Friday, March 1, 2024

The Year of the Villain #2: Ursula Le Guin & Earthsea

(Warning: this post does contain a spoiler regarding the outcome of A Wizard of Earthsea. I'll alert you again once we get there.) 

Otherwise, welcome back, gentle readers, to the Year of the Villain in our own, much loved, Fantasy fiction.

If you're a regular here, you may be thinking, "Hey, doesn't Helen always go from Tolkien to Ursula Le Guin?"

In which case, although it's by no means "a truth universally acknowledged", you wouldna be wrong either. Very often, I do follow Tolkien with Le Guin.

Here's why. Foremost, I perceive both as hugely influential on the genre, but also profoundly different in terms of how their books work. So when looking at any aspect of fantasy storytelling, such as villains, worldbuilding, or magic, their styles illuminate very different terrain. 

They're both master storytellers as well, so there's much to be learned, as well as to delight in, by shining a light on their work. 

So-o, in last month's deep dive into The Lord of the Rings I pointed to its villains being monolithic and very often remote, and their evil world-threatening, i.e. Sauron. Even secondary antagonists such as the Lord of the Nazgul and Saruman are large scale and relatively "distant", and although Gollum is small, personal, and vicious, his corruption stems from the ring, and via the ring, from Sauron.

In terms of Le Guin's Earthsea, I'm going to look at the first trilogy, which I consider the most formative, although the same principles inform all her work. The three books are A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore.

The Nature of Earthsea Evil

In general, Earthsea's evil -- and the villains that go with it -- are not world-threatening. (Bear with me, all those who're shouting The Farthest Shore, because I'll come to that. :-) ) Evil is part of the fabric of the world, particularly its earth, as we see with the stone of the Terrenon and the tombs of Atuan, and given effect by those who choose to serve it. For example, Serret and her husband with the Terrenon stone, and the priestess Kossil, in the tombs. 

The evil may seek expansion through its servants, but in general it is confined to a geographic location, with many counterbalancing forces in the Earthsea world. These include its oceans and the wizards, or mages, who are charged with maintaining the balance of magic and powers. And because the old evils of earth rely on human servants, the servants' villainy manifests as corruption and possession, raiding and murder within a sphere of influence, rather than all-out war on the world.

Dragons are another of the forces the wizards must contend with. Although powerful magical beings they are not evil in and of themselves. Rather, very like humans, they may, individually or collectively, engage in villainous deeds such as killing, looting, and destruction. Like the evil wrought by the old powers of the earth, through their servants, the dragons' villainy is limited by their physical and magical strength, so tends to be regional.

This is the pattern of evil established through A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, in which the innate evil of stone and tombs, for example, are given shape through villains such as the Lord of the Terranon and Kossil. Alternatively, dragons like Yevaud lay waste to islands like Pendor -- not unlike the Kargish raiders that go a-viking, murdering, looting, and pillaging through Gont.

The Contest Between Hero and Villain

If Earthsea's evil, and its villains, were limited to the old powers of earth and the dragons, the only difference between its approach and that of The Lord of the Rings would be one of scale. But in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin gives the contest between protagonist and antagonist a very different focus to Frodo--and Gollum's--struggle against the externalized evil of the ring.

The protagonist of all three novels is Ged. The youthful wizard of the first book is arrogant, proud, and jealous, as well as strong -- all qualities that lead him to undertake forbidden magic, unleashing a demon into the world. Consistent with the overall approach of the worldbuilding, the nameless demon's primary danger is to Ged himself, because it seeks to possess him. If successful, it will then use his strength and magical ability to do greater harm. 

[Spoiler follows -- and although, given the fame of the story, the ending is probably well known, if it's a concern, maybe skip the next paragraph or if required, stop reading altogether.) 

In order to defeat the demon, Ged must name it. After a long chase across sea and land, he finally comes face-to-face with his nemesis -- and the name they both speak in that moment is the same. The demon generated by his act of hubris is not an external force, but a manifestation of his jealousy, hatred, and pride. In the end, Ged is both the hero and the villain, with the evil that must be defeated originating within himself.

