The Rightful King on Her Rightful Throne: Guest Post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I am so excited to host a guest post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew! I love her work, and I’m eagerly waiting to get my hands on Winterglass, her next release. I’ve already preordered my copy. Benjanun Sriduangkaew tweets at @benjanun_s. You should definitely check out her website for her full list of published fiction.


An idea that’s been preoccupying me since I watched Urobuchi’s Fate/zero is — somewhat beside the show’s point — is the trope of the king. Stay with me here: a lot of us are fascinated by fiction that explores governance, even if the actual thing in the actual real life is a very sordid, messy, and unglamorous affair. But fiction puts a gloss on it, and readers of science fiction and fantasy in particular (and, probably, historical fiction) are terribly drawn to monarchs and their equivalent.

There is a scene in Fate/zero where three kings discourse: ignoring the pomp, circumstances and the mounting music, there’s an odd thematic callback to medieval epics, where just such figures philosophize over what it means to be king, or knight, or vassal. Gilgamesh of Babylon insists that his is the one true path of rulership — to amass more treasure than anybody, to gather the finest weapons and amass the most power, so that his subjects cower before him. Iskandar of Macedonia claims that his kingship is the truest and the best, to inspire such incredible loyalty among his subjects that they would continue following him beyond death, forming a vast army that manifests in the desert that signifies his dream of conquest. King Arthur, alone of them all, puts forward that a king’s purpose is to bear the burden of rulership on herself alone and to live her life in service of her country and subjects. As she feels she’s failed Britain on all those fronts, her goal in the afterlife is to rewrite history so that she never became king — or never existed — and someone else would have replaced her, in the hope that the substitute King Arthur would have led Britain into an age of prosperity. She wants free of this burden and the memory of her mistakes.

King Artoria slaying her child Mordred (credit: type-moon, Ufotable)

Artoria’s solution to what she perceives as her failure to rule aligns a great deal with the common, romanticized perception of kingship in fiction (especially, again, by writers and readers of speculative fiction): that it is not the system of monarchy which is flawed, but the person sitting on the (game of) throne. Bad person, bad rule. Good person, good rule. ‘Thrones are bad’ doesn’t really enter into the equation. Good government is a matter of putting the right monarch onto the seat — usually whose goodness is communicated by their inheritance; usurpers are bad — rather than dismantling a crushing institution that vests far too much power in one person.

But, because this is fiction (and the package is so attractive), I still find myself gravitating toward the glamour of it, to the romantic but destructively flawed ideal held by Urobuchi’s character that kingship is a service. We come to why one of Winterglass’ protagonists General Lussadh al-Kattan used to be a prince.

For the most part, the scope of Winterglass makes it tricky to touch on Lussadh’s background, her life as king-in-waiting to the Kemiraj empire. By the time she enters the story, all that is ancient. She is no longer a prince or, under the new world order she’s helped forge, meaningfully royal — the sole monarch of the empire she serves is the Winter Queen, an immortal entity who’ll never pass authority down in a dynastic line. In many ways Lussadh straddles that point where she is both a distant analogue to Arthur and a distant analogue to Mordred. Without giving away too much, a number of incidents catalyzed Lussadh’s decision to join the Winter Queen, and one of them was an epiphany that the system that would one day give her a throne was inhumanely oppressive.

So she dismantled it.

Only she is not an idealist, and she still wants to ensure her country is in good hands, namely hers. Lussadh isn’t, as romanticized princes in fantasy often are, a savior of the common people. While she ended her own dynasty, she did so partly out of personal motives: she was aware of what happened to those much less privileged than she, but without a personal tragedy as an inciting incident, she wouldn’t have started on the path she did. She considers herself still beholden to the duty of kingship, but it’s less about the country or its people and more about her moral code.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think, for example, a white person is capable of dismantling racism any more than a former prince is capable of dismantling a system where absolute authority is vested in a single person.

