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Recommended Books

June 1993


Science Fiction

Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Last month I focused on the novels by Katherine Kurtz which so clearly demonstrate her expertise in both real-world esp/magick practice and her ability to evoke the astral plane experience for her readers. I also mentioned the real world Order of St. Michael that has been inspired by Katherine Kurtz's books.

Since Katherine is a personal friend, this could leave me open to charges of conflict-of-interests. So this month I'm going to talk about a writer I don't know personally, and the eruption of outrage her books have incited among the sf/f professionals.

In my first two columns for Monthly Aspectarian, I presented an argument for the emergence of a New Genre I've called Intimate Adventure. I've defined this cross-genre genre as being distinguished by the way the plot problem must be resolved by acts of heroism on the plane of intimacy -- i.e. relationship in general, not just sex -- not heroism on the field of battle. The solution to the problem lies in reaching out to your enemy and making him/her your friend, not in vanquishing said enemy.

Katherine Kurtz's novels contain a foundation of Intimate Adventure liberally laced with ordinary Action/Adventure in which an enemy must be beaten, vanquished, or put down. But the next novel in one of her sequences usually evolves out of the problems that arise from the way that violence never SOLVES any problem -- just makes it worse, later.

Katherine's novels are designed to be published as action-fantasy, and so they follow that formula, at least on the surface. But in publishing today, in part because of the shifting Economy, we are looking at a fomenting evolution in what is called "Category Publishing".

Westerns are a Category. Mysteries are a Category. Categories arose because they provide a label which allows readers to go directly for the kind of book they want to read. Category or genre labels sell books -- fast.

The biggest selling category is Romance. Today's economy and shifting readership age demographics are prompting publishers to experiment with cross-genre or hybridized fiction. Not surprisingly, it is the Romance imprints that are striving to lead the way with Vampire-Romance (Lori Herter's three novels, Obsession, Possession, and Confession, all from Berkeley Romance 1991-1992 come instantly to mind as some of the very best hybridization I've seen.)

The Vampire-Romance in which a fairly ordinary woman falls in love with a reasonably decent person who happens to be a vampire (as on Forever Knight on Crime Time After Prime Time on CBS, Tuesday nights) has Intimate Adventure as part of the premise. Both the vampire who fears exposure of his secret and the woman who fears "Evil" must reach out across a horrendous gulf and establish intimacy by developing trust and communication.

Lori Herter's books are set -- more or less -- in our "real" world 20th Century America, and all she had to invent were a couple of vampires. Her vampire-society isn't even presented in depth, though one relationship between a male and female vampire is dealt with at length.

Rebecca Brandewyne has tackled something much, much harder, and much more controversial, and has truly stirred up a tempest. There are, according to the book jackets, over six million copies of her books in print. She says in a letter to me that she has received hundreds of letters from fans saying that these two books changed their lives -- and many who wrote her were male readers of science fiction/fantasy.

The reference here is to two Brandewyne titles in particular -- Passion Moon Rising, Pocket Books Romance, 1988, and Beyond the Starlit Frost, Pocket Star Books 1991.

Both of these books are set in an invented fantasy universe complete with detailed map and a cast of players in case you lose track of the names when you put the book down. It does not have a made-up language complete with glossary in the back, but it has princes and princesses and Royal Houses in disarray -- and it has grand passion motivating the characters who are responsible for whole nations. In short, it has everything Katherine Kurtz has except the magic/esp.

Yet a great many of the professional writers of science fiction and fantasy find the very existence of these two books deeply offensive. The main objection seems to be that the "writing" just doesn't come up to the standards that have been developed by adult fantasy writers.

I was sorely puzzled by this, so I had to read the books to discover what the problem was. And indeed, I found that if I were editing a fantasy/romance hybrid line, I would not have bought these books without extensive rewriting. The backgrounding is our ordinary world with the names changed -- very thinly disguised. The pacing, and the very mechanics of sentence construction and scene shifting is just plain "all wrong" -- from the point of view of a fantasy-action trained writer.

But it was clear that these books were taking my personal favorite type of fiction to readers who would never have touched it without Brandewyne's name on the cover. And the freedom Brandewyne attained for her message by using a fantasy background had provided something for these readers that my own writing could never provide.

So I had to look deeper. I tried the books out on a veteran Romance reader -- my daughter. She's 25, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, and a professional computer programmer since she was 16. She was also raised on a steady diet of good science fiction. But she is in many ways typical of her generation and typical of the young women reading hybrid-Romance today.

She didn't like these two books. We discussed it, and I learned something. It all comes back to this concept I'm developing called Intimate Adventure.

