Food in Fantasy Fiction

This is the abbreviated version of a talk I gave in Ireland over the weekend for Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, when I was at my desk on the other side of the world. I thought it might be a pleasant interlude in a difficult year. Even abbreviated it is not that short.

I’ve kept the beginning, but taken out much detail. If you want to see what the writers actually say (and I chose seven novels because they are so good, and the eighth because I had something very particular to say, so it’s worth chasing all but one novel and looking at those first pages) scroll down to the end, where I’ve given a list of the books I talk about (with links). One day I need to do a presentation somewhere on food in the openings of US fantasy novels. That would be a great deal of fun.

The talk alone meant I spent much of Monday cooking.

When I told folks that my new research is partly on food and foodways in fantasy, many people nodded sagely and said, “Ah, stew. So often when we talk about food in fantasy, we begin with Diana Wynne Jones and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Diana Wynne Jones pointed out the elephant in the room when she said that “Stew is what you will be served to eat every single time” in Fantasyland. ” The vision of stew and arguments about stew are wonderful and often funny, but they obscure what writers actually do with food in fiction. That’s what I’ll explore today.

Food is not just something we eat because we kinda like living, it’s also critical to how we shape and explain our lives and even to helping us trust the stories we read and the stories we tell. Today I shall take eight writers, four Irish and four Australian, and I shall look at eight novels. I shall specifically look at the opening of each novel, for the beginning is a very fine place to start to learn about food in fantasy.

One of the things that got me interested in food and foodways was how food was displayed at the Museum of Melbourne some years ago. The food narrative for most of Australia in the museum was school lunchboxes or Charlene’s wedding cake from Neighbours. Food was presented as a developed part of identity and story. And then… there was a special room for the food and foodways of Indigenous Australians. It consisted of a garden.

The very first novel I chose to look at was by Lisa Fuller because she challenges the Museum of Melbourne’s depiction of Indigenous Australian foodways in Ghost Bird. Fuller presents one family and their foodways in detail and with much cleverness. When you reach the end of Ghost Bird, it’s possible to cook at least some of the family dishes. Not because there are recipes (there are no recipes) but because the descriptions of food and foodways are so very evocative and sophisticated. Food and foodways are a profound part of this novel. They don’t just explain the relationship of the Indigenous Australian family with White Australia and with modern science, however, foodways explain the relationships between people. They elegantly refute that garden in the Museum of Melbourne by showing us that ingredients in nature are only one small part of real foodways.

What about Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke? Like Ghost Bird, it’s about family and loss and tension. Looking at the food in the early part of Other Words for Smoke, however, instantly demonstrates their differences.

First, food is not the factor that brings the initial narrative together.

When does food first appear, then? And what form does it take? It appears when the novel proper begins, and food is a critical trigger for thought at that point. It shows us a lot about the character, what they see, what aspects of what they see need interpretation. It is also, just as in Fuller’s novel, a critical component of culture. As I read out the quote, it hurt my ears. Food delineates cultural differences so precisely in Other Words for Smoke that I can hear how wrong my accent is for this novel wrong. The novel itself feeds on a very precise, even mimetic everyday. Everything that pushes us away from that everyday is going to hurt.

Food is no less important in Sam Hawke’s City of Lies than in the previous two works. City of Lies is an adventure fantasy set in a secondary world, full of politics and intrigue and danger. Food is twisted into it, right from the beginning. The very first page of the novel itself links food with poison intimately and those links last throughout the novel. We know foodways through the politics of poison.

In one way, Hawke’s depiction of food and foodways is as complex as Fuller’s. It’s a whole cuisine. Like both Fuller’s and Griffin’s, it’s closely connected to the plot. There is one big difference. The food is in a secondary world, which means that Hawke describes it in a lot more detail. The trick of secondary worlds is that, if you want to read one that is quite, quite different to our own, the world building is often detailed. Hawke takes an almost anthropological approach to describing food, while using the type of descriptive prose that is the hallmark of many secondary world novels.

Why do I not instantly want to cook the delectable dishes Hawke describes? First, they’re not written to tempt cooks. The palate touches on taste (but not in detail) but it’s also strongly visual.