This is the flaw inherent in the fantasies offered by the likes of Star Wars, where of course the villain is the hero’s father, and fans expect Rey to be a Skywalker: the line is royalty through Padme, and people see resonance in the descendants repeating ad nauseum the cycle of a Skywalker becoming an evil overlord, and another Skywalker taking him (so far, always a him) down. Despite both the books and the show pretending at grittiness and oh-so-real cynicism, Daenerys Targaryen can control dragons because’s royalty: the writers — white men all — are very much in love with inherited power. Aragorn deserves to rule because he comes from a line of kings. Even more progressive media like Steven Universe falls prey to it: Steven is special because of who his mother was, and he inherits the symbols of her leadership. No surprise that for a long time many fans believed his mother, Rose Quartz, was one of the Diamond Authority and effectively a queen. Lineage, writers and consumers of fantasy insist, is destiny, and royal lineage confers the most significant destiny of all.

The appeal is obvious: it’s easier to imagine replacing a bad ruler with a good one than it is to imagine dismantling the whole institution — this is also why the United States has a long line of presidents committing identical war crimes (sanctions, drones, air strikes, invasions, interventions), doing nothing to curb the prioritizing of American military over social infrastructure (welfare, healthcare, education, drinkable water, disaster relief). It’s also why American citizens so badly want the children of their favorite politicians to become politicians, and the children or spouses of former presidents to run for the position, under the belief that relation (lineage or marriage) is meaningful and confers competence.

But contrary to fiction and real-life wishful thinking, revolution rarely comes from the top, and doesn’t usually require a special scion of a special bloodline to carry it out (save as a figurehead): just ask the French Revolution or the Haitian Revolution. This is why it would have felt, to me, self-indulgent and naive to portray Lussadh as better than she has to be, more socially aware and more romanticized than someone in her position would have been. She becomes the Winter Queen’s second-in-command because, as far as Lussadh is concerned, Lussadh is the best judge and custodian of Kemiraj’s well-being. It would never have occurred to her to appoint anyone else as Kemiraj’s governor.

The romance of the king or the rightful heir is a pretty one, but at the end it can only be that: a romance, a fantasy, and a dream.


Winterglass is available soon! Get it direct through the publisher or through Amazon.

GUEST POST: On Black Elves by Constance Burris

I am THRILLED to have Constance Burris here with a guest post today! I loved her book, Black Beauty, and I have her book Coal high up on my to-read list. Constance is a fabulous, thoughtful writer. Take it away, Constance!


 

I’m a thirty-something-year-old black woman, and I wrote a novel with elves, dwarves, and dragons living the fey realm. Then I really went off the rails and wrote a prequel where magical elves interact with poor, black urban youth in the human realm. For me, this was my way of inserting myself (poor and black) into the (lily-white) fantasy I’ve been reading since kindergarten.

Like a lot of people, I love stories with fey– elves, dwarves, giants, and trolls. But I was never able to see myself in any of the heroes until I stumbled across The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. As a black nerd, I hungrily devoured any fantasy where I could see myself reflected back. When I discovered Drizzt, a dark-skinned elf, I dark elf trilogyfell in fandom. Yes, the dark elves were still considered evil, and thus it fell into the dark skin equals bad stereotype, but Drizzt was dark-skinned and good.

Eventually, I found the RA Salvatore forums where I could talk with other fans about Drizzt all day every day.

One day, while conversing with who I thought were my people over the love of Drizzt, the topic of who should play him in a movie came up. That’s easy Wesley Snipes, yo! He was popular (at the time) and he had the dark black skin color that would match perfectly with Drizzt.

WesleyAh lawd, all hell broke loose. How could I possibly indicate that a black man could play the role of an elf? What the hell was wrong with me? According to the forum, elves do not have such negroid features like a wide nose, thick lips, or kinky hair. Are you crazy? Elves are tall and slender with straight noses and thin lips. They have Arian features.

Needless to say, I was trolled and bullied out of the forum.

The experience stuck with me.

I decided to write my own story with black elves. To stick with the original canon, I made all of the elves white except for the main elf, who by way of shapeshifting, chose to be black. She still has Arian features. But in Book 2, I will have my negroid elf. He (or she) will have a wide nose, thick lips, muscular build, and kinky hair. I will take these elves that were never intended to look anything like me and create them in my own image.

