Dragonville

A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.

James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.

Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.

De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.

Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.

Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.

To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/  and can read more about The Painted Boy at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/painted-desc01.htm .

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Taboos and Tattoos

A review of Jon Martin Watts’ Flights of Passage in Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories.
By Derek Newman-Stille

In the short story Flights of Passage, Watts explores the social taboo against inbreeding and creates a society which can trace its descent entirely to one ancestor that crashed on their planet. This society, far from being made up of mutated or genetically damaged people is made up of a group of people with very similar appearance – so similar, in fact that they have to use facial tattooing in order to be able to distinguish between one another.

This society, having only one ancestor (and her child) has had to adapt to a world where the technology that was once used to visit this world is no longer available. They adapted indigenous materials to create a society whose technology matched their environmental circumstances.

Watts explores rights of passage in a society that depends on the high-risk behaviour of gliding in order to catch their prey – the flying animals called Griffins. He explores the changes in cultural context and behaviours over time as a society learns to adapt and adjust their circumstances and the assumption of primitivism that come from the advanced society that visits their world and examines them from afar and reacts with horror at their inbreeding practices.

Despite the fact that the idea of inbreeding causes a visceral reaction of disgust in most people, Watts is able to explore a society that is able to adapt to this and learn not to react with horror to the practice. Flights of Passage stretches one’s comfort zone and makes them explore taboos and assumptions about primitivism.

To explore this and other volumes of the Tesseracts books, visit the Edge website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/

Chadwick Ginther Interview

An Interview of Chadwick Ginther by Derek Newman-Stille

After reading Thunder Road, I knew I had to interview Chadwick Ginther. I had a great opportunity to talk to him

Cover Photo of Thunder Road Courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

earlier this week and get some of his insights about the role of mythology in modern Canada, regionality in Canadian SF, the significance of tattoos, and the future of Canadian mythic fiction.

I want to thank Chadwick Ginther for being willing to do an interview for Speculating Canada, and I will let him introduce himself and his work below.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Chadwick Ginther: I was raised in small town Manitoba, the town of Morden, to be precise, and grew up loving comics, tabletop roleplaying games, and fantasy novels. After bouncing around the province for a while after high school, I settled in Winnipeg. I have been a bookseller for the last eleven years, acting as the catalogue buyer and doing day to day curation for most of our genre books (Crime & Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Graphic Novels). I still love comics, tabletop roleplaying games, and fantasy novels.

Spec Can: What was it like to finish your first novel for publication?

Chadwick Ginther: It felt great, though in fairness, Thunder Road was not the first novel I finished and submitted for publication. It was the first one to get that long-craved “yes.” I think Thunder Road was also the easiest first draft I’ve ever written, Ted’s voice came very early on, and didn’t require much fine tuning. Seeing my name on the spine of a real book was something I’d been working toward as long as I’ve been writing, so for it to happen with this book, which has so much of my home within it, is a special treat.

Spec Can: Your novel Thunder Road was about the Norse in a Canadian environment. What got you interested in the Norse?

Chadwick Ginther: I’ve been reading Norse Mythology almost as long as I’ve been reading, although I did stumble upon the Greek Myths first (the names were more familiar to me then–thank you Mighty Hercules cartoon!). But after I devoured D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths I went back to the library for D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and never really looked back. The Norse gods seemed more real—more human—to me even then. Not only could they die, but most of them knew when, where and how it was going to happen. The inevitability of Ragnarök fascinated me. In fact, I checked that D’Aulaires’ book out of the library so often, the librarian eventually (and delicately) suggested that perhaps another little boy might want to learn about Norse Mythology. That didn’t seem very likely to me at the time, but funny story, there was such a boy. In a strange coincidence, he also grew up to be a bookseller and writer. He even showed up at my book launch. I guess he forgave me for Bogarting the D’Aulaires’ books, as he bought a copy of Thunder Road.

Spec Can: How were you able to blend a Norse cosmology with Canadian ideas?