More importantly, Hawke undermines her own descriptions of food by pointing out their relationship with poison. Food and foodways are vehicles for delivering poison and plotpoints in an alternate world.

Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne is also a secondary world fantasy, but the only mention of food in the first two pages is grass and water for a hungry horse. How much need for food is there in adventure fantasy? It depends on the adventure fantasy. It also depends on the fashion in publishing, which possibly brings us back to stew, which once was most definitely a fashion food for fantasy. The lack of food in the opening of The Poison Throne, then, signals to the reader its sub-genre. Kiernan is not the only fantasy writer who uses signals in this way and, notably, uses lack of food in this way. The critical insight here is that no matter how much we all need food in our everyday, we don’t all need food in all our novels.

Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything presents food from the very first line where a toaster explodes. After the toaster dies, Izzy’s mother finishes the coffee. The toaster and the coffee give us food and foodways, both.

There are many ways of interpreting this. What I’d like to focus on now is how mundane the scene is and yet how it sets up the construct that is critical for the story: two worlds meeting. The family bonds through food and through the destruction of the toaster, which is also important, for it announces that this is not a novel about an impossibly dysfunctional family.

Long uses the small to foreshadow the big, just like Fuller, and prepares readers for what will come. The world of the novel will change and, in a mere two pages, Long has given us both the familiar world and a stake in it.

Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London is another novel I get to dip into twice, for it has a prologue and an opening. This is another novel in which food plays a minimalist role. There is no food in either the prologue nor the opening proper.

Unlike Kiernan’s book, The Left Handed Booksellers of London is not a secondary world fantasy. It’s set in a world much like ours, but with magic. When food finally appears, it’s the kind of food that one would buy for quick sustenance travelling through the UK.

This means of depicting culture depends very much on readers already having some cultural knowledge about the setting. It works in The Left Handed Booksellers of London because so much of world culture in this novel revolves around a popular knowledge of UK culture. Real culture is a lot more complex and dynamic than the stuff we think we know about a place or a time: the novel is a popular, simplified depiction. Nix’s novel is for the international market, and the way Nix uses food in it tells us this, very clearly.

Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths is the polar opposite even though the technique in the first pages has something critical in common with both The Left-Handed Booksellers of London and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies. It shares with Nix’s novel the absence of food in the first two pages.

Foodways are implied, however, as part of a particular focus on the material world that binds the novel tightly together.

It shares descriptions of plants with Hawke’s City of Lies. The uses of plants reflect the cultural use of a plant, just as Hawke’s did, but the plants are plants we know and the uses are more varied.

The cultural elements in Perfectly Preventable Deaths come from a quite different direction to those in The Left-handed Booksellers of London or City of Lies. They are carefully crafted to draw us into a complex and perilous world. This is a very different kind of fantasy to Nix’s. The novel depicts a strong local culture. Food and foodways are an inherent part of the culture and appear in this way throughout the story. They are not strong in the opening because the opening sets up the protagonist’s view of this culture and all the cultures that impinge upon it during the tale.

The last book is by me. My fiction is not particularly special, but there’s one element that I know for certain about my own work and that I need to address. That element is authorial intent.

Ask me and I’ll write about authorial intent and its relationship to world building and to prejudice and to all kinds of wonderful things. Here, today, I want to talk about what the author actually intends when they write. When we try to work out what the author intends in the book we’re reading, there’s a certain amount of guesswork. When the writer claims something about their work (as I am doing here) it’s important to test their claims.

I have a cookbook and bits in other books that show clearly my relationship to food. I was a professional blogger on food history for three years and have given academic papers on it. I ran banquets for Conflux, the Canberra science fiction convention. There is an enormous amount of data on my responses to food and foodways. You don’t have to trust what I say here – you can test every single claim I make. Let me do some claiming, then.

The opening of Borderlanders is full of food. I used food to make it clear that the novel was set in contemporary Australia and I to communicate contemporary Australia to those who know it not. I wanted the opening to feel not-too-exotic, because magic will intervene in the plot soon enough. All those are surface reasons. I had a deeper reason: I set up a character to look as if they are the hero… and they’re not. From the beginning, this novel reinterprets the hero’s journey. I wanted everyday and very mundane food to give the right reader a sense of ambivalence about her quest.

