Saturday, March 05, 2005

Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton (book review)

As mediocre as the first book in the Anita Blake series was, Hamilton has managed to turn her Anita Blake stories into a successful franchise. While perhaps it won’t win any Nebula or World Fantasy Award, Hamilton’s series has always been fun and even insightful at times. I think the big question for her latest novel, Cerulean Sins is whether Hamilton will take her series to a new level, or merely stall to cash in on her fame.

Hamilton is more or less consistent in her writing. She still excels in what she does best, which is down-and-dirty, no nonsense characterization. Her characters, for all their strengths, continue to be conflicted characters with their own sets of flaws and short-sightedness. And of course, there’s the sex.

Perhaps what intrigues me is that for a main character who doesn’t want to have sex, she gets a lot of it from a harem of beautiful men (be it vampires, werewolves, werehyenas, and uh, more vampires). Compare that to her Merry Gentry series where the main character is more open about sexual intercourse, and doesn’t really mind having a legion of would-be lovers. But of course, I’m sure this is what appeals to many of her readers, as well as the fact that it’s a fantasy of many women.

For me Hamilton steps up in this book by hinting at something larger. The vampire council has made a few appearances in the previous books but this novel gives us clues to something larger. While it’s not resolved in this novel, the potential is there and hopefully Hamilton resolves it in the next few books.

Perhaps one weakness I found in the current book is the plot. What I thought would be the sub-plot turned out to be the main plot (which is a break from her typical writing style for the series since more often than not, the investigation is usually the priority) while the episodic plot for this novel was short and brief. Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come (in terms of story) that Anita’s otherworldly exploits take center stage rather than her day job. Still, it surprised me that Anita’s detective work was given less attention and detail, more so than the book that preceded this. But this is just a perspective complaint more than a criticism of Hamilton’s writing style.

Much like my previous Hamilton reviews, the book can be recommended to people who’re looking for one of the following: fun and guilty entertainment, romance, and conflicted characters. Aside from that, don’t expect Hamilton’s writing style to change for her to churn out something like Lord of the Rings. Anita Blake’s cool because she’s blunt, direct, and will kick your sorry ass if you piss her off.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Fan Fic Musings

Over the past few years that I’ve been logging on to the Internet, one thing that seems to keep on growing is the fan fiction community. While I don’t see fan fic as something new (I think every person has had an urge to write their own take on a particular story at one point in time or another), its dominance its perhaps rooted with the popularity of the Internet. Perhaps the greatest asset of the Internet is that anyone can use it (and even remain anonymous), and best of all, publishing is free (more or less, although perhaps a century from now, there will be no “free web space” and web hosts will start charging for virtual rent). A writer a hundred years ago could perhaps write their own take on Sherlock Holmes, for example, but the manuscript would be lying in a desk somewhere, never to be read by anyone else. Nowadays though, once the idea pops into your head, you can easily jot down your ideas, upload it to a website somewhere, and immediately have millions of potential readers (and of course, immediate feedback is also a boon to some people).

Some people might be asking what went wrong there. Zealous fan fic writers, on the other hand, might get excited at that very question and immediately claim that there’s nothing wrong, that fan fiction is literary, and that it’s a valid art form. So what’s the real issue here?

Several teachers of my writing class (themselves accomplished writers) claim that there’s no real true story to tell, that everything is merely revamping or dressing up old stories. To a certain extent, that’s true (and it certainly is harder to come up with an “original” story nowadays than it was a thousand years ago not because our minds are less imaginative or refined, but perhaps due to the fact that modern publishing has disseminated more information [and that means more works and stories] than was previously available). But that’s not to say that every thing you read, every piece of work you see, is merely a copy of another. There is some skill, there is some creativity, and there is some talent involved in creating a good story (irregardless if it’s an original work or fan fiction). I mean I just need to look at the bookstore’s fantasy section and certainly not all the novels there are derivatives or clones of Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings).

I think the real issue is in defining the borders. I mean if I write a story based on Greek mythology, for example, does it automatically mean it’s a fan fic? Or perhaps I write a vampire story, what line do I cross that determines what I’m writing is a homage to Bram Stoker and not just a fan’s take on the existing story? My take on it is that the two (Greek myth and Dracula) are first and foremost public domain, which is why writers have more or less a free hand in incorporating the characters present in those texts into their story. But even then, if your story is more or less parallel to the original, it’ll be classified as a fan fic (if it’s not published), or just a badly written derivative (if it gets published in print [but we may have to change our standards considering the rise of Internet “publishing”]). Perhaps a good example I can give are the Arthurian fantasies. I mean the King Arthur story, for the most part, is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (which in turn is based on Celtic myth and Christianity). But what separates novels like Mists of Avalon and Once and Future King from the original Malory story is its take on it; I mean both books can easily be classified as a fan fic considering it has the same set of characters and perhaps follows the same timeline. But there is certainly something in their writing that makes them “cross the border”, to move from fan drabble to something original. I think the same goes for Neil Gaiman, who bases a lot of his stories from existing myths. There’s a line that he crosses that makes his work similar yet different from the original. In a certain sense, a writer might begin with fan fic, but end up with something different in the end.

