Marie Brennan

Writing Full Time: Marie Brennan

Voyage of the Basilisk - CoverWhen I announced that I’d be quitting the day job and devoting more time to writing, I also chatted a bit with some writer friends about their own experiences and advice. I ended up inviting some folks to share their stories. First up is author Marie Brennan. I’ve been a fan of Brennan’s work for a while, as you can see from some of the reviews I’ve posted.

Her latest book is Voyage of the Basilisk, with In the Labyrinth of Drakes coming up next in 2016.

Brennan’s experience below reminds me a bit of something my mother used to say when she was raising me and my brother, about the desperate need to get out of the house from time to time and talk to someone who wasn’t a) a little kid or b) a character on a children’s TV show…

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Like many writers, I’m an introvert.

When I started writing full time, I found out the hard way that even introverts need a certain dose of social interaction to remain sane.

It happened while I was writing A Star Shall Fall — the first novel I drafted in its entirety after leaving graduate school to be a full-time author. Due to some changes in the plot, I fell behind, and was worried about making my deadline. Ordinarily I write a thousand words a night (which is a pace I know I can generally maintain for an extended period of time, without outpacing my ability to figure out the next bit), but for a while there my goal was to write 1500-2000 and revise 5000 every day.

Fortunately, I had some spare time in which to do that. The dojo where my husband and I study karate closes down for two weeks every summer while the man who owns it goes on vacation, and this happened to coincide with me going into overdrive on the book. I thought, This is great! Karate eats a couple of hours a couple of nights a week, plus it just kind of disrupts my evening in general. With the dojo closed, I can just buckle down and get through this hard patch.

A bit over a week into that, my husband more or less dragged me out of the house by force, because I was going out of my skull.

It turns out that although social interaction is indeed draining for me, I need a certain dose of it or I go off in the deep end. My husband doesn’t count: I told him and my sister once that they aren’t “people,” in the sense that I don’t mind having them around when I’m not in a mood to deal with people. Having only him to talk to for a week or so gave me cabin fever like whoa. I needed to get out of the house; I needed to deal with somebody other than the imaginary people in my head.

You don’t think about this kind of thing when you’re planning your life as a full-time author. Setting up a work space, sure. Arranging your schedule, definitely. But making sure you have a life outside work? Not so much. (Not unless somebody warns you that you need to plan for that.) And yet it’s a vital part of the care and feeding of a writer, and if you neglect it, you’ll pay the price.

Which is why I go to karate, and I run a role-playing game every Tuesday, and I invite friends over to watch TV or to meet me at a museum exhibit. If I’m under the gun for a deadline, I think very carefully before I let those things slip. As much as I need to devote my time to getting the book done, I’ll work a lot better if I keep my mind in balance.

Book Reviews: Lord & Brennan

The Best of All Possible WorldsTwo more book reviews, starting with The Best of All Possible Worlds [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Karen Lord. I received a copy of this one, along with The Galaxy Game, at ConFusion earlier this year.
I loved Lord’s debut novel, so I was very much looking forward to what she did next.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

This is not whiz-bang, robots-and-lasers-and-spaceships-and-explosions science fiction. It’s a very thoughtful and well-written story of cultural displacement, interplanetary refugees, and the struggle between compromise and preservation of culture.

The Sadiri are described as “the epitome of morality and tradition, savants too absorbed in their mental exercises to succumb to base urges.” They arrive on the colony of Cygnus Beta after their homeworld is attacked and destroyed. Here, they set out to find settlements of genetically and culturally compatible humans, hoping to preserve as much of their ways as possible.

The narrator is Grace Delarua, part of the diplomatic party helping the Sadiri on their search. This sets up a somewhat episodic framework where we see different settlements and cultures, while at the same time learning more about the larger world and events, as well as getting a gradual romantic storyline between Grace and one of the Sadiri.

It’s a powerful book, exploring so many “what if” ideas — mental powers, time travel, planetary settlement — while at the same time being intensely relevant to our own world. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth reading.