I’m writing the books I want to read with characters that look like me and mine.

So I want to give a shout out to the bullies in the RA Salvatore forum. Your racist hatred inspired me to write and finish my first book. Good looking out.

For fun, here is the post I wrote when I tried to pitch my first novel to a literary agent.


 

Constance is an environmental engineer by day and a writer of black science fiction, fantasy, and horror by night. You can find her first book COAL here and the prequel BLACK BEAUTY here. She blogs at www.constanceburris.com/blog.

 

Guest Post: Navigating the Literary World With Bias by Guinevere Thomas

I’m thrilled to have a guest post by Guin Thomas! Guin is one half of the Twinjas, who write as G.L. Thomas. Their debut, The Mark of Nobawas pretty darn great and you should totally check it out.

About Guin
Guinevere Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity in books by day, and slays ninjas by night. Diversity is her strong point. Procrastination is her weak point. Chat books with her on Twitter @dos_twinjas where she joins her partner in crime to tweet about diversity in books and media. Be sure to visit her official site www.gltomas.net


You learn a lot about yourself when you’re put in a room where you’re the only person that looks or is like you. You try to be strong. You try to get through it as unaffected as those around you. But nothing tests your strength more than a situation like that when you come from a marginalized group.

I’m reminded of an event I went to last year. It was a grassroots blogger conference celebrating children’s and YA literature. Their theme was diversity, so that aspect brought it to life, so even though I was in a foreign place, I was in an element I was comfortable in.

I remind myself of a moment when a prolific self published author spoke about how women who weren’t of color reviewed her books. This particular author writes amazing books for children. I don’t think they appeal to every demographic, but they appeal to the demographic most important to her. Young, Black and inner-city.

I think it’s been said by Malinda Lo before (in a four part essay no less), about the perception of books that are inclusive, when they’re reviewed by groups that don’t understand them. The author at the conference wished that when bloggers reviewed books, they admitted their biases in the reviews.

We all have it. Bias. It’s not always a bad thing to have bias, or at least for me it isn’t. When I review a book, I feel inclined to state where I’m coming from. When I write, I feel inclined to state where I’m coming from. I do this because I think it’s important to understand that I may not always get something. I may not be meant to. I may not always be a target audience for something, and that’s ok.

To this day, I still don’t understand a lot of experiences my boyfriend has. He is the epitome of White privilege. Male, cis, straight, abled, White. Hell, he’s even blue-eyed and blond haired. I’m not saying we’re an awkward fit, but our experiences and biases are way different. He can’t turn on a tv without something being geared toward him. Advertisement, media, opportunities. In the United States, everything is made for him. He didn’t grow up rich, but he benefits from all the things that I don’t.

So he can’t always see the issues that other marginalized groups face. People of color learn about race a lot quicker than White people. Queer people learn about homophobia a lot quicker than straight people (as well as people of different genders learning sooner than cisgender). People with disabilities learn about Ableism much quicker, and to be honest the list can keep going on. I speak on the level of a person of color because that’s the identity that I feel the strongest toward.

I don’t want to come down on White people, but as a person of color, I just don’t have the power to combat racism. I can only make my voice heard, which is still a powerful tool. But I still fall under one of the most brutalized, taken advantage of, misinterpreted groups since the Americas were colonized. My eyes, my bias, will always have that feeling of being powerless. You can disagree. But consider this.

While this counts for all marginalized groups, I see it more through the eyes of a person of color. We don’t have real power to protect ourselves. Our image, our lives, our children, our communities…

A Black person never dies in this country without being dragged through the dirt weeks after their death. There are a lot of people who still don’t see that Black Lives Matter comes from pain, and that many feel voicing our pain isn’t enough to people. No one has ever disagreed and said All lives didn’t matter, but BLM is a movement that’s just trying to voice, that we don’t feel ours do in comparison. People still need to view a video of a teenager getting gun down for our pain to feel real to people. Reasons like that make us feel like we need receipts of our pain to matter.