The Farthest Shore, Earthsea #3

This is the third -- and was for a long time the final -- book in the Earthsea series. In this book, the evil is world threatening, as a breach in the barrier between life and death saps knowledge and unravels magic, destroying Earthsea's balance. Yet consistent with Le Guin's overall approach, the threat arises through the hubris, folly, and self-will of a sorcerer, Cob, in seeking to avoid death, which twists the laws of nature -- rather than from a malevolent external power. 

To my mind, this exemplifies the chief difference between the villains of Tolkien and Le Guin. In one case (Tolkien), the villains largely operate as "the other", their evil an external force. In the other (Le Guin), the evil is integral to the world and the villainy arises through the weakness, ill nature, and ethical failings of human beings: forces that exist within all of us. 

I believe these represent the two main approaches to writing villains in fantasy storytelling, which is why they are my starting point for the series. In the hands of master storytellers like Tolkien and Le Guin, both approaches make for great reading, which is why I've always loved their work.


About the Author

Helen Lowe is an award-winning novelist, poet, and lover of story. With four books published to date, she is currently completing the final installment in The Wall Of Night series.

Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we

Friday, February 23, 2024

From the Backlist - What Would Your Echo Be?


Hello Everyone!

It's time to explore the awesome backlist at the Supernatural Underground

Today we are sharing a post made on February 23, 2011 by the bestselling author Kimberly Derting. She has some fabulous new releases out now, but these oldies but goodies are based on a beautiful, eerie premises: What Would Your Echo Be? 

Check this out!

By Kimberly Dering, Feb 23, 2011

In THE BODY FINDER and its sequel, DESIRES OF THE DEAD, 16-year-old Violet Ambrose is drawn to the dead by sensory imprints that attach to them when they are killed. Yes, they must come to an untimely death to be left with one of these “echoes.” And the thing about the echoes is that they’re completely and totally random. They have nothing to do with how the person lived…or even how they died.

It can be a sound (bells, music, the sound of glass breaking)

A taste (garlic, briny salt water, caramel)

A physical sensation (brain freeze, the sensation of feathers brushing over her skin)

Or a visual echo (a glow or a burst of colors)

I was asked at the launch party for DESIRES OF THE DEAD this past weekend, if I had an echo, what would it be?

Even knowing the rules (that it has nothing to do with the individuals themselves), I was still convinced that my echo would be something chocolate-related. I mean, honestly, how could it not be?

So I’m asking you, if you could choose your echo, what would it be... 

To read more about the amazing writer Kimberly Derting, visit her website, Twitter and FB.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Choose Your Poison

 Weapons in Fantasy Fiction - Part 1

Magical Potion Shelves by Fiulo

Welcome to my 2024, mini blog series on Weapons in Fantasy Fiction. Examples will include a range, from magical staffs, blades, bows and arrows, daggers, war dogs/horses, shapeshifters, curses and bare hands. In the case of Urban Fantasy and SteamPunk, a plethora of firearms enter the arena. 

There are hundreds of types of weapons and each can be, in fiction at least, embued with special powers, names and even personalities, like Sauron's One Ring. But a writer can't just reach into the grab bag and pull up any old thing...

They must choose their weapons wisely to reflect the culture and setting, the nature of the hero, accessibility, training, history and opportunity. Some weapons are immediate, like daggers, heavy rocks and martial arts. Others are slower-acting or may take intricate planning.

Here, I'm talking about poison. It isn't always quick on the draw, but it can be easier to get away with. 

Like many weapons, poison has been with us IRL (in real life) for a long time suggesting it requires research to weave into the story. The more familiar readers are with a topic, the easier it is for them to spot inconsistencies, and no writer wants those. They can throw the reader out of the story, and make them question everything the author says from then on (if they keep reading)!