That’s eight authors and eight reasons for food. Let me recap them.

1. In Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird, food and foodways presented a highly-political argument in a non-threatening way.

2. In Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke food is used to delineate subtle cultural points. In doing this, it reminds us that fantasy is a variety of literature, and not a lesser artform.

3. In Sam Hawke’s City of Lies food and foodways are undermined in order to present another aspect of society entirely.

4. In Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, food, or lack thereof, is presented as a clear signal of sub-genre.

5. Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything uses food and foodways as vehicles to prepare for a plot twist and a changed world.

6. Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London uses food as a minor part of a culture we think we know, making the novel easier for more readers and more likely to sell in larger numbers across the world.

7. Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths gives us food as a minor aspect of the depiction of the most important character.

8. And, finally, by looking at authorial intent in my own Borderlanders, I demonstrated that food in fantasy novels may not actually be merely one of these things. It can be several at once.

 

The List of Books

Lisa Fuller Ghost Bird

Sarah Maria Griffin Other Words for Smoke

Sam Hawke City of Lies

Celine Kiernan The Poison Throne

Ruth Frances Long A Crack in Everything

Garth Nix The Left Handed Booksellers of London

Dierdre Sullivan Perfectly Preventable Deaths

Gillian Polack Borderlanders

Readings From the Treehouse

Logo for Virtual Events from FOGcon

Treehouse residents Nancy Jane Moore, Madeleine E. Robins, and Gillian Polack are all reading on Sunday, July 25, beginning at 5 pm PDT as part of FOGcon’s Authors Read.

Nancy is a featured reader along with San Francisco author Claire Light, and Madeleine and Gillian are part of the rapid-fire readers participating in FOGcon’s ongoing virtual event program.

The current schedule is three rapid readers, followed by Claire, then a break before three more rapid readers. Nancy will close the readings. There will be time for questions and the event will close with breakout rooms with each of the featured readers.

All of this takes place on Zoom. Register here to get the Zoom link.

A Few Links

I’ve done some posts on other blogs about my new novel For the Good of the Realm. Most recently, I did a post on the Milford SF Writers blog — which is the blog for the yearly peer workshop held in the U.K. (currently meeting in Wales) — on the way different writers are using 19th century (and some early 20th century) fiction in their stories.

Earlier I had a piece on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea series and also one on Mary Robinette Kowal’s My Favorite Bit.

All three will give you some good ideas of where my ideas come from.

For the Good of the Realm is available from Aqueduct Press.

For the Good of the Realm author's copies

Clarion West Write-a-thon and Some Thoughts on Why I Like SF/F

Clarion West Write-a-thon

I just signed up to participate in this year’s Clarion West Write-a-thon. Since this works as a fundraiser for Clarion West, you can sponsor me in my writing endeavors. Of course, this is also a tool for making myself write.

I’m planning to work on a sequel to For the Good of the Realm, which just came out from Aqueduct Press. I plan to do a little work on it each day. I notice in looking at the pages for this year’s Write-a-thon that there are many other things I may be doing, but that’s the starting point.

Signing up for this got me to thinking about Clarion West, past Write-a-thons, and the whole science fiction and fantasy world.

Going to Clarion West was one of the pivotal experiences in my life. The intensity of the process was crucial for me. It not only made me write, but it made me believe in my writing. But I think the key part was being a writer in community, doing the same kind of work along with others who shared my interests and desires.

I bonded with the people in my class. Twenty-four years later, I remain close friends with several of those people and can usually pick right up where we left off with most of them.

The Write-a-thon doesn’t bring that back, but it does make me remember Vonda N. McIntyre, who always participated and always sponsored other writers who were participating. Of course, Vonda was well-known for her generosity to other writers, so this was no surprise.

Signing up for the Write-a-thon reminds me of how much I miss her. Continue reading “Clarion West Write-a-thon and Some Thoughts on Why I Like SF/F”

Author’s Copies!

For the Good of the Realm author's copies

I finally got my author’s copies of For the Good of the Realm. (The post office seems to be particularly slow in sending books these days.)