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Voyage of the BasiliskI also recently read the second and third of Marie Brennan‘s Lady Trent books: The Tropic of Serpents [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] and Voyage of the Basilisk [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. In some respects, these are similar to Lord’s book. They aren’t action-heavy sword-fighting quests, but thoughtful explorations of culture and science, presented as memoirs by Isabella (Lady Trent), who became the world’s foremost expert on dragons.

From the publisher:

The Tropic of Serpents: Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

Voyage of the Basilisk: Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

One of the things I love about this series is the protagonist’s passion for science and knowledge. We talk about sense of wonder, and Isabella conveys that wonder, not about big flashy magic or fancy special effects (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but about discovery. She repeatedly risks her life, her reputation, and more for the chance to learn. She’s wonderfully and at times foolishly driven.

Like Lord, Brennan has developed a rich world. Brennan’s is based more closely on our own, drawing on cultures and countries from Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and more. (Brennan’s background in anthropology helps a great deal, as does her intense research habits.) Over the course of the three books, we’ve seen much of that world and its people, but we also see a larger story about the progression of science and knowledge, and ongoing political conflicts.

One such story arc involves the preservation of dragon bones. Like birds, dragons have very light bones, but those bones are incredibly strong — so long as the dragon survives. Upon the animal’s death, the bones become fragile and crumble away into dust. Back in book one, Isabella and her companions discovered a way to preserve those bones, a process with many potential implications and uses … and one that has serious impacts on the hunting of dragons, not to mention the political fallout. Watching that knowledge spread, seeing the technological changes and Isabella’s struggle, is one of several wonderful storylines.

And of course, the books have great covers as well as internal illustrations, ostensibly by Lady Trent herself (with help from artist Todd Lockwood).

I look forward to the next!

New Books

Lots of friends with new books out this week. Because apparently I don’t have enough to read already? At this rate, I’m never going to reach the summit of Mount To Be Read!

Morgan Keyes’ Darkbeast Rebellion [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a middle-grade fantasy, the follow-up to Darkbeast, which I enjoyed and reviewed here.

Martha Wells has a Star Wars book out about Princess Leia, called Razor’s Edge [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], set between the events of Star Wars and Empire.

Anton Strout’s Stonecast [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the second book in his Stonemason Chronicles. There may or may not be were-jaguars.

Laura Anne Gilman’s Soul of Fire [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the second part of the Portals Duology, following Heart of Briar.

Marie Brennan has put together a collection of essays on writing fight scenes, called (appropriately enough) Writing Fight Scenes [Amazon | B&N].

Elizabeth Bear’s novella Book of Iron [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a standalone prequel to Bone and Jewel Creatures.

Finally, the tenth issue of Seanan McGuire’s serial Indexing [Amazon] has just been released.

As always, please feel free to suggest other new books I’m forgetting, or just share what you’re reading and enjoying right now.

Book Giveaway: A Natural History of Dragons

I know I haven’t even mailed out the book from my last giveaway yet, but I couldn’t help it! I had to give out more free books. Because that’s just how I roll!

Okay, what really happened is that a while back I had the chance to read Marie Brennan’s new book A Natural History of Dragons [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. I loved it, and was happy to provide a blurb. Tor recently offered me a finished copy as a way of saying thank you, which was very nice of them. To which I responded, “Yes please, and if you felt like sending me an extra copy, I’ll give one away on my blog.”

They sent me four.

I’m a-keeping one for myself, but the other three are up for grabs.

And just to make things more exciting, these are autographed copies! Not autographed by Brennan, though. And let’s be honest, we authors sign a lot of our books, especially during release month. So there will probably be plenty of author-signed copies out there. But these three books are the ONLY COPIES with MY autograph! Go ahead and look, it’s right there on the back cover by my blurb!

In keeping with the theme, all you have to do to enter the giveaway is write a blurb for the not-actually-written book Mary’s Angels and leave it in the comments. If you’re unfamiliar with this masterpiece or need a reminder, click here for the cover art. Your blurb should be silly, and can be as positive or negative as you’d like. (Though I know you can do better than “Oh, I’m blind” and “Brain bleach!”)