Okay, that may be the case for public domains, but what about works with licenses? A number of writers do make it into the canon by asking permission from the holders of the copyright. I mean many writers in comics have immortalized themselves in giving their own take to Batman, for example. And while fans certainly have their own ideas for this iconic superhero, what differentiates the official writers from the fans is that the official writers have the right (as decreed by law) to do so. And it’s an accepted part of the canon from that point on (sometimes to the chagrin of future writers). Falling short of that, it’s going to be a messy, legal issue. My take on it though is that it’s okay to write a fan fic for personal use (as it is a good way to exercise your writing talents). I think the real problem arises in conjunction with the Internet, where free publishing is available, and uploading a fan fic isn’t personal use anymore (since the public gains access to it). I’m not saying it’s evil to do so, but sometimes, the original author loses something in the deal (but on the other hand, it can also boost the author’s popularity or sales by feeding the flames of fandom) because his or her work is being used without permission. I think everyone agrees that fan fic for profit is unethical (since you’re earning from pirating someone else’s work), but some fans might claim, to their defense, that they’re not earning anything from writing fan fics. But as Terry Pratchett (author of the Discworld series) put it in an interview, copyrights and trademarks are there for a reason. Whether it’s because the fan fic is not faithful to the author’s vision or depriving him or her of a potential source of income, in the end you’re depriving something from the original author (Pratchett in the same interview even told an anecdote of a fan telling Prachett “I wrote some fan fiction and you must have seen it because the plot [of one of Pratchett’s books] uses one of my ideas. I think we should have a conversation about this” despite the fact that Pratchett’s original manuscript was made months before the fan published it on the Internet). That may be an extreme example but it is a possibility (and has actually happened in Pratchett’s case).

As for the act of writing fan fic itself, a good fan fic (since there are bad fan fics, and is perhaps the trade-off of having access to free publishing) does entail some creativity, skill, and talent. No one denies that and some great writers do start out with fan fics (just as some artists begin with mimicking another artist’s style and eventually developing their own). But for the long haul, if one wants to take their writing seriously, they must venture out and write something original, or at least something not based on someone else’s work. I mean in business, purchasing a franchise is perhaps the safest thing to do because they provide you with all the things you need in order to have a successful business (assuming the franchise is itself successful). In a way, that’s like the art of fan fic writing, since a lot of the essential elements are already present and you just need to revamp and rehash it. Starting up a successful business on your own from scratch, on the other hand, is perhaps infinitely more difficult: one has to experiment, one has to take risks, one has discover a winning formula. The same goes with writing something original.

Not that writing fan fic doesn’t have its own challenges. I mean I’ve had experience in editing and sometimes, a work is too convoluted that it’s better to start over rather than fix an existing document. While that’s potentially true for fan fic, where a writer breathes in new life to a failing title, that’s seldom the case (since a good number of fan fics are based on successful and popular works rather than unpopular ones). But honestly, if a fan fic writer tells me that writing a fan fic is on par (or superior) to writing an original piece, the only reply I can give that person is for them to write a good original piece of fiction. Because honestly, if writing pieces of good fiction was that easy, people would do it (although there aren’t any shortages of people who do try to come up with good fiction). Perhaps the charm of writing a fan fic is that it already has structure, it already has form; one merely needs to tweak the details to suit one’s writing style or desire. Creating a wholly original piece of work, on the other hand, is more difficult.

When I was still studying, one of the easiest times I could write was when I was given a topic: I knew what to write about and I knew what the limits were. I found writing more difficult when I was given free reign, when there wasn’t an assigned topic or theme. One could write about anything, and the options seemed endless. I think the former is more akin to fan fic writing: it requires skill as well, but one knows the limits or the direction one needs to go. With the latter, it’s perhaps more difficult because you start with nothing and expect to come out with something mind-blowing. Now this might not be the same experience for everyone, but this is the way I see it. In the end, everyone is entitled to their own opinion after all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Duality of Life and Faith

There are some things which we can't separate from our personal lives. Some people say "I mix business with pleasure" while others claim that "it's not personal", whether it's related to business, faith, or whatsayyou. Now I'm not here to debate whether you can indeed mix business with pleasure, or whether you should take everything personally (or not, depending on how you see things). But I do believe that your faith is integral to your life, whether you're Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever your religion may be.