Chadwick Ginther: Choosing to set the book in Manitoba made the admixture easier than you would expect. The New Icelanders have left a deep cultural stamp in the province, so hints of the Norse Cosmology already existed all around me. For instance, we have towns named Gimli and Baldur and a rural municipality named Bifrost. Beyond the geographical ties, one doesn’t have to travel too far north of Winnipeg to find true wilderness, and that wilderness is, at least according to local folklore, already full of monsters. Lake Manitoba is rumoured to have its own lake serpent (Manipogo). The Interlake region, between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, is home to many reputed sasquatch sightings; Carman Manitoba has had numerous UFO sightings; Winnipeg’s downtown is full of supposedly haunted buildings. I looked at existing paranormal belief, tried to explain it in a Norse context, and then let the monsters loose on the page. Manipogo became Jormungandur, the Midgard Serpent; sasquatch became my jötunn. Where else would dwarves hail from but Flin Flon, a city that describes itself as “The City Built on Rock.” On a more personal note, I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather’s time serving in the Great War, which deeply informed my view of Valhalla’s warriors, the einherjar, and how I used them in Thunder Road.

Spec Can: In what ways can mythology speak to the modern Canadian reader?

Chadwick Ginther: I don’t think Mythology will ever stop being relevant. It was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand. At their core, people have the same basic desires, faults and virtues as we ever have, some of us are kind, some jealous; we’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. Otherwise the myths would have faded with their original tellers.

Spec Can: Your character Ted from Thunder Road is tattooed with Norse symbols that give him power. What got you interested in the idea of the tattoo as a source of power? 

Chadwick Ginther: I think tattoos have always been viewed as a source of power. There is something totemic about the images we inscribe in our flesh. Often in fantasy, and specifically in urban fantasy, power can come with either a sacrifice or in a violation of self—vampires and werewolves both evoke that sense of having one’s normal life stolen. I wanted to touch upon these themes, while hopefully putting a new twist on it. Tattoos may be omnipresent on fantasy book covers these days, but its rarer for them to be an integral part of the story.

Spec Can: What would you say is distinctly Canadian about your work?

Chadwick Ginther: I have to be honest, I’ve never thought about my work in that context. I certainly didn’t set out to write the Great Canadian Fantasy novel and am woefully unfamiliar with the Canadian literary canon (perhaps if it included more dragons and robots…). I suppose one could say there is an element of the immigrant’s tale to Thunder Road, not a uniquely Canadian experience, but we are a nation built by immigrants. It’s one of the reasons I decided not to make Manitoba Ted’s home. Having him trying to start a new mundane life in an unfamiliar place echoed his becoming a part of the Nine Worlds, and the new fantastical life that awaited him.

Spec Can: The Manitoba environment features strongly in Thunder Road. What is distinctly Manitoban about your work overall? 

Chadwick Ginther: Given the story I wanted to tell, I don’t think Thunder Road could have been set anywhere else. The entire book is steeped in Manitoban history, folklore and culture. Making Ted Texan rather than Albertan, and sending him to Minnesota or North Dakota wouldn’t have been as simple as changing the scenery. Beyond the setting and local folklore that was an inspiration, I also think there is something a little self-deprecating in the Manitoban psyche, but only when we’re among one another. Thunder Road allowed me to poke some fun at my home, but also, and I think more importantly, show off some of its unique character. Despite authors such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson calling the province home at one time, no one really thinks of Manitoba when they think of fantasy. Hopefully that will change.

Spec Can: What new ideas or new viewpoints do you hope your reader will take away from your work? What can your novels teach a reader or help them to think about?

Chadwick Ginther: First and foremost, I hope my readers leave feeling “that was a damn good story.” If I don’t nail that important criteria for them, they won’t dig any deeper for meaning. I’m a firm believer that once a book hits shelves, it belongs to the reader, not the author, so what Thunder Road means for me, and what any other individual might glean are likely to be very different. I do hope if someone grew up with a childhood love of myth and folklore, but then drifted away from those stories, that reading my book might reawaken, those feelings. And because I so enjoyed mixing myth and Manitoba, I also hope that Thunder Road can inspire readers to look more closely at their homes to find those ties to the mythological past. If I can make them care about that, they’ll want to keep reading what I write.

The Oil Sands are a very hot topic in Canada these days, and on the receiving end of a lot of demonizing talk, especially east and west of Alberta. I didn’t set out to add to that, but I have a protagonist from that industry—one that can also control the weather—and while I didn’t write the book to have an environmental message, some of my readers have felt that undercurrent in the text. Who am I to say they’re wrong? The story I’ve created so far has made me pay more attention to issues of climate change, unusual weather, and resource development, if it does the same for my readers, that can only be a good thing.

Spec Can: What role does research play in your writing? 