Everyone can enter, no matter where you’re located, and I’ll pick three winners at random next week.

I’ll close with the official publisher’s description:

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

I liked this book a lot. Lady Trent is a great character, the memoir structure works really well, and as a bonus, you get interior illustrations by Todd Lockwood. If you don’t win, you should check it out anyway.

Marie Brennan: Folktales and Legends

I’ve reviewed a number of Marie Brennan’s (Twitter, LJ) books, including her Onyx Court series (gorgeous historical fairy fantasy set in London). Her next book, A Natural History of Dragons [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is currently sitting on my TBR pile, because I’m luckier than you are. I’ve been rushing to prepare all of these guest posts, and my brain is getting fuzzy, so I’ll just conclude by saying Marie invented the left parenthese, is a third degree black-belt in a rare style of piccolo-based karate, and is composed of 62% dark matter.

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Hello again, everyone! Did you miss me? (Don’t answer that.)

Last time I guest-blogged for Jim, on the topic of fairy tales and how they make no sense, I made a passing comment about how modern fantasy is more often like the folklore category of “legends” than it is like the Brothers Grimm. Several people expressed interest in hearing me expand on that thought, so here I am, back for a second round.

When I talk about the aesthetic qualities that distinguish folktales from legends — and let me digress briefly to say that I’ll be talking about “folktales” rather than “fairy tales” because most things in that category don’t actually have fairies in them — I’m mostly drawing on an influential book by Max Lüthi called The European Folktale: Form and Nature. As the title gives away, it focuses on European sources; what folktales are like in other regions of the world, and whether or not it makes sense to have a general category of “folktale” that you apply to all cultures, are questions that could fill not only a blog post but an entire grad school course. But since modern fantasy rests firmly on a foundation of European material, and is still only gradually opening up to other paradigms, his work is a good place to start.

I’m going to cheat here and quote myself directly, from a paper I presented at a conference and later turned into an article for Strange Horizons: “Lüthi gives a number of descriptors for the folktale style, including one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation and universal interconnection, sublimation and all-inclusiveness.” You can go read that article if you want further explication of the latter points (I use them to analyze Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel The Darkangel, which is much more folktale-ish than most fantasy these days), but the main thing I want to unpack here is what Lüthi calls “one-dimensionality.”

In a folktale, things take place in “a land far, far away” — a land that is, furthermore, usually nameless. By contrast, in a legend the action often occurs in a named location, and one that is known. It isn’t just “the dark forest;” it’s that forest on the other side of the river from the village where the tale is being told. Legends are frequently bound into the landscape of the teller: this hill, that rock, the lone oak tree where your horse threw you last week. They’re about the world the audience lives in, and they are concrete.

The flip side of this, and the other component of what Lüthi means by “one-dimensionality,” is that in a folktale, while things may be physically distant, they’re spiritually close. In fact, physical distance replaces spiritual distance. A folktale hero, wandering along in his journey, comes to the foot of a glass mountain. How much time does he spend goggling at the sight? None at all. The same goes for talking lions, huts on chicken legs, and walnuts with whole dresses crammed inside of them. Weird things aren’t weird, in folktales. Nor are they scary. They just are, and the hero doesn’t bat an eyelash at them.

Legends? Are scary. And weird. And the characters in them react appropriately. If a guy comes riding along with his severed head under his arm, the hero not only bats an eyelash, but runs for the hills. Things in legends are physically close, but spiritually distant.

By now you can probably see where I’m going with this. Sure, fantasy novels of the non-urban or non-historical sort don’t take place in our backyards (and even some of the urban ones take place in Generic City #12) — but their locations are specific. In fact, our genre prides itself on its ability to make up worlds that feel real, complete with place-names and maps and histories and politics and all the rest of it. Even when we’re rewriting folktale plots, our settings are rarely vague, nameless kingdoms. And when our characters encounter weird stuff? We not only want them to marvel, we criticize the author for bad writing if they don’t. There are types of fantasy that shoot for a different target — especially in short stories, where it’s easier to sustain an artistic “folktale” style; keeping it up for the length of a novel is hard — but as a publishing category, fantasy is dominated by works that mimic the qualities of legends.