I'd like to clear that I'm a Christian so I'll take it from the perspective of my faith. I think one thing I notice is that many Christians suffer from "Sunday Christianity", or acting religious only on Sundays (or whenever you go to mass). Since I grew up in a Catholic school, I also see other extensions of this, such as me and my classmates behaving right after a recollection or retreat, but no longer than the immediate duration (which ranges from several hours to a few days). First of all, I don't think any religion asks you to be "part-time" in your faith. It's a 24-hour, 7 days a week ritual. Sure, there are specific times when you're required to worship (such as Sunday mass) but faith is not about those particular times. Faith isn't just about duties; it's about living your life in a particular kind of way. It's like saying you're vegetarian when you only eat vegetables once a week and eat meat the rest of the week. To be a real vegetarian, it has to be part of your regiment, an integral factor in your daily existence. The same goes for your religion. You don't really get to choose your time to be a practitioner of your faith; as long as you live and breathe, you're devoted to your faith (even if your belief is, say, atheism, the same principle applies).

Perhaps another good reason why your life and faith can't be really separated is the fact that your personality determines your faith. Let's face it, our personality shapes our religious preference and those who are truly zealous in their faith sometimes alters their personality to suit their religion. In the bigger picture, we chose a particular religion because we think it's the best one for us. And to a certain extent, the reason why we want to spread our faith is because people in general want to share a good thing. For example, if your friend was living an unhealthy lifestyle, wouldn't you want him or her to eat good and healthy food? The same goes for our faith; we offer something which we think is good. Of course in the end, it's up to the person to either accept it or reject it. I personally don't think religion is something we can force on other people, but we can provide them with the necessary information to make an educated judgment call and perhaps nudge them in the right direction (people seldom change for the sake of doing so; it usually requires another motivation, such as a guy practicing good grooming habits because he's meeting his crush or behaving in front of a teacher who you're infatuated with).

Many students complain that they don't get to practice what they learned in school. But strangely enough, when it comes to faith, I see many people doing the opposite. I mean it's in real life that we get to apply our belief, the tenets of our religion. Yet when the opportunity arises, many of us shy away from such circumstances. We become "undercover" practitioners. My advice to you is that there's no such thing. I live in a Catholic-dominant country and perhaps the biggest problem with that is that one assumes everyone else is a Christian even though not everyone acts like one. In a crowded bus or street, I really can't identify if the other person is a Chrisian or not. If, on the other hand, there was a devout Muslim (probably because of their attire) or perhaps a Buddhist (buddha beads and shaved heads fad aside), I'm sure I can identify them in a crowd of undercover Christians. I think what's essential here is to stand out and perhaps the only way to do that is to practice what you preach. I don't mean preaching literally, by the way, but it can be seen in your behavior, in the way you talk, in the way you act towards other people. And perhaps in a country that's dominantly Christian, that's difficult to do so because we take Christianity for granted, something that has reached the status of mundanity. Missionaries smuggling Bibles into China probably get more excitement and adrenaline rushes, but it's no less important than living out a life of piety in a country where your religion is already prevalent.

I personally follow the rule of multiple agendas. I mean when I meet a person, I intend to be their friend. But along with intending to be their friend, I also want them to share in my faith if that's possible. That doesn't mean I get preachy to people the first time I meet them but given the right opportunity, I'd probably take the time to share my faith (which is also why I have this essay in the first place). When we meet people, faith has to be a priority, but it's not necessarily a priority we act on immediately. And sometimes, we also have to learn to let go. As I said before, we can only provide the opportunity, but it's up to the other person whether to accept it or not. Intruding on their right of choice might jeopardize the friendship, for example, and friendship is a top priority of mine as well.

Rather than seeing faith as a separate part of living, I see it as an essential element, just as our personality or emotions are part of who we are. Many people have a misconception that they can separate it from who they are but what's actually happening is that they're not really being true to their religion, or to who they are for that matter.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Shadow Game by Christine Feehand (book review)

I honestly purchased this book by mistake so I was now stuck with this romance novel with a sci-fi twist. Despite the indicators on the cover that it would be otherwise, I hoped against hope that this would be a good read. After all, Feehand did some vampire romance books.

To be honest, Shadow Game was indeed a mistake. It’s shallow and filled with all the tropes and clich├ęs of a romance book, from the insecure heroine who thinks she’s not attractive to the overprotective male who desperate wants the girl. Oh, did I mention that the villains are two-dimensional, and even the sci-fi twist which involves psychics was shallow?

Honestly, it’s not my first time to read a romance novel but this novel is just too formulaic. Even the sex scenes aren’t as enticing as they should be, and there’s not really much else to expense from the novel. Everything is just so predictable and expected, which I think is really the biggest downfall of the book.

In the end, Shadow Game is just your off-the-shelf romance novel with a big name author attached to it. Honestly, it’s not even that good a romance book. But well, if you want formula and prefer to stick to predictable material, this is probably it.