Author Archives: Sophie

Reading Fantasy

romantic novelist reading aloudDuring lockdown I’ve been reading even more than usual – and looking back over my Kindle intake for the last 13 weeks, I see that a surprising amount of it is fantasy. I use the term to embrace novels that may be classified also as paranormal, speculative fiction, time travel, alternative history, steampunk or even science fiction.

I was telling a friend this and he looked rather shocked. “You must have been desperate,” he said.

World building fantasy mirrorWell yes, I was – desperate for a cracking good read that would take me somewhere other than a world I was rather fond which seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. But not so desperate that I lurched into uncharted jungle. I like fantasy. I’ve always read quite a bit of it anyway. Didn’t he?

He shuddered. “Oh romance!” he said. (Actually he said something rather crisper than that, and I found it funny and shouldn’t have, so I’m not sharing.)

I conscientiously did not take umbrage. (And a lot of it was not at all romantic, anyway.) But it set me thinking. 

Why Read Fantasy?

Beaulieu River near FawleyMy mother was the first person to ask me “Why read fantasy?” I was deep in The Lord of the Rings at the time. Actually I was weeping over Gimli’s parting from Galadriel in the forest. (I still do.)

My mother just couldn’t understand it. “But it’s not real,” she said. 

I pointed out that neither was Anna Karenina. And I knew she’d wept buckets over that, because she told me so herself. “Yes,’ said my mother unanswerably, “but Anna Karenina might have been lots of people. Nobody was or is ever going to be a Tolkien dwarf.”

clock showing just after half past 12She went off muttering, “And he was a don! Supposed to be educating people! What was the man thinking of?”

Then she shouted up the stairs, “When are you going to do your homework?”

The subtext clearly was terrible waste of time.

Fantasy and Folk Lore

I didn’t agree with her then and I don’t agree with her now. I’ve been a reader of fantasy pretty much all my life. I started off with Lang’s Fairy Books. I found a couple on the bookshelf of an ageing relative and the rest in the public library, God bless it.

There were 12 of them in various colours, the first Blue the last, The Lilac Fairy Book.  As well as other journalism, translation, historical monographs and studies, Lang produced an impressive assortment of other stories, including The Arabian Nights

Lang was one of the Renaissance men of late Victorian England – a classicist, an historian, interested in literature, religion and also psychical research and, above all, folk lore.

Taking Fantasy Seriously

Like Francis James Child, out collecting English and Scottish Popular Ballads which he published 1882-1898, or Sir James Frazer who published The Golden Bough in 1890, Lang took folk stories seriously.

I was a straightforward child. I didn’t expect to meet a wicked fairy queen or a duplicitous genie on the bus to school, 

But I suspended disbelief for the duration of the story. I knew that something real was happening here. 

Fantasy and The Enemy

Folklore and myth is full of powerful enemies – the gods in a bad mood, a witch with a grudge, a vampire feeling thirsty. The Bible gives us the serpent in the Garden, motiveless malice which could have been defied. Only it wasn’t, because mankind (i.e us) was too weak.

But what if mankind was just too afraid? And with justification?

In childhood we dread monsters under the bed. Saying that it is irrational, doesn’t banish the fear. And fear drives – or impedes – action.

Tolkien,  who served in France during the First World War, turned the horrors of the devastated battlefield into Mordor. Sauron is the great enemy, with all the characteristics of the mediaeval devil combined with Milton’s Satan. And that is allied to the terrifying ability to sway the cleverest and bravest like the most guileful twenty-first century PR guru.

The reader knows, throughout all three volumes, that this is a war which we may well lose. And if we win, it will be at terrible cost.

By contrast, Terry Pratchett, who also took childhood horrors seriously, endows Susan, Death’s granddaughter, when she is temporarily a governess, with a poker to beat the living daylights out of the bogeyman under the bed.

The violence comforts the children enormously. 

Violence is one of the things that fantasy is still allowed to show as  Not Always A Bad Thing.

Fantasy and the Rescuer

The Hero Rescuer has bit of a problem in modern times. Basically he deprives the person he rescues of agency.

Incidentally, this wiped out one of the great tropes of romantic fiction for 200 years or more, with the wave of a gender politics wand.