Mind you, we still do steal a few of our tricks from folktales. Lüthi argues that one of the characteristics of the style is that objects in it often default to precious metals and minerals, and a limited range of color. Gold and silver, black and white and red and sometimes blue . . . we use green more than folktales do, for which we can probably thank Tolkien and his trees, but it’s true that lots of things fall into that narrow range of shades. And we certainly do love extremes, where our protagonists are orphans or youngest children, royalty or peasants, but rarely middle children or middle-class. We’ve changed that some in recent years, but read through The European Folktale and you’ll see a few trends you might recognize.

Ultimately, of course, modern fantasy is its own thing, neither fish nor fowl, neither folktale nor legend. We’ve stolen tropes from myths and chivalric romances and a bunch of other genres both literary and oral. But if I had to pick one to say is the closest match, I’d probably pick legends.

Books on my TBR List

I am, as usual, shamefully behind on my reading. Trying to read and review all of the Hugo-nominated work has only exacerbated the problem. The following are some of the books waiting impatiently on the shelves for me to get to…

Wild Things [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Charles Coleman Finlay. Charlie is an amazing writer, and broke in years ago by essentially turning the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Magazine of Charlie Finlay and Maybe a Few Other People. He was kind enough to send me his collection as a Christmas gift. I’ve read and enjoyed several of the stories so far, but haven’t yet finished the book, on account of I suck. Or maybe I just get cranky because he writes better short fiction than me. Jerk.

A Natural History of Dragons [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Marie Brennan. Come on. Look at that cover and tell me you don’t want to check this book out. It won’t be on sale until February of next year, but I have a copy of the bound manuscript right here, because my life is just that awesome! I’ve read and reviewed Brennan’s work before, and I love the historical detail she captures in her books. This one is described as “the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

The Kingdom of Gods [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by N. K. Jemisin. The final book of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. I talked about the first two books here, and now I have an autographed copy of number three whispering in my era, telling me to set aside those silly Hugo stories and come play. I’ve skimmed the first chapter, which is told from the point of view of the child-god Sieh. Sieh was one of my favorite gods from the first book and makes me want to read it that much more right now!

Pirates of Mars [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Chris Gerrib. I’m told that Gerrib named a ship after me. I have not been told whether it’s a Millennium Falcon type ship that runs circle around the imperials, or more of a “Did a piece just break off of my gorram ship?” kind of deal. Gerrib blogs a fair amount about piracy in the real world, and I’m curious to see how he’s applied that knowledge and research to Mars in what I believe is his first published novel.

Unless he blows up my ship, of course. Then all bets are off, and I’ll write him into one of my stories so the goblins can eat him.

Queen’s Hunt [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Beth Bernobich. This one comes out in mid-July, and is the sequel to Bernobich’s book Passion Play, which I talked about with Sherwood Smith over at Book View Cafe, discussing her portrayal of rape and its effects, her characterization, the Cool Stuff theory of fiction, and more. I also reviewed and enjoyed Bernobich’s YA book Fox & Pheonix here. I’m looking forward to seeing where she went with the story in book two.

2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Alma Alexander. I reviewed Alexander’s bestselling novel The Secrets of Jin-Shei back in 2007, describing it as a magical, masterful novel. (For some reason, I couldn’t find the review on my blog, but that link will take you to my Amazon review.) Her latest book is set “on the eve of the end of the world … in Spanish Gardens,” where five friends come to reminisce, to reveal secrets, and to make a choice presented by a bartender named Ariel, “the choice to live a different life, or return to this one…” I’m very curious to see what Alexander has done with this premise.

