are larger, on average, and have bigger ribcages and that means more capacity to move oxygen (critical to running). Men have more testosterone and other androgens, which play a critical role in conditioning. However the more research I do, the less conclusive the results seem. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that pound for pound, a conditioned female athlete is equal to a male athlete, there’s just fewer of them around.

 

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

Nothing, and that’s my whole point.

If King Haakon is picking the biggest, strongest warriors in all of Norway to be in his bodyguard, there is a good chance that it will stacked with more men, because men tend to be bigger. But if the average chieftain is deciding who gets to carry a spear and defend the village at need, there is likely to be a more even mix. A one second difference in rushing speed isn’t going to make a big practical difference when both runners are carrying spears and trying to spill your blood.

Conclusion

While this new finding may have shocked many, those familiar with Norse history expected as much. A generation of archaeologists and palaeontologists have been questioning the age old practice of sexing remains based on burial goods. It has created self reinforcing gender stereotypes. We assume that only men are warriors and only warriors would be buried with weapons. Then we assume any grave that contains weapons must be a male grave. As forensic science and DNA testing becomes more important tools, we are discovering these assumptions wrong.

Those of who have read some of Iceland’s great saga literature will know that it was a far more egalitarian society than later medieval Europe. Shield maidens, women warriors  and strong independent women in general abound. Those who doubt that Viking women were as tough as their men, might find an axe buried in their chest.

 

Hiding in Plain View

The Science Fiction community is reeling as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter has come forward with allegations that she was sexually abused by her mother. MZB was a prolific writer, writing dozens of books in the Darkover series alone. She ran a science fiction/fantasy magazine that bore her name and helped an entire generation of writers get started down the road to publication.

The book she was best known for was The Mists of Avalon, a feminist retelling of the Arthurian saga. It earned her a strong following in feminist circles and a cult like following of fans who are now struggling to cope with this news.

I would l like say I was shocked by the revelation. But just a few months ago I stumbled across this thread, now sadly prophetic.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 10.18.46 AM

This was not the first time that I have seen someone question that one line in particular. Defenders of MZB say she is describing a primitive world where these things did, in fact, happen. She’s doing so with a stark honesty that is rare in any literature. They say this is one line in a book that runs over three hundred pages. How much can we read into one line?

This is not the first such revelation to come out of the Bradley household. Her second husband Walter Breen was a serial pedophile. He spent the final years of his life in jail on eight counts of felony child molestation and MZB faced a civil trial over her enabling behavior. While there are still those who will defend MZB’s literary achievements, almost no one is doubting these new allegations.

The new defense of MZB is that she’s been dead for fifteen years. Hundreds of fans have grown up loving and cherishing her work. She inspired a generation of new writers and helped them start their careers. Should we tarnish that with the details of her personal failings?

I have written before and about good books by bad authors. Much of that blog would seem to apply to MZB. She’s dead. Unlike Orson Scott Card’s homophobia, buying her books no longer puts money in her pocket or indirectly supports her cause. With the exception of that one line in The Mists of Avalon, her personal failings, as heinous as they were, don’t seem to have any obvious connection to her writing. It would be easy to join those voices and say, what she did was wrong but it doesn’t change her books.

There are two flaws in the argument. The first is that while MZB may be dead, her daughter and victim is not. History may be able to separate MZB crimes from her writing, but I can not. To dismiss what she did is to dismiss the very real damage done to real people who are still alive. Moira Greyland, MZB’s daughter, stayed silent about her abuse because she felt her mother’s life and reputation was somehow more important than her own. She deserves to be heard, because her life is every bit as important. If a writer or fan has a positive memory of MZB, that’s wonderful, but let’s not use those memories to silence or dismiss the pain of her victims.

The other problem with separating MZB writing and public reputation from her abuse is that silence is a big part of the problem. The Catholic church shunted pedophiles from one parish to another because their superiors didn’t want to confront the problem head on and in many cases the men had served the church well in other ways. All too often abusers are allowed to resign, quit or retire, rather than face prosecution. For those in charge it offered a quick easy solution to a messy problem, but for society it creates an even bigger problem, where pedophiles escape prosecution again and again.