So wonderful to finally hold the print version in my hands. I’ve had the ebook versions since right before it came out, but while they’re great for reading, you can’t hold them.

If you want one of your own, you can get one directly from Aqueduct Press, from Bookshop, or from the usual places.

The Three Musketeers With Women Having All the Fun

Here’s my review of For the Good of the Realm, by Treehouse Writer’s own Nancy Jane Moore (Aqueduct)

The elevator pitch for this charming historical fantasy is “The Three Musketeers With Women.” That does not do justice to the book by a long shot. The concept is familiar enough, from both the novels by Alexandre Dumas and the many film adaptations. In this swashbuckler tale, heroic, chivalrous swordsmen fight for justice and for their unbreakable friendship. The original, written in 1844, featured men in all the fun roles, with women being either weepy and weak or deviously evil. But why should the men have all the fun? I expect just about every female reader or viewer has railed at the injustice of depriving half the human race of such valorous deeds. Nancy Jane Moore, a thoughtful writer and skilled martial artist, has now set things right.

For the Good of the Realm is and isn’t like The Three Musketeers. There’s a realm like France, a royal couple divided by politics, each served by their own dedicated guard, and the head of the Church bent on cementing their own power. In this world, however, the Queen’s Guard is comprised of women, and the King’s Guard of men, and the queen’s advisors are largely women, as is the Hierophante. Add to this the existence of magic, condemned by the Church, arousing superstitious dread but freely used by the enemies of the Realm. There is no green recruit, D’Artagnan, but a pair of women friends from the Queen’s Guard – Anna D’Gart and Aramis, who fights duels as an amusement and cannot quite seem to give up her bawdy relations to become a priest. Each has a lover from the King’s Guard from whom they must keep secrets, but with whom they occasionally join forces.

The structure of this novel reflects the style to which it does homage. The point of view straddles the divide between third and omniscient, less intimate than is currently in vogue but marvelously evocative of Dumas and his contemporaries. Moore’s control of language and tone never falters as she draws the reader into not only a different world but a slightly different way of experiencing that world. Today we confuse “closeness” in point of view with emotional closeness to a character, but as Dumas and now Moore demonstrate, readers can feel very much in touch with a character through the careful depiction of actions and words. This is, after all, how we come to understand the people in our lives. “The adventures of…” implies an episodic arrangement, but here each chapter and each incident builds on what has come before and lays the foundation for what is to come in subtle, complex ways. The final confrontation between Anna d’Gart and the evil, scheming Hierophante is less a Death Star explosion than it is the inevitable showdown between two highly competent chess players.

In reflecting on the pleasure of immersing myself in For the Good of the Realm, it strikes me as a tapestry created by a master weaver. There is an overall picture but the intricate details and skill of the stitchery – the lives and relationships of the characters – are what lend it depth and resonance.

Order it from Amazon here or from your favorite bookstore.

Travelling as the Green Children Do

I’m mostly typing with my left hand still. One day my right hand will heal, just as, in Disney’s universe, one day a prince will come. In the meantime, something else is on the way. Let me give you a link: https://madnessheart.press/product/the-green-children-help-out/?v=6cc98ba2045f

It’s my new novel.

Some years ago I started work on an alternate universe where the English Jewish population is significantly larger than the one we know, where there are many types of magic and much administration to keep it polite and then I thought, “I want a superhero novel set in that universe.” More than that, I wanted the superheroes to come from our universe. I set up a pocket universe to bridge the two and wondered what it would be like if a twelve year old Australian girl entered by mistake and never left. I wrote a novella to test the idea and then I went to France in 2018, to research it.

I researched many other things at the same time, for I’m still and always an historian and I had many questions I needed answers for. My burning one (not for the novel) was what happens one hundred years after land is destroyed by war. How do people find culture, rebuild, talk about the past? I’ll write about my discoveries one day.

What I wrote into my novel was modern Amiens, and a town in my little pocket universe. The town’s architecture came from what I learned about post-war building and the dances and culture I gave the good people of Tsarfat began there but included more recent French culture, both the good and the bad.

While I wrote the novel I dreamed of a bal musette in a country where people have green skin. I dreamed of what powers people could win by going through a dangerous door, and I listed all the different kinds of magic England could have based upon its history and historical beliefs.