This is true, even in for instance, Georgian and Regency novels, where a wife genuinely had no legal identity and was effectively her husband’s property. Perfect opportunity for Sir Galahad, you might think. But we modern readers still recoil. 

But in a fantasy novel, if the author constructs the world carefully, he/she can create room for a rescuer that won’t offend 2020 sensibilities.

I have found some wonderful rescuers over the last three months. A whole legion of them in Patricia Briggs’s werewolf saga, the Mercy Thompson books and the linked series Alpha and Omega. (OK, I binge read her.)

But I already had a well-stocked library of fantasy novels that I read and re-read because they tell me things about the world, relationships and myself. And possibilities. even hope.

And what surprising things people can do, with a bit of belief, a dash of kindness and a lot of luck.

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, The Queen’s Wing by Jessica Thorne, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson (woman versus Autocorrect is just the first battle with that one. You try googling it !) The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin…

Fantasy in Fire and Hemlock

But probably, for me, the most striking example of fantasy telling the reader the strangeness that humanity experiences and what it can do about it is Diana Wynne Jones’s haunting Fire and Hemlock.

The story is based on the ballad of Tam Lin. (see the Child Ballads for assorted versions) which in turn is related to Thomas the Rhymer. A parallel world of inexplicable characters of power and strange limitations is there right from the start. The reader travels through as much of a fog as do the characters.

But the sense of something huge, perceived only out of the corner of the eye, is there too.
As in Tolkien. the hero can only win by losing. 

The rescuer is not at all a traditional champion. Indeed, at the start of the book, she is a child and shown as both vulnerable and without many resources. But she is courageous and a truth teller and these qualities help her to muddle her way through in the nick of time. 

5 golden rings, Lord of the RingsAnd the person she rescues is trying all the time to give her – and himself – the best possible chance.

During her childhood and early adolescence he sends her helpful books – and they are heavily weighted towards fantasy. Five Children and It. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Sword in the Stone. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings. 

She even builds a whole story, in which she stars as Hero out of Tolkien. She sends it to him. It won’t do. He writes back, “Use your own ideas.” 

Someone else’s fantasy is only the start, you see. To make the magic work, you have to find your own.

Sophie Weston Author


Gone With the Wind

Cherokee rose, state flower of Georgia

Georgia’s Cherokee rose

This week my eye was drawn to a couple of exchanges about Gone With the Wind on social media.

Gone With The Wind First Edition coverThe book has always been controversial, even when it was first published. It was a huge, instant bestseller, so you couldn’t ignore it. But historians challenged its accuracy and many people were disturbed by its depiction of slave-owning as acceptable and the novel’s attitude to the slaves themselves.

It was published in the USA in 1936, between the end of the Great Depression and the start of the Second World War. It was a debut novel, written by Margaret Mitchell, a 35-year-old woman, and set in her native Georgia.

And it was enormous, a five-part tome covering the whole of the Civil War in the South and its aftermath.

In spite of that, it sold 1 million copies in its first year and won her the National Book Award in 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

Hattie McDaniel, actress in Gone with the WindThe 1939 film of the book was the great colour-filled masterpiece, from the gloriously costumed drawing rooms of Clayton County to the terrifying burning of Atlanta.

It won ten Academy Awards, including Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first award ever to an African American. Though her treatment at the ceremony was shameful, as Queen Latifah is the most recent to point out. It’s all part of the long controversy, social, artistic and academic, that the work has inspired.

Gone With the Wind – the Reader’s Dilemma

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Scribbler’s Progress: Learning from Fellow Writers

writer's tools for scribbler's progressTrying to write during lockdown has set me pondering my Scribbler’s Progress.

I have learned a lot about writing over the years. Some came from experience; also, an occasional discovery of my own. But a lot was quite simply from reading great books or discussing with and listening to other writers.

Remembering has been a pleasure – and salutary for my next project. So I thought I would share, in case some of this might help someone else.

Scribbler’s Progress Milestone 1

@sophiewestonbks in IrelandI wrote stories very happily as long as I could remember. It was a nasty shock, therefore, when I found myself living half way up a cliff in Country Kerry re-writing the same scene for SIX WEEKS until I ran out of time and money.