Shades of the same language crop up in defense of MZB. She was a good writer, a good editor and to some, a good friend. So? Pedophiles can be nice to people who aren’t their victims. Pointing these things out does little but dismiss the victim. When we dismiss the victim, we create an environment where the next victim doesn’t feel safe coming forward. And the abuse continues.

I am raising a son with one foot in science fiction fandom and the other in the neo-pagan community. MZB’s writing has been incredibly influential in both communities and likely will remain so, despite these revelations.

We have a choice. We can use this revelation as an opportunity to discuss abuse openly. We can let other victims come forward, share their stories. We can talk about how to spot signs of abuse, ask what needs to be done to make Sci-fi cons and pagan festivals safer. Or we can dismiss the allegations and wonder later how our communities became havens for abusers.

 

5 things that happen in fantasy that would never happen in real life

It’s not just big things, like magic or non-human creatures. Here are some small flaws that happen in fantasy all the time, but would never fly in real life.

1. New guy looks okay so let’s trust him with our lives.

We’ve all encountered some version of this. A new character shows up. After a few minutes suspicion, the other characters decide he’s an okay chap and then never doubt him again. Not once. Ever. I don’t know about you, but I am on the fence about new friends for several weeks, even months sometimes. They seem like okay people and I treat them like they are okay people, but I don’t really trust them until I have known them for awhile or we have been through some tough times.

2. Hey, let’s go for a three week hike in armor, with no supplies.

Seriously, how often to fantasy characters take off on long treks with essentially nothing? Tolkien has his fellowship trekking all over the middle earth with the flimsy excuse of Lembas. Yeah, it’s elven but, come on. A few loaves of bread? That’s all it takes to keep a dwarf in chainmail up and going for weeks of hard hiking? I don’t buy it. And did you see the lembas in the movies? That was a meal?
Even if we accept that an oversized cracker is somehow a meal, thanks to elvish magic, how many pieces do they have? You and I eat three times a day. A harden medieval warrior might be used to one solid meal, but it would have to be a solid meal.
Tolkien at least made an effort. So many of his copy cats have huge forces setting off at a word, with no reference to any sort of supplies, tents, hiking gear, often for months. How do these people survive?

3. This dull sword will chop through any armor.

Real swords don’t work that way, just so you know. Given that it’s fantasy, I will give you one or two magic swords that are razor sharp. But some heroes can seemingly pick up any sword and chop through metal plates like they were butter. Real life weapons don’t work that way, no matter how great the warrior wielding it is.
Don’t even get started on types of swords, that is whole different rant.

4. The fate of the world will be in this boy’s hand someday. Let’s stick him on some farm and not tell him.

I have never understood why the wizards or other powers-that-be never think of actually training the chosen one. What if Belgarath and Aunt Pol in the Belgariad had said, “you know this kid is going to have to fight a great battle someday, let’s teach him to fight.” Or Allanon in the Shannara series decided to wake up a few months early to go warn whichever Olmstead kid that some heavy shit was coming.
I know, sometimes doing the obvious thing would make for a short, drama free story. I get that. But seriously, none of them even consider the possibility of preparing the hero. It seems like a huge oversight.

5. Pull this cloak and hood over your face. It’s the perfect disguise and not completely suspicious or anything.

Yeah, disguises. Sigh. Okay so in a crowded courtyard someone could maybe keep their face covered and blend in with the crowd, as long the person looking for them doesn’t know them well. (I don’t know about you, but I can identify family members and close friends by their stature and how they walk.) Of course once you walk inside and don’t remove the cloak, that might raise a red flag or something.
There are better ways to disguise someone, and you might be tempted to use them. But those require some logistics. Do you carry hair and some sort of skin friendly glue around just in case you need to make a fake beard? A thief might, a warrior, probably not.
On a related noted, what about people sneaking around in armor? That’s another big pet peeve of mine. The knight in full chainmail and pieces of plate armor (90 plus pounds or so) climbs nimbly up the castle wall and then drops silently behind the guard. He then steals the guards sword and chops him clean in half, without making a sound or leaving a blood trail.

What about you? What common fantasy plot devices rub you the wrong way. Do you care that the feats described in some fantasy stories are impossible in real life? Or do you just suspend disbelief?