This is the moment before my dreams reach the outside world.

Each novel has its own path in the outside world. I have a deep and vast desire with this one that readers will take my dreams and add their own, that they will walk in my France and my England and my Tsarfat. I took hundreds of pictures as my world came to life in my mind. To make it easier, I plan to share my pictures, some on Patreon in a few days, others on any website or at any online convention that wants to join my magic journey.

Why do I have this deep and vast desire? An imagined journey is the perfect way to explore in this difficult time. I love the thought of safe excitement in the strange time we live in.

For the Good of the Realm Is Out

For the Good of the RealmFor the Good of the Realm made its official bow into the world today (June 1). This is my second novel, a tale of swordswomen and witches that owes a debt of gratitude to Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers.

It’s from Aqueduct Press. You can order the trade paperback or ebook editions (both epub and mobi) directly from them. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite.

Here’s what some others have had to say about the book:

Publishers Weekly: “This lighthearted, female-led fantasy adventure from Moore (The Weave) follows a pair of Queen’s Guardsstaid, circumspect Anna and feisty, impulsive Asamiras they become embroiled in the machinations of the rulers of Grande Terre. As the threat of war looms and a sinister undercurrent of forbidden magic becomes harder for Anna to ignore, the two women must out-fight and out-think the enemies of the realm in a series of duels and cloak-and-dagger intrigues…. With a principal cast of mostly women, this is sure to appeal to readers looking for stories of empowered female characters that go beyond simply giving them swords.”

Lesley Wheeler, author of Unbecoming: “For the Good of the Realm is a sparkling tournament of a novel, full of thrills as well as feats of storytelling bravado. Moore has invented a feminist medieval otherworld that is egalitarian in its sword and sorcery, yet political intrigue ultimately rules as Anna, a stalwart member of the Queen’s Guard, collaborates with a range of surprising characters to foil the nefarious plots of a power-hungry Hierofante. Spirited and funny, this is a great read.”

Tansy Rayner Roberts, author of Musketeer Space and The Creature Court Trilogy: For the Good of the Realm is a splendid, swashbuckling romp that captures the very spirit of the Musketeers. The author weaves palace intrigue, swordplay, romance, and divided loyalties into a deeply satisfying fantasy adventure with women at the center of the narrative, wielding and negotiating power.”

In addition to the publisher’s website, you can order this book through:

My Bookshop page

My neighborhood bookstore, East Bay Booksellers

Indiebound

Powells

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Stand Alone Short Fiction by Me

It turns out, lots of readers want stand-alone short fiction — short stories, novelettes, even novellas, which are basically short novels. They like being able to finish a story in a single sitting, as well as the conciseness and jewel-like precision of short fiction. I’ve been bringing out some of my best, most recent, in this format.

“The Poisoned Crown,” will be out on June 1 and is available for pre-order here.

The king is dead, long live the prince, but not for long if his stepmother the Queen Regent has anything to say about it. So he appeals to the one person he can trust, his father’s best swordswoman and secret lover. Venise wants nothing more than to bury herself in her grief at the king’s death, but her conscience will not allow her to abandon the young man who is so like his father. The only question is whether the two of them can stand against the Queen Regent’s black magic.

I hope you enjoy it! To whet your appetite, here I read the opening.

Naming Favorites

A few years ago I heard someone ask Vonda N. McIntyre which of her novels was her favorite. Her answer? “The one I’m working on now.”

It’s possible that she meant that she was most excited about that particular book, the one she finished just before she died. It is a brilliant book.

But I took it more generally to mean that whatever she was working on at the time someone asked that question would be her favorite.

I like that idea, though I suspect it’s rather a romantic one. After all, writers who become known for certain books often find themselves in a position where they have to keep writing them long after they’re sick of the subject.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes so that he could quit writing those stories, but it didn’t work. I suspect strongly that his favorite Holmes story – assuming he hadn’t become so sick of doing the work that he didn’t like any of them by the end – would not have been any of the later ones he wrote.

I’m sure many other authors have felt something similar, though they’ve kept it to themselves since people were paying them to keep writing the same thing. After all, most writers need the money. Continue reading “Naming Favorites”