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Channa Ti

A couple of weeks ago I posted about black characters in heroic fantasy–not only their scarcity, but how these characters are depicted on the covers of fantasy novels.

Art for graphic novels, RPG, video games, and card games seems to be more diverse and inclusive.  Paizo, in particular,  includes lots of darker skinned characters in its Pathfinder game setting. (Depicted here are the “iconic” paladin and cleric.)  Characters of various shades and ethic backgrounds are showing up in fiction, as well.

I’ve written two stories for Paizo with black characters as protagonists.  The first was “Dark Tapestry,” a six-part serial novella published in the Legacy of Fire adventure path, and later compiled and sold as an ebook.  The protag is druid and “water witch” Channa Ti, a half-elf whose father was an elf of the Mwangi Jungle and mother a black human. In the adventure path, there are no pictures of Channa Ti.  She’s the first-person narrator, so it makes sense to depict what she sees rather than how she is seen. But as a result, when it came to putting a character on the cover of the ebook, Paizo went with a white male priest–a nameless bad guy.  I see the practicality of this–it’s what they had available–but the end result, even if it was not intentional, is one more fantasy cover that does not feature a black character.

In a perfect world, an illustration of Channi Ti would be black (check), badass (check), with an exotic touch from her mixed-raced heritage. (Check!  LOVE the green eyes!) I felt a jolt of recognition when I saw this portrait by digital artist Rainfeather Pearl, and I’m sharing it here with her permission.

 

A property of light

Heart of Stone, by C.E. Murphy, is a well written, entertaining urban fantasy novel with a gorgeous cover.  The protagonist is depicted on this cover, but I was several chapters in before I realized she was black. (By the way, I applaud the author for not mentioning ethnicity until it was relevant to the story.)  Once I knew this, I realized the woman on the cover could, in fact, be perceived as having brown skin. But color is a property of light, and the color palette, shadows, and highlights all conspire to create a very different first impression of Ms. Murphy’s hero.

Ursula Le Guin summed up fantasy assumptions  as  1) the characters are white, 2) they live sort of in the Middle Ages, and 3) they’re fighting in a Battle Between Good and Evil.

Heart of Stone is an urban fantasy, so Assumption #2 doesn’t apply, but Assumption #1 held up a rather disconcerting mirror and got me pondering three things:  1) am I still stuck in a “default to white” mindset or 2) did the publisher make a deliberate decision to downplay the protagonist’s race, and if so, 3) why?

Quite a few years ago, I wrote the narrative outline of a novel in a fantasy setting based on various African myths and legends. A friend and fantasy writer whose opinion I value highly told me that a book with a black character (a black human, that is, not a dark elf) on the cover wouldn’t sell.  “People might SAY they want more diversity,” he said, “but when they go to the bookstore, they pick up the book with the blond barbarian on the cover.  Most fantasy readers won’t venture beyond pseudo-Celtic and -Nordic settings.”

This was a rather bleak and unflattering assessment, especially considering that at the time, there was a lot of talk among Forgotten Realms creators and fans about “adding diversity.” People on forums and at conventions asked for books and games set in fantasy versions of Asian, African, the Middle East, South American, and island settings.  They got Maztica, Kara Tur, and Al-Qadim.  These settings came and went rather quickly (though to be fair, Al-Qadim was a case of “planned obsolescence.”) At the time, it seemed that my writer pal was right:  What people said they wanted and what they actually read were, at best, zen diagrams.

I’d like to think matters have improved since then. And I think they have, at least in some corners of the publishing industry.  Finding ethnic and cultural diversity is easy…if you’re looking at books for middle readers (age 9-12)  This month I spent a bit of time browsing the middle reader shelves, both online and in a bricks-and-mortar store, and I found books whose protagonists are black, multi-race, Asian, Native American, Rom—you name it.  There are whole imprints, such Tu Books, dedicated to providing genre books with protagonists to whom young readers of all ethnic backgrounds can relate.  The list of Newberry Medal winners is a silent celebration of diversity.  Even commercial fiction tends toward the inclusive. The Animorphs series, for example, was popular when my kids were in middle school, and is currently being reissued with new covers and updated cultural references.  This features a team of five kids:  a white jock of Jewish ethnicity, his blond cousin, her black BFF, a Hispanic guy, and a generic white dude who spends most of the series in hawk form.  No one is a sidekick; in a series that runs to over 50 books, everyone gets several shots at being the first-person narrator.

As promising as the middle reader books might be, things start to slow down in teen books, and by the time we reach genre fiction for adults, it’s not easy to find non-white characters in starring roles.

The fantasy genre, in particular, remains heavily Euro-centric. A quick review of the top 200 fantasy titles on Amazon.com showed two dark-skinned characters:  the dark elf warrior Drizzt Do’Urden, and a (headless) tawny woman on a self-published erotic paranormal romance.

Offhand, I can think of a few notable titles that venture beyond the suburbs of Middle Earth:  Jay Lake’s novel Green features an Asian protagonist, and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon has an Arabian Nights flavor, as do Marcy Rockwell’s Tales of Sand & Sorcery.   And, of course, there are Ursula Le Guin’s  books, which focus primarily on people whose skin is various shades of brown.  But her book covers often hide this fact by not depicting characters at all, making them tiny or highly styled, or by blatant white-washing.

