Antagonists and villains

In writing, the antagonist of a story is a person who is directly opposed to the desires, goals, or well-being of the protagonist. They are the person that the hero of the story is fighting against or trying to overcome, or an obstacle in the path to achieving their desired outcome. Very often, people conflate antagonist with villain and often, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, they clearly are. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is the main antagonist and he is definitely a villain – a force of evil trying to conquer the world. Voldemort is a fascist murderer. But someone can be an antagonist without being a villain – and this can sometimes lead to interesting conflict and more nuanced stories.

I’m going to give an example for a TV show recently aired on Netflix that had surprising nuance for the kids fantasy show that it is: The Dragon Prince. Only a handful of episodes have aired so far, so it’s not certain what direction the writers will take the story or how the conflicts between characters will play out, but it seems to have a lot of potential for interesting dynamics between the characters.

The heroes of the show, the protagonists, are clear. The story is about two human princes, Callum and Ezran, and the elf assassin Rayla trying to stop a war by returning a stolen dragon egg to its mother. The antagonist of the show are more complicated because there are a number of characters who directly oppose these characters without necessarily being villains. I am going to give some spoilers here, so if you’re interested in watching the show, be warned, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything major.

Runaan is the leader of the assassins who come to kill the human king and Prince Ezran. He wants Ezran dead along with their father/step-father. He won’t hesitate to kill humans he comes across. At first glance, his character seems like a clear villain, except his actions are also about protecting the lives of his team, and getting justice for a crime committed by humans. Within the narrative, he is quickly put in a position where we as the audience are meant to feel pity for him. While he is narratively opposed to the heroes, we can have sympathy for him as well.

Soren is even less like a villain. When he is introduced, he is training Callum in sword-fighting, doing so in a teasing and joking manner that shows affection between the characters. He is a friend to the princes, and is a generally likeable character, laughing and joking, messing with his sister. He has his flaws and shows occasional meanness in his jokes, but overall his character is firmly on the side of the good guys. Except he is given the instructions to kill the princes. This order is framed as being for the good of the kingdom, to ensure that someone with experience is on the throne when war comes. He is told that this is for the greater good, but the choice still clearly troubles him. This is a character who wants to do what is right being told to kill the heroes of the show but still not quite being a villain.

Claudia is in a similar position. She is given the task of hunting the princes down and in an early episode tries to kill Rayla, but she does so to protect Callum and Ezran. She uses magic and sometimes has the appearance that would more normally be associated with a dark magic doer in a fantasy show, but she uses her magic to defend the princes from a perceived threat. Seeing the scenes where she’s joking with her brother, it’s hard to picture her as a villain, but she’s clearly an antagonist.

General Amaya is even more clearly one of the good guys. She tries to kill Rayla but she does so because she thinks Rayla is a bloodthirsty elf who had kidnapped the princes. She wants to protect the princes and the kingdom. She wants to stop someone claiming the throne through treachery. She stands in the way of the heroes’ goals, but because she is trying to help them without having all the information.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes with all these different character dynamics, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. As writers we can look at an example like this and think about how to put more nuance into the relationships between the characters in our stories. Just because someone is an antagonist doesn’t mean that they have to be an evil villain. There’s a lot of potential for interesting drama when they’re far from it.

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Book cover Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (UK link, US link) is a fun book that walks the border between science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, it feels like science fiction, with futuristic technology driving the plot, but there are hints at elements from mythology towards the end that lend it a fantasy air. It tells the story of St Mary’s, a historical research organisation with a difference. These historians actually go back in time. Technological developments allow them to go back and see what actually happened at major historical events, answer key questions, and take recordings of what they see.

The main character is Max, a historian who signs on as a trainee at the start of the book. She is surrounded by a mixture of academics, engineers, security staff, and medics, who are all disaster magnets and generally obsessed with getting a good cup of tea. It’s a lively story, told with a lot of humour and most of this humour comes from the interactions between the various characters. I did struggle sometimes to keep some of the minor characters straight, especially since they might be referred to by first name, last name, or nickname. There was a list of characters at the start of the book which served as reference and I found a big help, but it didn’t stop me from getting muddled now and then.