In Intimate Adventure, the hero can be male or female. There is no "heroine" -- no female lead character, or point-of-view character, who does not behave like a hero. The main female character in Rebecca Brandewyne's two fantasy novels is a heroine, not a hero -- and so her novels fall into a crack in my definition, for they are adventure and do focus on intimacy as the resolving force.

I should have realized instantly that this was the problem with these two books -- a genre-definition problem. I had just been given a lesson in genre-definition by another writer friend of mine, only in the opposite direction.

Since my own vampire-sf-romance hybrid novel, THOSE OF MY BLOOD, was published as genre science fiction (complete with a mechanical drawing of a dish antenna on the cover), I have been trying to write a true Category Romance vampire novel -- just to prove I could do it.

My second failure drew a telling comment from Jane Toombs who is famous for her many Romance novels and now is publishing a werewolf trilogy which is sf/f. (Book I is MOONRUNNER: Under the Shadow from RoC, July 1992 -- has this column's Highest Recommendation! -- but shapechangers and the Astral Plane is another subject.) Jane told me that the qualities that are admirable in the hero are not admirable in the heroine.

I couldn't believe I could have missed something so basic, and yet I had. And then I failed to apply Jane Toombs' comment to the Brandewyne controversy until my daughter taught it to me.

The problem with the Brandewyne books is that the women are wimps -- or at least they start out that way -- but they are carrying the plot of a fantasy novel. Fantasy genre requires the lead point-of-view women to be heros not heroines. In crossing the genre lines, Brandewyne hit on a combination of elements guaranteed to offend science fiction and fantasy writers, and a lot of readers, too. But in doing so, she reached out to and inspired a lot of readers who can't identify with female heros!

As I placed my female hero into a romance context and spoiled the brew, so Brandewyne placed her heroine into an adventure context and spoiled the brew -- for me, anyway.

In the process, Brandewyne has perhaps provided an entrée onto the astral plane where the Guardian at the Gate waits with a barbed question: what are the qualities of adulthood that are equally admirable in both male and female?

Anyone who has encountered a woman at work or in their social life who strikes them as too aggressive, too opinionated, too indomitable "for a woman," should explore the two Brandewyne titles I've discussed here simply because they place the question of role-model definition into such high relief.

On a lighter note, this month's honorable mention goes to one of the very, very BEST ALL TIME writers in the sf/f field, Gordon R. Dickson. Some years ago, Gordon started a humorous fantasy series with his version of "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court" called, The Dragon and the George, from ACE Fantasy in both hard and soft cover.

He continued the series with The Dragon Knight and The Dragon on the Border, both very successful books. And now he's given us The Dragon At War. All of these have been greeted without a breath of controversy.

The hero of this series is Jim Eckert who, together with Angela, has been transported into an alternate reality where magic is very real, and controlled "from above" by The Accounting Office which keeps strict records of the "amount" of magic any magician uses and polices the registered magicians. The Accounting Office often interrupts the story at a crucial moment with commentary from a disembodied voice.

The humor is satirical and situational, but in The Dragon At War, Dickson gives us a bit of what he's most famous for, The Tactics of Mistake from the Dorsai series. Jim Eckert is a magician who, when he doesn't use enough of his magic to suit the Accounting Office, gets inadvertently turned into a dragon. By this book, he has gained control of this function, but his problems have gotten bigger. He's now a Baron and owns a castle and allegiance to a Crown.

The book is a fast and refreshing read in itself, but I'm including it with the Brandewyne books because of the way the female lead character, Angela -- who is also from 20th century America -- is treated. This is fantasy-adventure formula writing. The main character, Jim Eckert, goes off fighting wars and having adventures, and Angela stays at the castle and manages it. She does a splendid job, and only occasionally objects to being left out of the important events. In the end, it turns out that their very lives depend on just how splendid a job she's done -- for she's laid in supplies to withstand a siege and they are besieged.

Dickson has tried to depict Angela as heroic. She is strong, commanding, clever, and a force not to be messed with. In the end, all would have been lost without her wonderful qualities. She's no wimp. But she's no hero, either. Her place in the tale is off-stage, a supporting character not a plot-mover.

Now, I know Dickson can write heroic women I can admire -- he has created some among his Dorsai (who are mercenary soldiers.) Dickson is not the problem here. It's the fantasy genre formula. In The Dragon and the George, Angela had a more active role. Now she's been retired to a clerk's job and given only a nod or two of acknowlegement because she does that job well.

But contrast and compare Angela with Brandewyne's heroine in Passion Moon Rising, Ileana: The Cherished Princess of a Brave and Noble Land, and you may learn something about the qualities admirable in an adult of either gender.





Find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. logo

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