So I cobbled something together and sent the thing off to publishers. They all  turned it down. I heaved a sigh of relief and haven’t looked at it again.

But the experience shook me. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all? Until I vaguely remembered something I’d read… Continue reading

Favourite Places and Virtual Visits Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and Joanna took you on a virtual tour of some of their favourite places. We hope you enjoyed the ruins — from all around Britain — and the other inspirational locations they took you to.

Now, since we’re still in lockdown, Liz and Sophie are going to be your guides for a second instalment.

Ready? Your trip starts here…

Libertà’s Favourite Places #3 : Standen House & Garden (Liz)

At the first sniff of spring, the DD and I usually head off to our nearest National Trust property,

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Dawn Chorus in a Time of Lockdown

Redwing, fieldfare. ring ouzel

Redwing, fieldfare, ring ouzel

Welcome to Dawn Chorus Day. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s been a thing since the 1980s apparently, Started in Birmingham. Now it’s international. Makes me feel sort of proud and very grateful.

I was talking about birds with my friend Susan last week, We hear them so much more clearly during lockdown. We both bemoaned the fact that they’re yelling their heads off and yet we can’t identify them.

BBC Radio and the Lockdown Effect

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Earwigging, Active and Passive. And James Bond

The Listening Servant, Hubertus van Hove,
image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

I hooted over Joanna’s post last week. It made me remember a couple of earwigs of my own.

In the first, I overheard a memorable exchange. It came out of the blue, in truly exceptional circumstances. I’d use it in a book, if I could write one good enough.

In the other I was, as it were, earwigged. But I bet the earwiggers remember it. Both cheered me up enormously.

So I thought I would share.

Setting 1: the Exotic Holiday

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Romantic Novel Awards 2020

On Monday three of us from the Libertà Hive went to the Annual Awards of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association in this their 60th year. It was much less formal than the first awards. (Denise Robins wore black velvet, diamonds AND furs back then.)

But I’m willing to bet this year’s was much buzzier. One Year Dennis Wheatley was guest of honour and sent everyone to sleep with his speech. Mainly about his own books. Even the redoubtable Barbara Cartland failed to catch his eye and get him to Sit DOWN.

RNA AWARDS 2020 Ceremony

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Reading Romance : Why do we do it?

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer with antihero the Duke of AvonThis month I’ve been thinking about reading romance. Who does it? Why? When? And, well, what qualifies as romance? Troilus and Criseyde? Jane Eyre ? Anna Karenina? These Old Shades? Gaudy Night? Bridget Jones?  Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music?

I’ve read them all and I’d say “yes but” to all of them. Many people, maybe most, would disagree with me on at least one.

On 3rd February the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association published its short list for this year’s awards.  It’s the RNA”s 60th anniversary and this year there are nine categories.

My seven stories above would each fall into at least one of them.

Love is in the Air

And then there was St Valentine’s Day last Friday. That always brings out a flurry of saccharine fluff, embarrassing stunts and grimmish think pieces in the media.

Commercialism – shock, horror! Unrealistic emotional expectations from reading romance – fie, sir, write me a sonnet or leave at once! Head for the pub, lads, and fast. Continue reading

Writer’s Clues

This week I have been considering – no, make that marvelling at – writer’s clues we novelists leave sprinkled about our stories. The clue is always a key to unlock some crucial element of plot or character when it becomes important. In other words, later. A breath from the future.

Some are for the readers, especially if we’re writing some sort of whodunnit, whether the crime is murder or stealing a pig.

But some are for ourselves. And some come as a complete surprise to us when we get to the crucial moment. Continue reading

Thanks to Music

Thanks to MusicThis week I’m going to be unashamedly personal, thanks to music. Indeed, I want to say thank you – to friends and well-wishers, fellow writers, musicians of all kinds and the universe.

To put you in the picture – several weeks ago I booked tickets for a concert to take place this past week at the Wigmore Hall.

inner reader, mystery womanIt appealed to me for all sorts of reasons. There was history, discovery (some of the programme was so obscure I thought I’d probably never hear it live again), drama, even youth studies. There was a band I love.

And then there was a sort of deep satisfaction in participating in a major enterprise that would last as long as Mozart’s life.


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