Chadwick Ginther: You’d think research for a novel with a modern setting would be easier, given that we live in the present, but the assumption of knowledge is also much greater. I know how little I know about Boer War for instance, so I’d read more thoroughly were I to ever tackle that subject. As for the mythological, the Norse myths have so many stories that are a part of Germanic folklore, to say nothing of the re-imaginings offered by Marvel Comics. I decided to keep as true as possible to the Icelandic stories, given the importance of Manitoba’s New Iceland to my cosmology. Fortunately my copy editor speaks Icelandic, and is also very familiar with the myths and sagas. He helped make sure all of my umlauts were in the correct place.

I also found nothing beats walking the grounds of where your action is going to happen. In my first draft, I wrote the scenes in Gimli and Flin Flon without having visited either town. That was fine to hash out the action and story beats (and to get the draft done) but I knew I wanted to drive the route Ted and Loki travel in the books. I spent days in Gimli and a week in Flin Flon, scouting locations. Without exception, the real places I found to set the scenes in Gimli and Flin Flon were better than anything I could have imagined. The little details, like stumbling upon grafitti that read “birds suck” while I’m walking around putting myself in the place of a man who has two ravens living in his skull, were priceless.

Spec Can: What can narratives involving mythical qualities do that realist fiction can’t?

Chadwick Ginther: People call speculative fiction “escapist,” as if that is a bad thing. I live a realistic life. Why would I want to spend my time writing about only the drudgery of everyday. I want things to happen. Things that couldn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean good prose has to be sacrificed for plot. With mythic fiction, and really all of speculative fiction, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have an exploration of deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. I can’t think of another art form that blends the two sensibilities better than speculative fiction does. Besides which, all fiction is fantasy. Even if a writer is basing a story on real events or real people, they are inventing thoughts and feelings and the little details. Fiction by definition isn’t true, but it can hold truth—even when you’re writing about the god of lies.

Spec Can: Where did your idea for Thunder Road come from? What inspired you to write it?

Chadwick Ginther: Thunder Road did have some of its earliest origins in two abandoned short stories from the beginning of my writing career. The first saw Thor and Sif living in suburban Winnipeg and Sif deciding to divorce Thor, the other I imagined: what if all those Lake Serpent sightings around the world were Jormungandur, the Midgard Serpent? There are lines from both short stories that made the jump into the novel essentially unchanged.

I always knew I’d write something influenced by Norse myth, the stories have been a part of my life for too long not to creep into my work. I could say Thunder Road is the sum of what has influenced me as a person thus far, but mostly, it was what came out when I sat down to write one day. I didn’t have a plan for it, I certainly wasn’t writing to market. I just wanted to write a story about a blue collar guy who got thrust into a weird and terrible world, and I also wanted that world to be our world. I wrote the scene where the dwarves attacked Ted first. It made me wonder who this guy was, and how he ended up in that hotel room, so I went back and wrote that. Once I put him in a GTO, it was all over, and I was hooked. The rest of the book came out in chronological order, with very few changes to structure or content.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian mythic fiction is going from here?

Chadwick Ginther: I quite enjoyed blending Canadian folklore with other myth cycles. It’s a sandbox I could see myself playing in for a long time. It’s easy to think that Canada doesn’t have a folklore unique to our borders. But I don’t think that’s the case. I would love to see our own folk stories and tall tales take centre stage. I would also love to see Indigenous writers bringing modern takes on their myths and folklore to the fantasy genre. Something I’ve so far only really seen from Daniel Heath Justice.

I’d  feel guilty not suggesting people check out my fellow Ravenstone author, Karen Dudley. Her debut fantasy novel, Food for the Gods, re-imagines Pelops, son of Tantalus, as a celebrity chef in classical Athens. It’s a great read. And even though they’re not Canadian, the success of the Marvel movies featuring Thor and Loki, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels have created an entirely new–and voracious–audience for what I want to write.

Spec Can: How do you bring your sense of humour into your work and what can humour add to a work of speculative fiction?

Chadwick Ginther: Most of my humour in Thunder Road comes from the character of Loki, which I think is a good thing, as he’s generally perceived as a villain and I wanted readers to like him, even when Ted didn’t.

Humour can be a difficult thing to get right on the page, so much of a joke lies in the teller’s inflection, facial movements or posture, that it’s easy for a gag to fall flat. I don’t try to be funny in my writing, but I do find humour tends to creep into even in my darkest stories. I think this is a good thing too. Giving the reader a break where they can laugh out loud now and again allows you to go darker than you otherwise might, because the reader won’t become numb to that darkness. Stephen King is a master of that particular skill. You wouldn’t call him a humourous writer, but damn does he write some funny, funny lines.

