Fantasy as a Vehicle for Social Justice

I believe passionately that writers of fiction  can ply their craft to help effect positive social change and offer a platform for values and principles. The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale both reflect this and I have a series of books focusing on social issues in the US (all based on San Francisco) beginning with Unwanted Heroes which will be released by Three Clover Press in the spring and highlight the way we treat war veterans and the homeless.

I was delighted when Kaitlyn Cole from Online Universities shared a list that their faculty had put together entitled: 50 Best Novels For Political Junkies.

Kaitlyn wrote: “True story: Some of the best political novels aren’t explicitly about politics. Yes, some of the books on this list deal directly with governments and politicians, with laws and the ways they’re made or abused, and with the peril and promise inherent in every governing body. But some of them use adventure, parable, or satire to subtly explore our political system with a depth that wouldn’t be possible any other way.”

Great point and relevant to those of us who write political fiction. But how about fantasy? Is there room to use our elves and dwarves to promote social injustices or causes? 

Over the last two summers I was blessed with the amazing experience of writing two fantasy novels together with my 11-year-old son. While I have read a few fantasy novels, I had no idea about the “rules” of the genre.

Writing with my son, however, compelled me to include moral issues such as racism, dictatorship and freedom, as well as the values of friendship and freedom. I was writing for my son and there are plenty of swords, quests, elves, dwarves etc., but as I watched him read and listened to his feedback, I waited for his comments about such issues and derived huge satisfaction when he brought up issues.

In setting my goals for an exercise at Author Salon, I wrote:

“I have seen the impact of the Harry Potter series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series on my son and his friends. I want to help shape the landscape of the next generation’s imagination and maybe even the society they strive to create.”

My lack of knowledge regarding fantasy leads me to ask the question: Can fantasy offer a vehicle to discuss political and social injustice? I would love to hear your answers fantasy-fans.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#elfwriter).

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Earth Magic – A Gardener’s Tale

It is with great excitement that A Gardener’s Tale, my first novel written over 10 years ago, has been picked up by Three Clover Press. It received a professional edit and new cover, and is leaner if not meaner, but certainly tighter and lighter (sorry, I enjoyed that).

My publisher generously commissioned Claudia McKinney, who designed Amanda Hocking’s book covers, to design a new cover. I love it! Befitting the new e-book economics, A Gardener’s Tale is on sale for $2.99.

A Gardener’s Tale – new cover

While this is not a fantasy novel, there is a profound theme running through of the power of the earth. Here is the pitch:

The garden has seen it all – the cruel events of a thousand years of the struggle between the Pagan religions and Christianity in rural England. A Gardener’s Tale follows two years in the lives of a village and the stranger who comes into their community. As the villagers fear for the breakdown of their community, they discover an ancient path that brings them together.

A Gardener’s Tale  tells of an English aristocratic family now tragically dispersed and of a village community falling apart. Birth, love, death and rebirth remain its never-ending cycle, which includes the magic of nature, the purity of love and the power of true friendship in the hands of a gardener who can harness them all.

I am very proud to have received the following critique from Vivianne Crowley, a Pagan High Priestess, who was recognized as one of the leaders of the Wicca movement in Britain. Vivianne actually grew up near the New Forest in England where this story takes place.

A beautiful and elegiac evocation of a timeless Britain and of a man of the ancient ways of the earth who brings peace and healing where the flames of persecution once burned.

Thank you to Lloyd Lofthouse at Three Clover Press for his patient support, to Claudia for an amazing book cover, and Zorica Gojkovic for her hard work editing this edition.

Let me know what you think of the cover and the book. I love receiving feedback.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

 

The Power of Paolini

Anyone reading this blog is probably very aware that this week Christopher Paolini released the fourth book in the Inheritance Trilogy (sorry Christopher – even though we are all thrilled that there are another 800 pages of Eragon, we all remember the moment somewhere in the third book when we realized it was not going to end there).

The Final One

Our copy of Inheritance will arrive in the next couple of days and my 12-year-old will devour it, before passing it on to me, hopefully in time for the Thanksgiving vacation. It has been a wonderful bonding experience. Whether it is Harry Potter or Eragon (or most likely both) who are responsible for his leap in reading ability and desire is immaterial, I am eternally grateful to Paolini and J.K. Rowling.

My son and I spent endless hours reading the books, listening to the audio version, watching the (only!!!!) movie, and discussing how it will end in Brisingr, the third and not final book of the trilogy, and then Inheritance.