Fortunately, there are thousands of years of documented history of poisoning to draw on. Within several hours of research, the writer can portray a convincing scenario of a fatal dose of, say, arsenic or strychnine. 

Yet again, an author with a bio-chemical background may do much better. Take Lydia Kang's A Beautiful Poison, for example, or  Maia V. Snyder's Poison Study. Also the bittersweet An Affair of Poison by Addie Thorley.

Not all poisonings are headliners though. Many authors incorporate poisonings into the story's background through secondary characters and side quests. I have done this myself in Crown of Bones and subsequent books in the series. Not only are the 'villains' playing with poisons, but the Healer savants are too. They not only mix potions to save lives but can use them in battle against enemies. Their phantoms are usually required for the process and often have extreme ways of administering the substance. 

Will they have antidotes on hand, incase of accidental ingestion, or even a change of heart? 

That's always going to be entirely up to the writer, of course. 

The most recent tale of poison I've read is Belladonna by Adalyn Grace - it's smoky dark with hints of gothic horror and romance....

What is your favorite use of poison in fiction? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

xx Kim


About Kim Falconer

Kim Falconer, currently writing as AK Wilder, has released Crown of Bones, a YA Epic Fantasy with Curse of Shadows as book 2 in the series. Currently, she is working on the third book, out in 2024.

Kim can be found on  AKWilder TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Throw the bones, read your horoscopes or Raise Your Phantom on the site

Saturday, February 10, 2024

From The Backlist: "What Happens When Writers Can't Sleep"


Merrie Destefano
Today, we're excited to refeature another fabulous post from our Supernatural Underground backlist -- an intriguing insight into what happens when writers can't sleep, from the wonderful Merrie Destefano

Merrie shared this post in February 2011, but we think you'll enjoy revisiting it today, with a link through to the original for the full context, including comments.

So without further ado:

From The Backlist: What Happens When Writers Can't Sleep

by Merrie Destefano

Like most writers, I tend to over think things. Way too much. For the past several years, one of the things that has fascinated/terrified me is the whole process of falling asleep. I’ve analyzed and studied it to the point that sometimes I can’t go to sleep. (Insert silent scream here.) I will lay awake, trying to capture that moment when my waking self dissolves into my dreaming self, but it’s like trying to catch smoke in a bottle. And, as I already mentioned, one of the brutal side effects of all this is the fact that now I have trouble sleeping. 

Merrie's latest!

So what happens when a writer over thinks things? Especially if that writer can’t sleep?

She starts working on story ideas. About creatures who never sleep. Creatures who slip in your window in the middle of the night to steal your dreams.

.I mean, haven’t you ever wondered why you can only remember some of your dreams, while others you can’t remember at all?

All of my sleepless angst gave birth to my ... book—Feast: Harvest of Dreams—a tale of forbidden love and supernatural intrigue that mixes vampire and fairy lore to create a new paranormal creature. The book contains two interwoven love stories, one with the main character, a fantasy writer named Maddie, that will appeal to adults and one with a 16-year-old half-human/half-paranormal girl, named Elspeth, that will appeal to readers of YA ...

To read the full post and the comments, click here.

And to discover more about Merrie and her writing, visit her on:


Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Year of the Villain #1: "The Lord Of The Rings" Pantheon

Tis a truth universally acknowledged that an aspiring hero in possession of an excellent quest-adventure must be in want of an antagonist.

And not just any antagonist, but a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred bad guy -- so welcome, gentle readers, to the Year of the Villain in our own, much loved, Fantasy fiction.

Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings" films
We have it on good authority that the place to start is "the very beginning", and although that really isn't The Lord of the Rings for either villains or fantasy, I do feel that JRR Tolkien's classic is foundational in terms of the genre.

It's also, just imho, a very interesting work when we turn the spotlight, and the microscope onto a little scum and villainy, aka antagonists and archvillains, nemeses and "big bads."