What does this have to do with books? Everything. We have so few effective tools to teach children. We’re living in a world that’s greatly affected by our generation before it. -Isms were a norm for them, so we inherit it. Sometimes our most memorable teachers are loved ones.

I didn’t read diversely much as a kid. As a kid I was into R.L. Stine, and as a preteen I was a Stephen King nut (no one ever believes me. But at 11, I never slept). Whatever I learned about culture different from mine was in a book. It was before the internet, so books were the only interesting, tasteful source of literature there was (I was also a teeny bopper, and loved teen magazines. Not very sophisticated). No one looked like me, and the ones that did were never Cuban, or had more than a few lines, but I was content with scraps for representation.

This is where I show my hood side, but I just gotta quote Nicki Minaj right quick.

“You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.”

And I apply that to every marginalization I don’t belong to. I’m learning to be a better ally. I think I make mistakes as an ally sometimes. In the past, I’ve wanted change so bad, I may have spoke in spaces that would’ve been better coming from someone who knew better than me, experienced it for themselves, instead of me joining in to speak. I’ve learned to amplify voices when it’s not my conversation to have, and have my seat when it’s time to be silent.

I’m not disabled, I’m not a religion that receives heavy scrutiny. I’m American born, I’m cisgender. I realize this isn’t a lot of privilege, but it’s still privilege. For voices that often get silenced in the conversation about inclusion, I should want to know what affects them in their community. I want to know how life treats them, what bothers them, I need to know the good and the bad.

I learned the most about inclusion and diversity in books as an adult. When it’s done wrong, when it’s done right, who should do it, who should steer clear. A lot of this is gray for me. I want silenced voices to be at the forefront, and receiving credit in the ways they’re often ignored. But I also want to still matter in lit where it’s not from a marginalized group too. This has been said so many times, most people can recite it verbatim, but kids who are White, straight, cis, abled, the whole she-bang, they need to see us, before we become a hashtag.

Our experiences shape whatever biases we have. But inclusion in books is a small step toward expanding our limited thinking. I remember being at Barnes & Noble and overhearing two sisters requesting a book they’d read in school about a little Black girl. And I was even more floored at the effort the mother was making to find them this book. It wasn’t just a book with a scattered diversity here and there. It was a Black girl their age, front and center, with a story different from theirs, that they were prepared to read over and over again.

You can’t tell me that’s not a good start…

Guest Post: How to Build Great Fictional Fantasy Cultures

I am beyond excited to turn my blog over to Kameron Hurley today! Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire (which I loved) and Empire Ascendant (out now–which I also loved) and the God’s War Trilogy (which is now in my TBR pile waiting to be loved). Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Now she’s here to tell us about worldbuilding.


If you are tired of seeing the same pseudo-patriarchy, fake-medieval societies in your purported fantasy novels – fantasy! In which anything is possible! – then please raise your hand.

Yes? All right.

So was I. If you’re a writer who wants to build truly new and unique societies, it takes some work, I won’t lie. We’re all raised with certain expectations of how the world is and what it could be. One of the most insidious jobs of many governments is to scrub out anything from history that doesn’t support the idea that this particular government is the most natural, logical form of government and that all of our fits and starts led us here and we have reached the pinnacle of progress. Very rarely do we realize that social history is not progressive; it’s more like the Wheel of Time. Throughout history we’ve had far more progressive ideas about abortion, same-sex relationships, and a multiplicity of genders than we do today in the West. Not to mention radical ways of governing and organizing ourselves that don’t involve a few men decrying their word as law from atop a high mountain.

It’s worth mentioning this because even though we approach the writing of fantasy knowing that we can, in theory, do anything (because it’s fantasy!), we still encounter a lot of mental roadblocks on the way to making something truly unique. The voices bubble up, voices from critics, from peers, from less imaginative teachers – you can’t do that, that’s not OK, that’s not realistic, that’s silly, that’s wish-fulfillment, that’s crazy, that’s bad.

But I, for one, got into writing speculative fiction because I liked being silly, and crazy, and bad and not-OK, and I liked to fulfill wishes. I liked to push at the edges of things and see what happened.

So let’s start building something different.