There are some dark moments in the book. While the tone through most of it is light, there are some dramatic events that stand in stark contrast and the emotion of these sections really works, probably because of the contrast. It makes them feel more raw and real.

On the whole, I’d say that this book is good entertainment. It’s an enjoyable read and very easy to get through. It’s a perfect holiday read for when you just want to relax with something amusing and fun. Where I think it struggles is in terms of a coherent plot. There are some plot threads that flow through the book as a whole, but there are times when the book feels more like a series of events rather than forming a solid whole. As the title suggests – it’s one thing after another. There are separate chunks of the book with their own focus and activities and I almost think it would have worked between if the author had made more of these distinctions, breaking the book into separate parts and treating each as a separate episode within the larger narrative. It did pull the plot threads together a bit at the end though, so this criticism is a fairly minor one.

I think the author assumed considerably more historic knowledge of the reader than I had. There were references to historic events which were largely explained. Some of these references I got, but others just passed me by. Someone with more of a background in history than I have would probably have enjoyed this more, as it was I could have done with a little bit more information about the things being referred to. Thankfully those that were more critical to the plot were explained, so it was mostly the off-hand comments and throwaway lines that I ended up missing.

Overall, I’d give this book four stars out of five. It’s not going on my favourites list, but I did enjoy reading it and I will look out for other books by the same author in the future.

Wolf Unleashed – now available for pre-order

I’m delighted to announce that my latest novel, Wolf Unleashed, is now available for pre-order. This is a book I’m really proud of. I’ve poured a lot of effort and emotion into this book over the past few years and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Remember: werewolves are people too.

Cover art for Wolf Unleashed

Werewolves are kept as slaves. Exploited to perform dangerous labour, or kept as exotic pets by rich sadists who want a status symbol, werewolves have no rights.

When Crystal’s brother is bitten by a rogue werewolf, her family is advised to think of him as dead. But she refuses to forget him.

Looking for news from within the werewolf community leads her to purchase Thomas, a rebellious werewolf with a string of abusive former owners. Crystal and Thomas must learn to trust each other enough to help solve each other’s problems. Together, they can work to build a movement aimed at bringing rights and justice to all.

This is an urban fantasy, paranormal romance with a difference. It teems with intersectional issues of race, gender, and sexual identity. This is a story of injustice and anger, of love and compassion, of rebellion and hope.

5 Stars – “It was a story that drew me in… I enjoyed how the story developed and how werewolf slavery was tackled by some very brave characters. They took on a fight against a system that needed to be changed, and often it looked like they would be torn apart… I wish there was more of this quality writing out there. A fantastic read!” — Kim Anisi for Readers’ Favorite

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Review: Acheiropoieta by UT Mosney

Achieropoieta coverBack in November, I wrote a review of Riptide by BC Matthews. Recently, I came across a mention of Acheiropoieta by UT Mosney (UK link, US link), described as a companion book to Riptide. Since I really enjoyed Riptide, I decided give this one a try. The two books are by different authors but set in the same universe and there are a few mentions in this book of “the British incident”, essentially referring to the events that kicked off the plot of Riptide.

Of the two books, I preferred Riptide, but given how dark that book was, I can see why some readers might prefer Acheiropoieta. Both stories deal with a relationship between a siren, sea creatures capable of bewitching humans with their voices and with a desire to eat human hearts, and a human. While Riptide explores an abusive and manipulative relationship, Acheiropoieta’s relationship is a lot more consensual, exploring the relationship between Niko and Jesse.

Niko is an artist, known for his gruesome religious work, including paintings of saints being martyred. For his work, he has earned the hatred of a local priest, and due to a copyright lawsuit he’s earned the hatred of a group of death metal fans, so angry letters, bricks through his windows, and death threats are a common occurrence. He takes this in stride, the prices of his paintings shooting up the more people complain about them.

For a painting of the death of Saint Sebastian, he needs to hire a model and this brings Jesse into his life. Jesse is an athletic, attractive young man interested in kinky sex, who wants a fun, no-strings-attached relationship with Niko. But the more time they spend together, the more Niko comes to care about Jesse, and to worry about him, because there’s something definitely wrong with him. Something that might come to light as Niko’s hate mail grows more gruesome.