Starting with Sauron, who is what I think of as "monolithic evil", meaning that he is unremittingly and irredeemably bad, but also immense. Yep, Sauron is evil on an all-out, world (if not universe) sized scale, that seems impossible to defeat.

Sauron in "The Rings of Power" series
Here's the thing, though, Sauron is also remote -- I suspect because it would be hard, if not impossible, to main that sense of monolithic power if the story got too close to him. So he needs to be distant to work, but that means the narrative also has to bring his evil into the story in a more immediate way, and also offer lesser contests (between hero and villain) that the reader can engage with more directly.

The first objective is achieved by means of the ring itself, which contains a significant part of Sauron's power, i.e. "one ring to rule them all." It's also as seductive as it is dangerous, ultimately consuming the mind and will of the bearer. 

"One ring to rule them all..."
The only way to counter the ring is not to wear it, but even then its will -- and through the ring, Sauron's evil -- works on the ringbearer. Over two thousand years before Frodo inherits the ring, it has betrayed the hero, Isildur, to his death.

So throughout the time he bears the ring, Frodo is constantly tempted to wear and use it, and the closer he comes to Mt Doom, and to Sauron, the more the ring becomes a weight on mind and spirit. One he very nearly doesn't survive.

Frodo & the One Ring
.Yet the ring is still an object, however powerful, and its evil is impersonal as well as focused on the bearer. So in terms of less monolithic but still potent antagonists that the heroes can fight, enter the Lord of the Nazgul, aka the Witch-King of Angmar, and Saruman, a wizard sent to oppose Sauron (along with Gandalf) who ends falling beneath his sway. 

The Lord of the Nazgul plays a significant part in the first and third books in the trilogy. In The Fellowship of the Ring, he leads the Nazgul's (the nine Black Riders') terrifying pursuit of the hobbits, which is only stopped, after many close calls and narrow escapes, by the power of Rivendell. 

Lord of the Nazgul
.Much later, in The Return of the King, he commands the equally frightening assault on Minas Tirith, which only fails by the narrowest of margins, in large part because he meets his own long-prophesied end -- "not by the hand of man" but by the sword of Eowyn, a woman, and the dagger of Merry, a hobbit.

Any of you who have read the books or watched the film will know Eowyn and Merry's desperate, against-the-odds fight is heart-stirring stuff -- and one we can engage in deeply, which (of course) is why the story grips us.

Saruman the White
.Saruman fulfills a very similar roll in the trilogy's second book, The Two Towers.  At first he, too, is a distant figure, one that has unleashed rampaging armies of super-orcs (the fighting Uruk-hai) on Sauron's behalf. A series of alarms, pursuits, and battles follows, but at the end Saruman is defeated and held to account. The Witch King, and ultimately Sauron and the ring, are destroyed but with Saruman, the reader sees the consequences of a villain's defeat and fall. 

I mentioned orcs, and between Uruk-hai and goblins, trolls and corrupted humans, there are plenty of evil minions in The Lord of the Rings. But when it comes to the pantheon of villains, the fifth and final place goes to Smeagol, better known as Gollum.

.Gollum was corrupted by the ring from the outset, murdering his cousin to acquire it, and subsequently possessed by it. Having lost the ring to Bilbo (Frodo's uncle) in The Hobbit, he is obsessed by the need to recover it, a determination that leads him to Frodo and Sam.

Gollum's villainy is the opposite of Sauron's monolithic power. He is physically small, and while vicious, is also wretched, being a victim of the ring as much as its instrument. Gollum is also the one villain where there is a real possibility, however slender, of redemption -- a narrative arc that is possible because his part is personal, flawed in a way we can comprehend, and very much an active part of the story.

.So there we have them: The Lord of the Rings' pantheon of villains. Together, they have established a baseline for villainy in contemporary Fantasy -- as well as a guide for how to make evil in storytelling work, so we, as readers, are right there with the heroes on their quest-adventures.


About the Author

Helen Lowe is an award-winning novelist, poet, and lover of story. With four books published to date, she is currently completing the final installment in The Wall Of Night series.

Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

From the Backlist: Never Give Up! Never surrender!

It's time again to explore the awesome backlist at the Supernatural Underground! 

Today we are sharing a post made on January 25, 2011 by the spectacular writer Kerrelyn Sparks. It's relevant to us now as she asks how we are all going with our New Year resolutions. Good Question?

Kerrelyn also shares how she didn't give up, back in the day, an attitude that shot her to the New York Times Best Sellers list.

It's inspirational!

... I believe in second chances. I'm on my second marriage (going strong after 22 years, yay!) And I'm on my second writing career. The first time around, I was a historical romance writer. I'd only been writing two years when I was offered my first contract, so I thought everything was buzzing along swimmingly. But then, my editor quit.


She was the only romance editor in this multi-genre publishing house, and I was the only historical romance author. With my editor gone, none of the other editors (all guys) wanted to touch a manuscript titled Insatiable and Saucy. They didn't want any more books from me. My agent broke off with me. After two years, the contracted book limped into bookstores with a new title For Love or Country. A bittersweet debut, for I was thrilled to see my book on the shelves, but devastated that my career was already over.

For two more years, I tried to acquire a new agent and sell another historical romance. I racked up more rejections as a published author than I had as an unpublished one. I found a wonderful agent who really believes in me, but even she couldn't sell an American-set historical when the publishers want them set in the British Isles. And that is when I realized I had to reinvent myself. A new beginning. A new subgenre. I wrote the first three chapters of How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire, sent it to my agent, and within a week, we had three offers...

To read the full post and the comments, click here

To find out more of what Kerrelyn is up to now and her latest releases, visit her website, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook where she hosts monthly giveaways.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Romance in Fantasy Fiction

Epic Quests Manga Wallpaper @wallpapers

We all know there are certain tropes, certain themes in genre fiction. It's basically how we categorize them as well as what we come to expect as readers. One fairly new expectation is that of strong romance themes in Fantasy Fiction. After all, the gold standard for a long time has been Tolkien and he never overplayed the intimacy side, no matter how the films were portrayed.

For a fantastic recap on this topic, see Helen Lowe's posts in 2019 - her Year of Romance in Fantasy Fiction.

Since I was raised on Tolkien's books, the romance in my early series, even Urban Fantasy which is notoriously sexy, the romantic themes stay in the background of the adventures. But that habit all came to a crashing halt when I started writing Young Adult Fiction, novels for the 12 - 18+ year olds. 

I was told straight up by my editors to go deeper into the romantic side.

And they didn't mean just more stolen looks and kisses. The romance had to bring more meaning to the plot, more relevance to character growth arcs and more fulfilment, or devastation, in the end. Basically, more emotions. And, these characters are not love-sick fools, at least, not for long... 

Young Adult fantasy romance books often feature strong female protagonists like Victoria Aveyard's Mare Barrow from the Red Queen series. Or, Sarah J. Maas's huntress Feyre in A Court of Thorns and Roses.

I've explored why reading Fantasy Romance is actually good for you - enhancing emotional engagement, empathy, excitement, fulfilment, and increasing the happy brain messengers... I've found, over the years, that writing it is good for authors for the same reasons. 

It's a road to discovering more about character development, goals and motivations, and ultimately more about ourselves. Right now, I am in the thick of this reminder as I await notes from my editor on Book #3 in the Amassia Series. There are some romantic you might not expect and I hope they bring true delight.

What are some of your favorite Fantasy Romance novels? I'd love to see if I have read them too.

Let me know in the comments.

xxKim (aka AK Wilder)


About Kim Falconer

Kim Falconer, currently writing as AK Wilder, has released Crown of Bones, a YA Epic Fantasy with Curse of Shadows as book 2 in the series. Currently, she is working on the third book, out in 2024.

Kim can be found on  AKWilder TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Throw the bones, read your horoscopes or Raise Your Phantom on the site