Fantasy fiction, reading, Science fiction

On Historical Perspectives in Fantasy and Our Modern Expectations

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(Note: I have borrowed all of these images and have not a whit of claim to them.)

This is a discussion I’ve seen around the blogisphere a lot lately — why so much high fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction is sexist and prejudiced. I have several thoughts on the issue (and, necessary disclaimer, some of them might not be popular).

Well, for the first part, I can concretely say: Most high fantasy is based on approximately the 11th-17th centuries A.D. of this actual world, which was a very sexist and discriminatory time period. Sorry, not sorry, folks, it’s just the truth.

And in urban fantasy, generally it’s because the authors are reflecting the current state of affairs in our culture, and they have their reasons for doing so.

When it comes to science fiction — well, the first reason often applies, but also, until very recently, sci-fi was a genre dominated by white male authors (again, not suggesting anything, just stating a fact), so there was probably a sense of unwitting discrimination. (Meaning you have blinders on based on the society/culture you come from, and don’t realize you’re actually showing prejudice.)

Now, here’s what I think of people claiming so many of these series (some of them considered classics of the genre) are horrible and shouldn’t be read anymore in this “enlightened” era: That point of view is just wrong, and people need to stop pushing it.

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And, no, I am not defending any kind of discrimination. I am defending the accuracy of history. Whether we like it or not, there are lots of very not-nice things in humanity’s past. If we cover these things up and act like they never happened, we are in danger of repeating them.

If we remove conversations on biracial marriages, or disabled people having worth, from our fiction, then we’re denying the achievements we’ve made in these areas. If we declare none of our characters need to be chauvinist, then readers won’t understand the significance of what the heroines have overcome.

If we, as authors, want to portray a world without these damaging ways of thought (hoping that one day it will reflect reality), then please do. I do. But we also need to leave the door open for characters who don’t agree with our own POV, so that readers know what could be, and why it may be dangerous.

We have a responsibility to state the facts, even when we don’t like them.

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This probably won’t be a popular post, but I feel it’s a necessary one. (Refer to my previous posts on getting history right in entertainment to cement how strongly I feel about this issue.)

Part of the idea of society becoming more modern is that we become more tolerant of those who don’t share our opinions. There’s a huge, and vital, difference between not agreeing with someone else and believing they’re wrong, and literally attacking them to prove your philosophy is the more mature and civilized.

Guess which approach I hope wins out?

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humor, reading, Science fiction

The Genius That is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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It has recently come to my attention that there is a very serious problem within the book blogging community, and it is this: Not everyone has read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

This once-cult-classic is now a mainstream sci-fi classic, and successfully joined together sci-fi and comedy (which was what the author was attempting to do in the first place — in the 1970s, and you can’t tell me that wasn’t challenging).

My introduction to this series came from my previous life in England, and I have never stopped loving it since. I’ve read all of the 5 novels in the series (that “homage” by Eoin Colfer doesn’t count), listened to the old BBC radio show, watched the Hollywood movie (ehhh), and the original miniseries so many times that I still have parts of it memorized.

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Above is the printing that I own (yes, it is a first edition hardcover, and I am immensely proud of it). There have been several re-releases since the initial publication, and it even lives in some libraries. So, if you haven’t read it yet, you have no excuse to keep putting it off.

The fantastic thing about THHGTTG is that you don’t have to be a big sci-fi nerd (yes, I’m going to use that word) to understand the content. You don’t have to be an expert at astrophysics, spaceships, or alien planets. Not only is most of the science stuff confined to relevant portions of the text, but it’s also easily broken down by the dual narration of aliens needing to explain everything to Arthur Dent, the human, and the Guide itself.

And there’s so much humor, wit and banter, mixed in with light-hearted philosophical discussions, and plenty of tug-on-your-heartstrings moment, too. The only thing that might trip up first-time readers is the very British language (well, Adams was a born-and-bred Englishman), and the references to culture of the 1970s.

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But don’t let that stop you. Not for a minute.

It doesn’t even bother me that Adams makes subtle jabs at everything from organized religion to mega-corporations, social conformity to the fall of Imperialism. The man was entitled to his own opinions, for heaven’s sake (and personally, I feel it’s a really sad day when we can’t separate a few political disagreements from a wonderful story and just enjoy it for what it is).

(Anyway…)

And there are so many valuable nuggets ensconced in the pages of THHGTTG. Such as — You have to know where your towel is. DON’T PANIC. There is something inherently flawed about Thursdays. And most important: The meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42.