Net Impact [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Donald J. Bingle. I met Don years ago, and have shared a ToC with him in a number of anthologies. He warned me that there are no goblins in this one, but I said I’d be willing to read it anyway. This is not SF/F, but a spy novel about Dick Thornby, described as knowing “a few tricks to help him get out of a tight spot, even if his boss accuses him of over-reliance on an abundance of explosives.” Which sounds vaguely goblinesque to me…

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Those are just some of the books looming over me from the bedside table, threatening to tumble and crush me in my sleep. Thankfully, I’ve got a vacation coming up very soon! If you need me, I’ll be on the deck up north, watching the lake and trying to catch up on my reading.

Your turn. What’s sitting in your To-Be-Read pile that you’re looking forward to? What releases have you impatiently counting down the days?

Brennan & Hines on Ending a Series (Part 2)

This is part two of the discussion between myself and Marie Brennan about wrapping up our four-book series this year. Part one is posted on her blog at http://swan-tower.livejournal.com/491310.html

If you’re not familiar with Marie or her work yet, here’s a quick introduction:

I’m the author of six fantasy novels and more than 30 published short stories, which puts me just a little behind him. I’ve written about people split in half (mystically, not with an axe) and faeries hiding out underneath London, and I’m currently writing about a nineteenth-century gentlewoman who travels around the world to study dragons and get into trouble, not necessarily in that order. I am a mildly popular blogger, and alas, have no fuzzy beasts to take care of — unless you count my husband.

She writes a very thoughtful blog at http://swan-tower.livejournal.com. Her latest book is With Fate Conspire, which I reviewed earlier this month.

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In Which I Tell You to Go Away (Sort of)

Over the weekend, I spent 40 minutes chatting with author Anton Strout for his Once and Future Podcast. Anton has posted our chat in Episode 2 of the podcast, in which we talk about the writing process and also werejaguars (of course), as well as me babbling a bit about my own works.

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Or if you prefer, you can head over to Marie Brennan’s blog where she and I talk about ending our respective series, and some of the choices and challenges we faced. Marie is very sharp, and worth reading. I’ll be posting part two of our conversation tomorrow.

With Fate Conspire, by Marie Brennan

With Fate Conspire [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the fourth and final (at least for now) book in Marie Brennan‘s Onyx Court series. (I’ve reviewed books one, two, and three.) These are meticulously researched historical fantasies set in London over various time periods. This one takes place in the late 1800s (the industrial revolution) as the spread of iron rail lines threatens to destroy the hidden Onyx Court of the fairies.

Brennan and I both wrapped up a fantasy series this year, and it’s fascinating to see some of the similar choices we made. Much as I did with Snow Queen, Brennan wrote a darker story, raising the stakes for all involved. We both wrote about a formerly good character twisted to dark purposes. In Brennan’s case, that’s Dead Rick, a wonderful character trapped in a horrible situation, his memories torn from him by–  Well, I won’t spoil that bit, but I loved the technique used here.

Brennan and I are working on a discussion about ending our series and the choices we made. More on that later, assuming I get off my ass and finish my part. (This was supposed to be posted already. It was not, on account of the fact that I suck.)

So, back on topic. Oh yes, Dead Rick rocks, and the blending of magic and technology that Brennan began in earlier books has progressed to fascinating ends. I remain in awe of the way Brennan so seamlessly intertwines history and fantasy.

She also does a nice job of portraying a society in decline, a magical kingdom on the verge of disintegration. Lune, Queen of the Onyx Court, has vanished, devoting herself to holding the court together through the sheer strength of her will. I missed her character, and I think that loss is a major contributor to the darker tone of this book. Some fairies are searching for a way to escape, while others seek to find a way to heal the court, and the darker fae work to take advantage of the chaos.

In the human world, a girl named Eliza has devoted herself to finding her lost sweetheart, stolen by the fairies years ago. But it was Dead Rick and the plight of the fairies that really sucked me into the book. Their desperation, the urgency of their quest to save themselves and their home … it’s powerful stuff.

While I think you can read this book on its own, I’d definitely recommend reading them in order. And if you’re a fan of richly detailed and vivid historical settings, full of old-school fairy magic, then I’d definitely recommend reading them, period.