I liked the idea behind this book and Niko was an interesting character. We get to see a lot of his background over the course of the book, but I didn’t really get inside the relationship the way I did with Riptide. The focus is on Niko’s past more than the relationship between the two of them, but even there it skimmed over a few areas. This was a very short book and I found myself wishing it was a bit longer, wishing we could have seen more of the interactions between Niko and Jesse to really get a feel for their relationship, as well as wishing for more background about certain areas. The hatred of the local priest for Niko is important to the story, but the book doesn’t really go into how that started (except that Niko has tattoos and doesn’t look the part of a religious man). There’s a friendship with Niko’s copyright lawyer that gets a single scene without being developed further. I would have enjoyed a longer book that took the time to explore these areas more, but especially to show us more of the interactions between Niko and Jesse.

There were also a couple of points where I thought the book needed another once-over by an editor. There were a handful of typos that crept into the finished manuscript, but there were also a couple of moments where the phrasing of the text left me confused as to what was going on and I had to reread those sections to try and puzzle it out, which through me out of the story. The worst of these was when a third character intrudes on Jesse and Niko and there was a reference to “the man” that I didn’t realise right away was another person and thought was referring to Jesse. Thankfully though, these moments were rare.

Overall my reaction to this book was a bit lukewarm – enjoyable enough but not going to make it onto my favourites list. I will look out for other books by this author, especially other books in this universe because, as I said, my main complaint with this book was that I wanted more out of it.

Three quick reviews

When asked what I want for Christmas or birthdays, I always give my parents a list of books so that they can pick a few items for that list to give me as presents. This means I don’t know precisely what I’m getting, but we can all be sure it will be books I’m interested in reading.

My Christmas book haul this year consisted of three books that had been recommended by others for the queer reading list: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Peter Darling by Austin Chant, and Dreadnought by April Daniels. Rather than do a full review of each book, I figured I would do some quick summary reviews here.

In Other Lands (UK link, US link) – I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Those following my Tumblr may have noticed a number of posts commenting on this book as I was reading it. I’m still a little disappointed it didn’t end in a poly relationship between Elliot, Luke and Serene, but never mind, despite that disappointment it was a really good book. Elliot is taken through into a magical land and decides that he doesn’t want anything to do with swords and bows and horrible things like battles. He’d much rather be making peace and meeting mermaids. The problem is that Elliot, after a lifetime of being bullied and abandoned, has no experience of making friends and the abrasive nature he’s cultivated as a defence mechanism is going to drive away the people is really cares about. Elliot’s snark and sarcasm is fun to read, but because as the reader we can see his insecurities, it makes him endearing as a character even as it causes conflict with the people around him.

Peter Darling (UK link, US link) – This was a really interesting take on an old classic. It’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan, where Peter and Wendy were the same person. Peter returns to Neverland to avoid being sent to an asylum by parents who don’t understand his insistence that he’s really a boy. Returning as an adult though, he finds that the fun games of his childhood aren’t so fun anymore but Hook is still as interesting as ever. Hook, on the other hand, hasn’t really felt alive since Peter left and his return is awakening memories he’d thought were lost. It’s been a long time since I read Peter Pan, so I’m not sure how many of the ideas about Neverland were taken from the original and how many were created by Chant, but I loved the picture Chant painted of a world shaped by the imaginations of the humans who stumbled into it.

Dreadnought (UK link, US link) – A story that is equal parts coming out story and superhero adventure. Danny’s biggest concern in life is keeping her dad from figuring out she’s trans, but then the world’s most powerful superhero dies right in front of her, giving her his powers and in the same moment transforming her so she has the body she’s always wanted. Now there’s no way to hide that she’s really a girl, and she has to deal with her dad’s fury as well as coming to grips with her new powers. There’s a lot of real emotion in this story in the relationship between Danny and her dad and the book paints a painfully realistic picture of an abusive father, who doesn’t see himself as abusive because he never hits. One of the other things I like is the way Danny experiences sexist microaggresions for the first time (a boy feeling entitled to date her, a stranger on the bus telling her to smile, etc.) in a way she didn’t before her body changed. It’s an interesting way of showing how people are treated differently based on how the world perceives them. But before the dark parts of the book can drag you down too much, it provides fun in the superhero antics and Danny’s relationship with the vigilante Calamity. It’s a perfect balance of serious and light-hearted.