When Paolini released Brisingr, my then 10-year-old stood defiantly at the front of the line in our local Borders, falling asleep on his feet literally as the clock approached midnight. I remember the lady who was working there, encouraging him to stay awake and hang on. At exactly midnight, she put a copy that she had hidden under the counter into his hands and whispered that he should buy that very copy. It was the only book in the store that Christopher Paolini had personally signed.

The autograph & the fan.

Five minutes later, my son was fast asleep in the car clutching his autographed copy by his hero who was barely ten years older than him.

Paolini has proved a number of important points:
1. The young generation will read 400-page novels if the material is gripping enough.
2. They will read rich descriptions, convoluted plots, and identify with characters that are deep, vulnerable, and profoundly human (or elf or dwarf).
3.  They will thrive on a high level of language.
4. Tolkien might still be king, but he has good company. Paolini is young. His level of craft is only going to improve and that is an exciting prospect.

Two years later, my son and I wrote our first 90,000-word fantasy novel. The seeds were sown in the land of Alagaesia, on the wings of dragons, and in the art of an incredibly talented young man.

The Master

As the excitement has grown for my eldest son and I as the release date for Inheritance neared, my youngest son,  who is eight-years-old, has quietly read more than 250 pages of Eragon.  

So Christopher, if by any chance you ever read this: Thank you, as a reader, a fan, and a father.

The Trilogy!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at alonshalev.com and on Twitter (#elfwriter).

Why Fantasy? Another Perspective

Last weekend, I shared some comments from adults explaining why they read fantasy. A friend sent me this article by Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians” and the recently released “The Magician King.”

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

In the article, Grossman talks about the excitement generated by the release of George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons.”

“The book has brought with it, along with the feverish excitement of fans like myself, a whiff of burning insulation. There’s a cultural short circuit happening somewhere in the system.”

What I believe is creating the stir is the fact that while Mr. Martin’s work is clearly fantasy, it does not adhere to the formulas of such leaders as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Martin includes a fair helping of blood and sex in his continent of Westeros than the Pevensie children ever saw in Narnia. Something has changed.

Grossman shares his frustration at the perception that fantasy is for children and adults who are in denial that they are adults and seeking some escapism. “I see it all the time. I’ll be at a dinner party, and the person next to me asks me what I do. I’m a novelist, I’ll say, and a little light of hopeful interest kindles in their eyes. What kind of novels do you write? the dinner guest asks. And I reply: fantasy novels. And just like that, the little light of hopeful interest dies away.”

This story really resonates with me. Every week at the Berkeley Writers Group, I meet new people and introduce myself as an author of political fiction. Then when I prepare to read my weekly offering, I apologetically explain that I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son. All true of course, but I am conscious that I feel the need to justify. Why is this?

Lev Grossman

Grossman goes on to say: “It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. The classical literature of Greece and Rome is so fantastical that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and chances are the cat will turn out to be somebody’s long-lost son-in-law in transfigured form.”

Right on! Stephen Wenster backs him up by asking where “would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts and the witches three of Macbeth?”

Apparently fantasy, without being labeled as a genre was prominent throughout literature history: “Where would Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” be without fairies? Where would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts, and his proto-Orc Caliban, the misshapen villain of “The Tempest”? You can’t have Macbeth without the witches three. Apart from everything else, who would have handled all that crucial exposition of the play’s plot?”

Absolutely!

Grossman, who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature, claims the downfall began around the time of Samuel Johnson. Perhaps this was the time that the advent of science meant they actually began to believe that ghosts and magic really didn’t exist.

Again, Lev Grossman: “A fascination with the here and the now and the real set in. This was the moment when the novel arose in the West, and it was an ideal medium to satisfy that fascination. Novels were about the way we live now. There was no Caliban on Robinson Crusoe’s island, just the eminently human Friday.

“In 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote an influential essay in praise of fiction that was about “life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world.” As far as he was concerned, a good novel “can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.” Thus admonished, ghosts and witches went off to live in fairy tales and allegories and gothic novels and other disreputable places.”

So history is against us, perhaps because people really did once believe in magic and ghosts. But I believe that in accepting there is nothing factual in elves, dwarfs etc. we can focus on allowing values to play a prominent role because, as Grossman say: “If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn’t pretend.”

Fantasy is one of the few literary genres left where it is still considered okay to explore questions of moral judgment. But that’s not a bad thing. When the powerless and good become empowered and are able to change the destiny of their world, there is something that resonates in a world where so many feel alienated and disenfranchised. When coming-of-age can happen at any age, why would an adult still hoping to leave his/her mark on the world not be attracted to such novels?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#elfwriter).