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Yes, 42.

The real reason was (well, according to fan legend) that it seemed like the funniest number Adams could come up with at the time.

But also — why not 42? A major part of the series is the search for the Ultimate Question (the answer is 42, but nobody really knew what the question was). And to me this just so completely reflects our modern concerns and sensibilities on this issue, in a very endearing way.

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So, moths, you tell me — Have you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Do you plan to after being (so rightly) convinced by my excellent treatise? Is there still a place in this world for light-hearted, not-too-science-y fiction mashups?

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Fantasy fiction, history, reading, Science fiction

My Official Title is Book Dragon

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Once upon a time, people who liked to read a lot were called “book worms,” and the notion formed around this phrase that habitual readers were extremely shy and introverted, of course wore very thick glasses, never were seen anywhere without a book in hand, and were naturally clumsy and socially awkward and should be made fun of. The misconception that we aren’t too fond of the real world — or even worse, can’t deal with it — hence we hide in fictional tales, became rather popular.

It was a bare-faced insult to the readers of this Earth.

Sometime last year, I noticed a discussion going around the blogisphere, a sort of petition to re-name book “worms.” To something that suited our true selves much better. The possibility I subscribed to was “book dragon.”

This is really quite accurate. Dragons are fierce, not easily intimidated creatures who stand up for themselves. Certainly not the shrinking, bumbling worm of pop culture misnomers. And indeed, those of us who not only find solace in a good novel, but truly, see the way to the future in it, are fiery about our passion, and we shall defend our views with that fire.

Also, we like to hoard what we see as treasure (i.e. books, bookmarks, book-related merchandise), and often are somewhat solitary (so the introvert thing is slightly true — but it’s still not a bad thing).

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The other thing about dragons (along with the flying, which, unfortunately, some of us may not master) is that they’re very smart. They know a lot, they remember a lot, they observe and take in details. In many of the very old stories, dragons are considered wise. And often people feared them. But I have a feeling it was less because of the potential fire hazard, and more from the fact the dragon had all the knowledge.

The saying “knowledge is power” goes back a ways. Lots of people honestly believe in it.

So, shouldn’t those of us who read and learn new things on a regular basis be, well, feared?

Okay, I’ll settle for respected.

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But seriously, where did this idea come from that we’re tiny, literally spineless animals, unable to be bold and courageous? Why has it perpetuated throughout the modern age, to associate reading with something boring, a waste of time, only for chumps? When every important cultural movement has always been started by people reading something — the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the theories of Dr. Maria Montessori, Green Eggs and Ham.

Look at all the fantastic and amazing technology that exists in today’s civilization because of people reading books by Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. Consider how many TV shows and movies that you, average human, enjoy that may never have been made if the writers and directors weren’t inspired by reading, everything from the Grimm Brothers’ accounts of folklore to graphic novels based on ancient mythology.

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So, the next time you pass by a single figure sitting at a cafe table, armed only with their vanilla latte and the latest civil rights struggles memoir or astrophysics-for-dummies release, and carelessly toss out a, “What a nerd” remark — watch out.

Today’s nerds will be tomorrow’s teachers, inventors, architects, filmmakers, scientists, researchers, designers, neurodiversity advocates. We don’t read to escape the world we live in — we read to give us ideas on how to make it better.

So, watch out — we’re coming.

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Autism, cats, children's fiction, Fantasy fiction, movies, music, reading, Science fiction, writing, Young Adult fiction

My Writing Influences

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Good morning, everyone! Per the poll on my Twitter account, oh, only about a hundred months ago (no, really, about a week, I think), I will be selecting the next few blogging topics based on the feedback from those of you who actually read these posts!

The top choice was *my writing influences*. So, I present you with the answer to said subject. (Disclaimer: I did warn you ahead of time that you asked for this…)

Cats. And other animals, but a lot of cats. The tricky thing about trying to write about animals is that, as humans, we can only get inside their heads so much. Or, so I believed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to include talking animals in my writing, and my attempts fell flat. Then I started reading Warriors by Erin Hunter. I’ve waxed poetic plenty about that series in other posts, so I won’t go full throttle here, but suffice it (for the sake of this topic) to say that it completely changed my mind on what was possible.

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Mythological creatures and tales. Since I was old enough to read on my own, I was hunting down stories of the ancient Greek legends, Grimm’s fairytales, and pretty much anything involving unicorns, dragons, and mermaids. I gobbled up almost everything I could find centering on all the species of faeries and animals that don’t exist. I’ve adapted what parts of the legends work best for my story when it comes to The Order of the Twelve Tribes.

