The Pen is Fightier – Fantasycon 2014
This weekend was Fantasycon, at the Royal York Hotel. Scare stories abounded in the days leading up to it about horrific bar prices, therefore caches of white wine were secured. After five and a half hours of driving it was a welcome sight, more glamorous and less bijou than the Albion in Brighton. It was good to catch up with Anne-Mhairi Simpson, Tales of Eve editor at Fox Spirit and my roomie for the weekend, and also Karen and Ewan Davies. The room was nice, very nice: all fluffy bath robes, sparkling mineral water, heart shaped chocolates and comfy slippers. They also gave us a double rather than twin beds…I later wondered if we’d ended up with the honeymoon suite by some accident.
On Saturday morning I took part in my first ever panel, and it combined my two loves: fencing and writing. The title was ‘The Pen vs the Sword’ and featured Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of the Shadows of the Apt series as well as KDF member, Juliet McKenna, author and Aikido blackbelt, Clifford Beale, historical fantasy writer and former member of the Sussex Sword Academy, and yours truly. Marc Aplin, who kindly invited me to participate was not available as moderator so David Thomas Moore stepped into the role at the last minute. He did a great job, and I’m sure being a keen LARPer helped a lot.
It was so much fun.Looking out over a sea of enthusiastic faces didn’t fill me with the dread I expected, these people were here to talk about swords and fighting, and I was happy to do so too.
What I particularly liked was the opportunity to compare eastern with western martial arts, to tackle some of the horrid sword fighting myths and tropes that often pop up in fiction and on screen. There were also some brilliant questions from the audience at the end.
I brought a bag of toys with me, from greatsword to bowie knife, and just as Clifford and I squared up to do some rapier demonstration we got kicked out of the hall. Not to be deterred, we dragged all the kit into the auditorium and invited the audience along, most of whom stayed to ask more questions and request demonstrations from the four of us. We did dagger disarms, how to tackle a choke from behind, how to wield a greatsword in a tight space, why heroes shouldn’t wear their swords on their backs when they want to draw them for a fight, the mechanics of a lunge, what to do if you can’t draw your sword in a confined space, dagger vs spear and many more. Everyone seemed to enjoy the demonstrations and discussion, and a few remained after the HOUR of impromptu workshop to study and handle some of the weapons.
I did manage to track down guest of honour Charlaine Harris the following day to apologise, as I discovered that she was being interviewed by Adele Wearing straight after we left and not only was she competing with the clanging of steel but some people were unable to get to the room due to the press of bodies watching the sword demo. So my apologies to all those affected too. Charlaine was wonderful about it though, and very approachable.
Panel done it was time to relax and enjoy the rest of the con. A nice beer and a catch up with David Murray, my coauthor, in the pub next door was very welcome. Left with lots of ideas and inspiration, writing batteries charged and ready to go. So thanks for that David. After a pork pie we went to a couple of panels:
“Beyond Grimdark”, featured Jen Williams, Adrian Tchaikovsky, James Oswald, and Martin Taylor, with David Moore moderating. Here it was noted that Grimdark has become ubiquitous. I remember when it was called Fantasy Noir, which I prefer. I was left thinking that Grimdark reflects the morality of the characters, more than the setting. Bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Are we tired of Grimdark yet? I don’t think so. Although where Grimdark fails is when authors paint a bleak picture just for scenery rather than affecting the plot. James Oswald made the keen observation that a lot of writers nowadays have also played RPGs at some time in their life, and anyone who’s played those knows the characters rarely do what’s expected of them.
“She ain’t heavy she’s my sister” was panelled by Roz Kaveney (moderator), Anne-Mhairi Simpson, Den Patrick, Charlaine Harris and Glenda Larke. The topic being the lack of female friendships in fiction. We’ve got Sam and Frodo, Sherlock and John, Aragorn and Boromir…where are the Thelmas and Louises? It was hard to find examples that pass the Bechdel test. There were some awkward pauses where people seemed to be trying to think of stuff to say, but the sad truth could have been summed up quite simply – with the majority of fantasy writers to date being male, female friendships independent of male protagonists often just aren’t relevant to the plot. It definitely made me think about my own writing, and how to portray female interaction without it revolving around male agency.
Later in the evening I attended the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, which is normally held in London by Den Patrick and Jen Williams. Despite living in the south it’s been impossible for me to get to these so I was pleased to listen to some readings. My favourite was Laura Lam’s introduction to her upcoming novel, False Hearts. It’s about the separation of conjoined twins, a fascinating topic in itself. Set in a near future, it deals with ideals of perfection, trust issues and close relationships. Very moving stuff. I also heard an extract from Ed Cox’s weird and dark debut, The Relic Guild. Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns was very funny indeed and we all got treated to Emma’s superb narration skills.
The evening was the obligatory Fantasycon disco. Each time I was asked to dance I made the excuse of needing to finish my drink first. I never found the courage in the end, and snuck outside to chat with the smokers where I was pleasantly surprised to bump into Helena Stroud, whose partner Dave Rawlings runs London Longsword Academy. Not even knowing Helena was a writer it was a great first encounter.
Sunday late morning was a good hour or so of groaning and feeling sorry for myself in a comfy chair. A full fat coke and a bar of chocolate later and I was ready to face the British Fantasy Awards. Tales of Eve and Fox Spirit were both up for nominations – Best Anthology and Best Small Press respectively. We didn’t win, but it was thrilling to be nominated, and we got the biggest cheer.
As I left a very smartly dressed American gentleman came and shook my hand, and said that the sword fighting panel was ‘the highlight of the weekend’. I thanked him, tried to read his name badge but it was tucked behind his lapel. Yes, this was one of those terrifying moments when you realise the person you are talking to you is important but you can’t quite put a finger on why. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said, not wanting to offend “but what’s your name?” He drew up to his full height “My name,” he said “Is Larry Rostant.” Only the bloody guest of honour and cover artist GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, to name but a few. Face, meet palm.
It was very well run, and the new venue was great. I’m very grateful to Lee Harris and the organisers; to Lydia Gittins, Chloe Yates, Marguerite Kenner, Alasdair Stuart, Ruth Booth and all the Redcloaks, AKA Team Awesome, who made the magic happen. I made lots of new friends, and met several online buddies for the first time. Looking forward to the next one!
It all ended on a very sad note, however. Graham Joyce, billed as the Master of Ceremonies, was unable to attend due to his health, and I was deeply shocked to hear of his death yesterday after a long battle with cancer. My memories of him are alternately hilarious and touching. He was a very cheeky soul and a brilliant, engaging writer. I’m honoured and glad to have spent some brief moments in his company.