Review: Riptide by B C Matthews

Riptide coverRiptide by B C Matthews (UK link, US link) is a book that straddles the boundary between fantasy and horror, romance and drama. Mark, the protagonist of Riptide, is a part-siren who starts this book by luring his boyfriend into the sea and eating his heart. I was therefore surprised how quickly and how deeply I started to sympathise with Mark. The opening of the book shows him grieving and full of guilt for his boyfriend’s murder, but then he begins to grow hungry again, craving human flesh. When his friend Sam discovers his secret, Mark begs him to help, to keep him from murdering anyone else. From there, they quickly slip into an unhealthy and abusive relationship, with Sam using this secret as leverage to keep Mark under his control.

While the story is a fantasy novel, the relationship between Mark and Sam draws on a lot of patterns and behaviours of real-world abusive relationships, which makes the whole thing seem more real. Things like Sam demanded to know where Mark is at all times, making Mark depend on him, making Mark feel like he deserves the abuse, all come from a very real place and make it clear that the author has done his research on abusive relationships.

One thing I especially like about this book is that it doesn’t romanticise the abuse. Often in books that are shelved as dark fantasy romances, there are abusive patterns of behaviour that are glossed over or treated as though they’re something to aspire to. Here, the abuse is made clear for what it is. Early on in the relationship, Mark is warned off by an ex-lover of Sam’s. A friend is clearly concerned when Mark freaks out that Sam might learn of a minor incident that happened while on a night out and a character explicitly talk about the relationship as abusive. The book makes it clear through text and subtext that this relationship isn’t something that should be aspired to while still showing the emotions behind why Mark stays in a way that’s very understandable.

Even though Mark is a killer, we get to see the story from inside his head and that makes it possible to empathise with him. He is like an addict, wanting to taste human flesh again but knowing that he shouldn’t, craving the next hit and terrified of what will happen if he gives in to it. As readers, we see his struggle and sympathise with him, while Sam deliberately manipulates that struggle to inflict further harm and to make sure Mark stays locked in the cycle of abuse.

It’s probably clear that this is a book that deals with some very dark themes. If you have a history of abuse, this may be a difficult book to read. The emotions feel very raw and real. If you can deal with reading books on such a difficult subject, then it is well worth the read. The only criticism I have is that I wish the ending had been a little bit longer. I would have loved to have seen a little more about how the characters adjust to certain things that I’m not going to spoil for anyone. Other than that, it’s an engrosing and highly emotional read. Five stars.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

Review: How to Save the World by Tam MacNeil

How to Save the World coverHow to Save the World by Tam MacNeil (UK link, US link), not to be confused with one of the many other books with the same or similar name, is a book that walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. Monsters are rising from the sea and emerging from the forests, death gods who call to the people nearby. Anyone who hears their song is drawn to them and filled with the urge to commit suicide. A man named Cameron runs the company who produces mech – huge metal machines that can fight against these monsters. The mechs are designed to be driven by a human being, but the experience is horrifying. In this world, Alex and Sean are assassins working for Cameron, killing anyone he sends them after. They decide to escape their life by killing Cameron but when the attempt fails, Sean manages to get out and start a new life but Alex is caught and forced inside one of the mechs.

When I first started this book I had my doubts about it. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with Alex or Sean, who we see committing murders without seeming to care about it. How wrong I was. It didn’t take long for the book to start exploring their history, the way they protect each other, and their desire to have a better life than the one they’re forced to endure. Once the book got going it was very easy to have sympathy for both of them and some parts of the book were absolutely heart-wrenching. I was in tears in places.

The story deals with some very dark themes and difficult issues. There are explorations of rape, child abuse, grooming, suicide, grief, and some scenes that can only be described as torture. These issues are dealt with in a very respectful way and it really tugs on the heart-strings, but it could be a very difficult read for some people because of how real the emotion feels.