Music. I do have a writing playlist (which changes to fit with my current WIP). As those of you who have read Masters and Beginners will know, I’ve placed song lyrics at the start of each chapter throughout the novel. These are homages to my playlist while I was writing/editing Volume 1. So, that will be different in each installment. But it gives you a pretty good idea of what I’ve been listening to.

My previous life in England, and all the English authors I’ve read since forever. Charles Dickens, Peter S. Beagle, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling — it’s a kind of a small miracle there are any American authors on my shelves. (And, yes, there are a few.) But these Brits developed my craft, the type of pacing I follow, the use of (hopefully) clever humor, and reinforced my passion not just to tell a story but to tell it well.  

And since I spent 4 years in Great Britain, I’m just used to thinking in both American and the Queen’s English at the same time, and so many of my characters started morphing into people who originally came from London/Cornwall/Oxfordshire/Edinburgh, and I didn’t fight it.

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Doctor Who. I would flat out be lying if I claimed my writing hadn’t been influenced by Doctor Who. (I have at least three TARDIS references in Volume 1 alone, for the love of Gallifrey.) And while it may seem a bit too ambitious, I truly hope that some day, in some way, I can create something on a parallel with the beauty of some of the early episodes of the show’s reboot.

Warehouse 13. If any of you have seen that TV show, you’ll probably recognize bits of the Warehouse in the Annex, and the sort of structure of the Regents in the idea of the Council and the Order’s hierarchy. (And this is as close to spoilers as I get, I swear.) I’ve had a few really favorite programs, but few have truly stayed in my heart as much as DW and WH 13. 

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Theories on lost knowledge or cultures. Again, for those of you now familiar with the plot of Masters and Beginners, you’ll know that I’m fascinated not only with the mythology and legends of different civilizations, but you may have noticed that I’ve dug pretty deep to find some unique twists for my story. My ideas about the origin of faeries and the Nephilim are actually not completely my own; they’re developed from some very old (think the Middle Ages) and rather obscure Celtic and Hebrew lore. But I took the jist of a lot of research and bent it and molded it until it was shaped like The Order’s world.

Autism. It’s impossible for me not to see life through the lens of autism. And since I’ve read about 62% of the YA/fantasy novels ever printed, I can tell you with some authority that there really aren’t that many healthy, realistic depictions of autism out there. So I decided to write my own. In Volume 1, I’ve introduced not one but two characters on the spectrum (one it’s stated early on, the other will probably be a surprise to most of you). In Volume 2 and beyond, there will be a much greater focus on them.

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My furry angel. You’ve all seen this picture by now, as Toby is my muse for the artwork on the series. (Feel free to ooh and aaw over his cuteness.) Having a real life model for cat behavior was very helpful for putting together the characters of Jules and Sammy.

Pretty pictures. It sounds almost trite, but if you think about it, it’s really important to surround yourself with beauty when you’re hoping to be creative — especially when you’re writing about really serious things like discrimination and losing loved ones and staring down your own imminent demise. (And here you thought I was just writing about fun and glittery faeries and talking cats!) It helps to remind you that — as Samwise Gamgee would say — there is good in the world, and it is worth fighting for.

So, there we are! I hope this appeals to your sensibilities of what you wanted to know about what influences my fictional work! Don’t forget to put a specific question for me in the comments for next week’s post, Author Q & A!

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Children's Health, family, Fantasy fiction, Mental Health, Parenting, reading, Science fiction, Young Adult fiction

The Importance of Not Jumping on the Bandwagon

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Am I really dating myself here? Does anyone even use this phrase anymore? Can someone under the age of 30 even tell me what it means? (By the way, I truly hope all these answers are yes…)

Anyway, just in case you don’t know, the term “jumping on the bandwagon” refers to just blindly following the latest big thing — if I say “trend,” will that make sense across the demographics?  The idea is that it’s considered a negative behavior, that people who just run with every new thing to come along — without stopping to evaluate whether they really agree with it — isn’t smart, or healthy, or beneficial.

I see the logic of that. For example, it can definitely be dangerous to go bungee jumping or cliff diving without proper supervision or equipment, just because “everybody’s doing it.” But, to get on track for the feel of this blog, and its usual sentiments, what does this mean for books?