Guest Post: Marie Brennan on Fairy Tales

For the second year in a row, I’ll be up north — likely with spotty internet access — when my book comes out. D’oh! So I invited Marie Brennan, author of the forthcoming book With Fate Conspire [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], to do a guest post.

Please welcome Marie, and if you enjoy her post as much as I did, go check out her LiveJournal. Or take a peek at some of her books over on her web page.

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Jim has unwisely loaned me his podium for a day while he’s out of town, and since this is the week that The Snow Queen’s Shadow [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] launches, I figure I should talk about fairy tales.

I actually have a degree in the subject — nearly had two, before I left graduate school to write full-time. (Yes, they give degrees in folklore.) We studied lots of things, not just fairy tales, but they were always one of my particular interests. So I speak as a semi-expert on the subject when I tell you:

I have no idea what the hell these people were thinking.

You know how you can tell that “The Snow Queen” is a literary fairy tale, rather than a part of the oral tradition? It makes sense. Evil mirror, shard in the eye, everything looks unpleasant; sure, I follow. But what about these opening lines, to a lesser-known Grimm tale? “There was once a little mouse, a little bird, and a sausage, who formed a partnership. They had set up housekeeping, and had lived for a long time in great harmony together.”

Whut?

I’m sure Bruno Bettelheim could explain how this story expresses and resolves the oedipal conflicts of children — but that’s because Bettelheim liked to make up data to support his pet theory. Me, I can’t tell you what the heck that’s supposed to mean. If you think fairy tales make sense, that’s because you’re mostly familiar with the ones that have spent two hundred years going through the rock tumbler of the literary tradition, having their nonsensical edges worn off. We heard things in my folklore classes that simply defied all sense. My professor told us one folktale (non-European, but at this late remove I can’t remember where it came from; maybe Swahili, as that was my professor’s specialty) where the heroine spent most of the tale being chased by the demonic severed head of her grandmother, and then when she finally found a way to destroy it, she got cosmically punished for being a bad grand-daughter. (Moral of the story: you owe filial piety even to demonic severed heads?) If “The Snow Queen” had been an oral tale instead of a literary one, Kay’s mind would have been corrupted by a bit of shell under his fingernail or something.

Sometimes I think the entire thriving sub-genre of fairy-tale retellings is our collective attempt to wrestle the things into making actual sense. Not just the retellings, either; the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen went through seven editions in forty-five years (not counting ten editions of the “children’s version”), and while some of that involved adding and removing tales, there was a heck of a lot of editing going on, too. (Despite Jacob urging collectors to record things “without any cosmetic touch-up or addition.”) They mashed tales together, expanded plots, added Christian elements and tried to scrub out French ones; the 1810 manuscript of “Hansel and Gretel” has the children’s mother sending the kids out to die, before it got changed to a step-mother. Can’t have the story reflecting badly on the flower of German motherhood!

It isn’t that there’s no logic to them; folklorists have spent plenty of time analyzing what makes fairy tales go. It’s just that their logic is not our Earth logic. Vladimir Propp laid out a very clear grammar governing the order of events in Russian folktales, and Max Lüthi did an excellent job of describing their aesthetic laws. None of it is much like modern fiction — not even fantasy. Characters in folktales (European ones, at least) don’t bat an eyelash at a talking lion or a mountain made of glass, and if they have to cut off a finger to make a key to open a door, they do it without even saying “ow.” Modern fantasy more often bears a resemblance to the folkloric category of “legend” . . . but that’s a topic for another post.

The thing about fairy tales is, they’re like Rorschach ink-blots. What you see in them depends on who’s looking. And that, I think, is why we go on retelling them: we keep seeing with new eyes, finding new things to amplify or argue with. Their very simplicity and persistent weirdness makes them nigh-infinitely flexible — and at the same time, the shared familiarity of the most common tales means your audience is already part of the conversation you want to have. No wonder we keep coming back to them.

Jim C. Hines