Spec Can: The character Ted has some superheroic elements to him. Where there any superhero figures that influenced his development and if so, who were they and how did they inspire you (or caution you to do something different)?

Chadwick Ginther: I grew up reading comic books. In fact, they were the first things I read on my own, and as such, I wouldn’t be surprised if that love and history subconsciously influenced the creation of Ted and his power set. I didn’t have any specific heroes in mind when I started writing, however. Looking back, I can see echoes of DC’s Viking Prince or Marvel’s Mighty Thor and Uncanny X-Men. Thor has faced Ragnarök  several times in the comics, which was one of the reasons I decided to set Thunder Road after The Fate of the Gods, because I found what the Thor writers did when they ended the cycle to be fresh and new. X-men probably gave me a taste of the dysfunctional family dynamic that exists between Ted, Tilda and Loki. Chris Claremont’s epic run on the book was also my introduction to long-form storytelling, which is why I’m hoping that even when the Thunder Road Trilogy is done, that I can keep telling stories in this world. And, super powers are cool, so I could only have Ted angst for so long about what had been done to him. I figured the more he used his powers, the more he would enjoy using them.

The publishing practices of today’s “Big Two” comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, also made me wary of “Event Creep” and “Event Fatigue”. There have been so many “nothing will ever be the same” stories in mainstream comics of late, so many meaningless deaths, reboots and reimaginings, that nothing shocks and nothing surprises. It has also become hard to decode just what has happened to these characters. I read X-Men for over twenty years of my life, and I can’t keep it straight any more. Don’t get me wrong, I still love comics, but when every story has the world’s–or in many cases, worlds’–ending as its focus, eventually your reader will tire. How do you top saving the world? I also like to juxtapose the magical with the mundane in my work, and remember fondly some of the stories where the X-Men spent a day playing softball instead of constantly worrying about their own extinction.

Spec Can: What was it like to bring a character like Loki from Norse mythology into your work? What were you hoping that his character would do for your story?

Chadwick Ginther: As a writer, I think I found Loki almost as much of a pain in the butt as the Aesir must have. So I’m pleased that the response to him as a character has been very positive thus far.

You have to ride a fine line between keeping trickster figures chaotic enough to push your protagonist, create conflict (and help solve it) and at the same time, keep them charming enough that your audience doesn’t wonder why your hero hasn’t left the jerk in the dust.

As soon as I decided to write a book with a Norse myth focus, I knew it had to have Loki. Everything good or bad in Norse myth happens because of him. How did Thor get his hammer? Loki. How did Odin get his spear? Loki. Who was ultimately responsible for the god Baldur’s death? Loki. Who also ensured that Hel would not release Baldur from the underworld? That was Loki too. Loki’s children Fenrir and Jormungandur are responsible for the deaths of Odin and Thor. Loki and Norse watchman Heimdall died at each other’s hands at Ragnarök like a viking Holmes and Moriarty.

Despite his impressive acts of villainy, I knew while I wanted Loki to stay a bit of a bad boy, he wasn’t my Bad Guy. When Loki was bound by the gods, his wife, Sigyn, spent the rest of her days catching the poison that dripped over Loki’s face. Was it simply blind devotion to the institution of marriage? I don’t think so. To me, there had to be something lovable about Loki. One of their children is transformed into a wolf and tears apart the other, whose guts are then used to bind her husband, and still she tried to ease his suffering?

I felt that act had to be honoured somehow.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add for our readers or anything I haven’t covered yet?

Chadwick Ginther: Some readers may have noticed that I took Thunder Road’s main and chapter titles from songs. I’ve been a music fan almost as long as I’ve been a reader. Music is also a huge part of my writing process. I always write to music, and create soundtracks for all of my stories. These soundtracks basically serve as my first draft outlines.

I want to thank Chadwick Ginther for all of his insights into Canadian mythic fiction, the reimagining of myth, the regional nature of Canadian Fiction. I hope that you also enjoy the way Mr. Ginther introduces a mythical and otherworldly element to the Canadian landscape. You can read more about Chadwick Ginther’s work at http://chadwickginther.com/ . You can also read a review of Thunder Road by clicking on Mr. Ginther’s name in the Tags menu.