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Let’s say you’re a reader, a writer, or both. If you don’t live under a rock inside your personal library and keep up with new publications every year, you’ll start to see trends emerge every now and then. A strong example I can pinpoint right away is The Hunger Games. After it had been on the bestseller list for several months, with a movie deal in the works and merchandise popping up everywhere, YA trilogies along a similar theme/concept were released at a rapid-fire rate. The Maze Runner, Divergent, Legend, The 5th Wave, Delirium, Matched, Uglies — while their individual stories were very different (from THG and from each other)they were all riding high on the wave of “dystopian future/teens in danger/overthrowing a totalitarian government is hot right now.”

Before anyone gets mad at me, I’m not for a minute suggesting any of these weren’t well-written books simply because they were part of a “trend.” Hardly. Whether I think these series were worth reading or not goes straight back to my criteria for determining a good book — fun, sensible plot; well-developed characters; realistic scenarios; relatable motivations. That’s how I evaluate every new release I’ve added to my TBR.

Here’s where my concern gets applied — many, many readers (especially teens, who are impressionable) chose to read most or all of these series simply because they were popular.  And this created quite an issue among parents who felt some of these trilogies were just not appropriate for their 15, 14, 13-year-olds. (Having read at least one book from almost every single set, I wholeheartedly concur that they’re not.)

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As parents, readers, and writers, we need to be aware of the necessity of putting our foot down when we feel trends have gotten out of control. As writers, we can pen novels with more age-appropriate plots, language, and morals we actually want our kids to adhere to. (Vital note: Love triangles are not only tiresome and unrealistic in fiction, but they often glamorize unhealthy behavior, such as obsessing over your attraction to a narcissistic individual to the point of shutting out the rest of the world. Not cool to send that message to teenagers, folks. Eating and sleeping and having non-vampire/alien/criminal/promiscuous friends is important.)

As readers, we can support authors/publishers who are getting this idea. Recently I’ve seen an expansion in MG fiction, to include more serious topics (more serious than failing a math test), but keeping the discussion at a level many 12 – 14-year-olds would relate to developmentally, along with clean language and non-gory fight scenes, and romance limited to a first crush or parents getting remarried. There’s finally beginning to be a move towards separating New Adult from Young Adult. (I complained about this a while ago. My guess is I wasn’t the only one standing on the soapbox with a megaphone.)

It is important to teach our kids to think for themselves. But how can we do that if we’re always checking the hashtags, downloading something based solely on the hashtag, not stopping for a minute in the bookstore to scan through the paperback our 6th-grader just handed us?

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books, British pop culture, Fantasy fiction, movies, reading, Science fiction

Ways In Which I Am Not A Traditional Geek

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Most of the “the world” would consider me a geek. I am rarely seen without a book in my hand; I won’t be watching the latest chick flick, but a new sci-fi movie I’m game for; I have (shamelessly) cried like a baby during Doctor Who season finales.

But, there are several views I hold that would be shot down by the same “geek” community many would subscribe me to. So, I guess it’s confession time.

I don’t play video games. That’s right. The only reason I know so much about them is White Fang’s dad was a game designer. I have failed horribly at first person shooters such as Halo; been the master of mashing buttons in Dead or Alive (4, I think); and the last Final Fantasy I played was, I believe, 10. All of these experiments weren’t my idea (though I will admit to enjoying DoA and FF). The screenshot above (from Minecraft) is courtesy of White Fang, who is basically a programmer in training, and the resident Minecraft fiend in my midst. When I see ads for new games in a series I’m familiar with, or game-inspired movies, I’m a little bit in the know, but very little, and that’s not likely to change.

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I love ballet. A lot of “geeks” are into Broadway and the ballroom/jazzy/hip-hop style of dance that’s predominantly featured in those shows. But that’s just not for me. (Further confession — I don’t even like musicals. Sorry, folks.) Classical is the style I love the best, that my body appreciates and emulates the most, and that I am likely to drop everything for. (No offense, anyone, but) I won’t race to the TV for a clip of Hamilton; but a new version of Swan Lake — and children need to learn to watch themselves.

I don’t like Star Wars. This one may get me in some hot water. But it’s just a fact. And I’ll hasten to add, it’s just my opinion. If you’re a massive Star Wars fan, good for you. (I’m not one of those jerks.) But I’ll just have to politely excuse myself from the in-depth discussions about Jedi vs. Sith and the complexities of The Clone Wars.