Organizational Structure
When I’m building a new society I like to start very broadly with how each individual society organizes itself from the top down (if there’s a top at all), because this is going to bleed into the family structure, and then into the culture. If you have a hierarchy, who’s at the top? Priests and kings? Men? Women? Or are genderqueer folks in places of power? In fact, how many genders are there? (some Native American societies had four). In my Worldbreaker Saga, I have one country with three genders, where the relative power and authority of each gender goes: male, ataisa, and female. I have another with five genders where gender means nothing as far as power goes, but can mean something politically and influence how people organize themselves into political factions.

The reality is that humans have been around with brains like we have now for well over 100,000 years. If you think there’s a way we haven’t organized ourselves at some point, you are probably wrong; so it’s not that it’s never existed, just that we rarely see it. So hop to it.

Family Structure
How are your families constructed? Do multiple generations live under one roof? Is there

marriage? If yes, what’s the point of it all – love, cementing family alliances, politics, purely religious custom? What types of genders are allowed to get married? Is there a limit on number of spouses? How are the children raised?

One of the biggest issues I have with the creation of fantasy societies is figuring out what happens to the children in cultures where all the able-bodied folks of whatever gender are working outside the home. This is easily solved with multiple generations living under one roof – it makes sense for young and middle-aged people to go off and work in fields or join the army if there are generations at home to look after children. There is also, of course, the idea of communal childcare, which we definitely don’t see enough in fantasy. The two-parent household is a relatively recent Western invention. If you feel crazy trying to raise a child with just one other co-parent, well, you’re right to feel that way – it’s terribly unnatural and not something humans have typically done. Moving away from extended families in the rise of the industrial era has radically changed how we view what parenting looks like.

Customs and Extended Culture
This is where I see a lot of folks fall down. It’s all very well and good to create fabulous ways for people to organize, but we then have to follow that down the full length of the rabbit hole. How does the way we organize ourselves bleed out into all the other aspects of our society? I would argue that here in the United States, our emphasis on maintaining one’s position through violent patriarchal oppression carries over into all aspects of our society: gun violence, rape, brawls, abusive relationships, and more are all heavily influenced by the power structures within which they happen.

When I created a polyamorous pacifist society in my Worldbreaker Saga, I needed to explore how that would extend into how people interacted with one another. I created a consent based culture where the age of consent was 12. What that meant was that after the age of 12, it was illegal to touch a person without their consent unless they appeared to be in life-threatening distress or were harming someone else. There was no death penalty or corporeal punishment. If you did something moderately bad, you were shunned. Terribly bad and you were exiled.

These are the sorts of things we need to think about when constructing cultures. Every decision you make will impact another decision. This extends to magic, too.

Magic
I almost didn’t include this one, because to be honest, writers already spend more time constructing their magic systems than their cultures, but these things should be intertwined. How magic users are treated in each of the cultures I build depends heavily on what sort of place they come from.

So in my violent, hierarchical society where different families vie for the throne, all magic users are expected to become government assassins. Those not suited to it are still relegated to some form of government service. In my consent-based culture, they can run off and do as they like, but if they choose to do that and end up harming someone it’s exile for them, so isn’t it just easier to get training in one of the religious temples? Another society rounds up all their magic users and segregates them into camps, ensuring they are controlled in much the same way as the men in their culture are.

The Butterfly Effect
Finally, a note on the butterfly effect. You can’t change one thing about a culture and have everything else be the same as a 1950’s magazine ad. Oh, Ok, you can but it’s lazy and boring. Giving human beings magic, or putting them in a world full of sentient plants, or saying that polyamory is the law of the land, can’t be the only thing you change if you want a fully realized fictional world. If you want to create truly unique and interesting cultures, you have to follow the change throughout the inner workings of a society to its logical (or fantastic!) conclusion. Technology, childrearing, religious practices, work habits, the relationship (or not) between employees and employers – all of these should be considered when you’re building a world, and all of these things should inform and influence one another.

Because this really is what you’re doing: building a world from the ground up. And if it’s meant to be a fantastic world, shouldn’t it be at least as interesting and complex as our own?