So, where are the heroic fantasy books with black protagonists?  Do they exist, or is it just impossible to tell from the covers?  Black characters don’t seem to have much of a presence in fantasy cover art, either because there are few characters to illustrate, or because it’s deemed imprudent to illustrate black characters as, well, black.

One of the things that prompted this post was my correspondence with an enthusiastic middle school language arts teacher in South Carolina.  He’s building an in-classroom library for this students, and seems to be successfully passing along his passion for reading. He has posted pictures of the kids holding up newly acquired books. About half the class is black.  Right now, they can choose from many books that are age-appropriate and inclusive, but what happens in two or three years, when characters who look like them all but disappear?  What sort of message is that sending, and what effect will that have on their desire to keep reading?

If you know of recent fantasy novels that feature dark-skinned characters, please add the info in comments.  If the cover art bears any resemblance to the character, even better.  Send me a link, and I’ll add the cover to a follow-up post.

 

In Faerie Light

Zombie Sky Press is producing a 6-part RPG adventure (Pathfinder compatible) called The Faerie Ring that invites players to explore the dark side of the fey. This, in my opinion, is a Very Good Thing.

During the Victorian era fairies came to be viewed as cute and harmless–tiny winged creatures with flower-hued wings. This was not always the case. For many centuries and in many lands, the fey folk were seen as potentially dangerous, if not outrightly so. They were propitiated, or better yet, avoided. Still, anyone might have a chance encounter with the fey, so wise men armed themselves with sharp wits and cold iron.  The Faerie Ring sets the stage for such encounters.

So does In Faerie Light, an upcoming tie-in anthology of dark fantasy stories.  I’m very pleased to be taking part in this anthology.  In “Fairy Tales,” when a farm lad foolishly pledges his service to a pair of tiny fey siblings, his only chance of survival lies in the fireside stories his mother used to tell.

In this story I finally got a chance to explore a theme dear to my heart.  Here’s an excerpt:

I’d no sooner pulled the knife from my boot than a ring of mushrooms sprung up around me, quick as a blink. The light in the clearing changed. Deep green shadows rose from the forest floor and the air pressed in on me until I was pretty sure I knew how an apple felt when it was going through the cider press. The pain drove me to my knees. I dug my hands into the moss and held on as the world whirled around me, spinning me away into a darkness deeper than sleep.

I woke up to the feel of someone’s boot in my ribs. Two fairies stood over me—tall, fearsome warriors straight from Ma’s darkest tales. One was a woman in a white tunic and leggings. A thick braid of green hair fell nearly to her knees and wings of green and gold rose from her shoulders. The other was a man, also dressed in white, with short green hair and a stub that looked like a plucked chicken leg poking out of a slash in the back of his tunic. Both held naked swords, which were pointed in my direction.

“You pledged service to me and mine,” the woman said in Greenbug’s queenly tones. “Rise, and fulfill your oath.”

I got to my feet and took a look around. The mushrooms that made the fairy ring were as big as cottages. A cow-sized beetle waddled by. And if I needed any more proof that the damn pixies had shrunk me down to their size, there lay my knife, big enough to serve as the keel of a ship.

“Whatever you want me to do, seems to me I could do it better at my usual size.”

“Does it?” the fey man said coldly. “Seems to me the tunnels leading to the dragon’s lair are too slender and subtle to accommodate a blundering meat mountain.”

Now, that was a pretty good insult, and normally I wouldn’t be inclined to let it pass, but he’d given me something more interesting to think on.

“We’re going to fight dragons? Like this?”

“Oh, no,” Greenbug assured me. “We will be protecting dragons.”

This was sounding worse by the moment. “What from?”

Their faces turn grim and solemn.  The fey man leaned toward me and whispered, “Squirrels.

* * * *

In Faerie Light will be released this summer.  More details coming soon.

 

New book info page: Winter Witch

Gathering links for Winter Witch was a quick and easy process, thanks to the excellent Paizo Publishing website.  Links provided on Paizo’s page for this novel make it easy to purchase the paperback and ebook, read a sample chapter, and browse reader reviews.

The info page on this website add links to online booksellers Amazon.com and B&N, which sell print copies, and iTunes, where you can purchase an ebook version.

For a full list of book info pages currently on line (there are only 2 so far), mouse-over Books on the menu bar.

Geek.Kon

I’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin this weekend as a guest of Geek.Kon.  Here’s my schedule:

FRIDAY:
1:00pm-2:00pm – Writing for Shared Worlds
2:00pm-3:00pm – Creating Enduring Characters
5:00pm-5:30pm – Opening Ceremonies
8:00pm-10:00pm – Gaming with the Guests Event

SATURDAY:
11:00am-12:00pm – World Building
2:00pm-3:30pm – Digital Publishing vs Traditional Publishing
4:00pm-5:00pm – My Geeky Hobbies

I’m not sure what I’ll do for the “Gaming with Guests” slot. Maybe bring a Banagram game and take on all comers. Anyone who can beat me–and seriously, good luck with that–will get a signed copy of WINTER WITCH.

Hope to see you there!