I gave up on Doctor Who halfway through Matt Smith. Like many fans who had mixed feelings about the story arcs after Amy and Rory were close to leaving/had officially left, my drive to keep caught up on new episodes really faded out. And I just did not care for Clara or her storylines. So, since I don’t have to plant myself in front of the TV for this show, I’m not. I still fondly re-watch the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant eras, and am content to stay there.

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I never read comic books, have barely touched manga, and avoid graphic novels. Again, this is purely personal taste. The main reason I don’t do this format is simply because I find it confusing. Following the text in the bubbles and the action in the pictures with no over-reaching narrative to explain what’s really going is super tough for me. I truly appreciate the work these artists put in to their genre, though; so, for their sake, I’m really glad I’m in the minority of non-fandom.

The only Star Trek series for me is the original. (Leonard Nimoy was one of my childhood heroes, and I want a Tribble; I’m aware of the risks.) Am loving the new movies that go back to this show’s roots.

I’ve only read through The Lord of the Rings books once. No, this does not make me a traitor, I swear. And I saw the movies before I started reading the trilogy. Still not a traitor, really.

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Along those same lines, I generally don’t read high fantasy. Not knowing how to pronounce anyone’s name, or where they’re going, is a real turn-off for me as a reader. I’d much rather (gasp!) wait for the movie to come out.

I don’t even belong to any fandoms. Stop shouting at your screens, I swear I am a true geek. When I was 7, I wanted to marry The Goblin King, and be Almathea (The Last Unicorn). Rose Tyler is the best Companion ever; it’s officially carved in a block of ice on the planet Woman Wept. For my birthday I got an Evenstar. I proudly carry a TARDIS tote bag. Minecraft has llamas now. See? For me, it’s more about time than anything else. I have a slightly obsessive trait buried down deep (because I’ve repressed it to survive), and if I let myself get started on the forums and the accounts and the threads, I would never eat or sleep or take care of my kids. And those things are kind of important, too.

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books, Fantasy fiction, reading, Science fiction

Why Sci-Fi and Fantasy Need To Be In Different Categories

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To some of you, this will hardly be a surprising topic, or my view on it. When I was in the library the other day (okay, the latest time I was in the library), I was thinking how it could be very difficult for someone who doesn’t understand much about this subject to not see the difference.

You go to a section in the library or bookstore labeled “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” and by the covers and author names and titles alone, it’s pretty clear there’s a difference between the two. The first generally features aliens and/or outerspace, often is set in the future, or a galaxy far, far away, and focuses on science and technological advances. The latter can be contemporary or futuristic or set in the past, and often on another world, or in an alternate reality, but more often focuses on human myths and legends and otherworldly creatures/forces — or, magic.

But the differences don’t stop there. The themes, types of characters, typical plots, and messages frequently vary, too. For example, in sci-fi, there’s a whole lot of how the world may end by a man-made disaster, how to grow as a civilization through science and ideological methods, what sort of ethical quandaries we may face in the year 2345. In fantasy fiction, the main character’s personal journey or literal quest is usually most of the story, and religion or spirituality of that land/time often plays a part.

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Now, I’m not trying to bash or uphold either category in itself. Do I have a preference? Yes, but it’s a personal one, and I don’t think people who like sci-fi are silly, nor do I discount sci-fi as an important genre and valid reading. And do these genres have to stay totally separate? Of course not. A lot of the modern dystopias have tried to combine elements from both. (And that actually creates an entirely new beast. But that’s another discussion.)

What I’m saying here is this: It really bothers me that the apparently ignorant booksellers/publishers/librarians of the world lump sci-fi and fantasy together on their shelves.

Before you gather the torches and pitchforks to come after me, let’s consider this reasonably. Are all people I named above ignorant of these very issues I’m espousing? No, of course not. But does it seem to be a lot? Sorry, but, yeah, it does.

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More than once, I have picked up a book that was incorrectly designated, and then a few pages in, realized it was not my type of book. I just don’t have the kind of brain that does well with all the mechanical explanations and Greek/Latin scientific terms and the super-computer malarkey. (My processing of these areas equates to the simplicity of “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”.)

Give me magic. Give me dragons and unicorns. Give me a princess who needs to be rescued, or a cursed elf, or a monster slayer. Enchanted blade meets demon hide, I totally get. The protagonist is searching for a missing relative, or a lost love, and has 34 seconds to save the world from a rogue goblin king — yup, so on board with that.

So, that’s my big rant at the moment. We fans definitely know there’s a difference between science fiction and fantasy fiction. Personally, I feel more readers of other genres would do well to learn these things. Just saying.

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