The book is definitely driven by the emotion. There is some mystery and a fair amount of action, with the characters working to, as the title says, save the world from the monsters, but really the core of the book is the emotional journey between Sean and Alex.

The relationship between the two main characters is beautifully written. We get to see their history and the background behind their interactions as well as the moments on the page. It works in a very layered way. You can genuinely feel how much they love each other. The interactions with the other characters is great too, and there were some brilliant moments where we get to see the two main characters through the eyes of characters like Mad and Rak. We spend so much of the time in this book inside their heads that it’s interesting to see what they look like from the outside.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it needed a better editor. There were a lot of typos and there were several points where a new chapter or section started with a pronoun and it took me several paragraphs to work out who was the viewpoint character for this bit. A chapter would start with “he” and I would spend a page trying to work out if this was Alex or Sean, only to find out this bit was from Rak’s point of view. I through me out of the story. It’s a shame because otherwise this was a brilliant book.

Very emotional and highly recommended, but do be aware of the fact it tackles issues of rape and abuse. Five stars.

Review: The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer

The Dark Wife - coverThe Dark Wife (UK link, US link) is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone. According to most traditional tellings of the story, Hades, the lord of the Underworld, carries off Persephone, daughter of the goddess of the harvest, to force her to be his wife. The gods attempt to rescue her, but because she’s eaten half a pomegranate while in the underworld, she has to live there for half the year, causing her mother to mourn her and thus causing winter.

This retelling has many of those same elements, but delivered with a new perspective and some significant changes. One important change is the fact that the ‘lord’ of the underworld is in fact a lady. Hades is female, and the title ‘lord’ is used by Zeus to mock her. The story also focuses on the idea from myth of Zeus being a rapist who takes what he wants. When Persephone’s lover is raped by Zeus and transformed into a plant, Persephone hates him, and ends up running away to the underworld to escape him, where she falls in love with Hades. Even the pomegranate plays a different role.

The story plays with many of the threads of ancient myths, such as the idea of the Elysium fields as a final resting place for heroes, and the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld, but with a new and refreshing take on these old ideas. I think part of the appeal of the story is the familiarity of these pieces and seeing them fit together in a new way, so I imagine that the story wouldn’t have the same appeal to people who are less familiar with the ancient Greek myths.

As it is, if you enjoy myths and want a story about immortal lesbians, then The Dark Wife is a very enjoyable story. It’s quite short and much of the focus is on the emotional journey rather than any action or adventure, but for fans of romance, I can see it being very much appreciated.

The characters are rounded and developed as people. The story is told from Persephone’s perspective, so we understand her motives and drives throughout the story, but there are a number of other characters who play important parts, including many of the gods, such as Hermes and Athena. The way the gods are portrayed compared to humans is interesting and feels genuine. The author explores how immortality would effect things like love and romance, especially when it’s between a mortal and an immortal. Despite all their powers, the characters in this story feel very human.

Four stars. One for fans of mythology.

Review: The Boy in Red by E M Holloway

The Boy in Red coverThe Boy in Red (UK link, US link) is the fourth book in E M Holloway’s The Sum of Its Parts series. It’s undoubtedly my favourite in the series, but it will probably only make sense if you’ve read the other three books first. There are a lot of references to the events of the previous book and characters show up without any real introduction (even though an introduction might have been a helpful reminder in the case of characters who only played minor roles in the earlier books).

In this book, Puck and his werewolf pack face a sorcerer who has heard of Puck’s reputation as the formidable “Boy in Red” (a reputation he earned based on his actions in the previous books) and decides to test his skills against him. This sorcerer casts spells that torment the pack as a sort of game to see what Puck’s reaction will be. Puck just wants to protect his pack, but the sorcerer is putting other people in danger and someone has to protect them too, even when they’re people Puck can’t stand.

On top of it all, Puck has to cope with going to school and dealing with an asshole teacher who seems determined to make Puck’s life hell. With all the magical attacks, this mundane issue could be the final straw.

I mentioned that this book is my favourite so far and that’s largely because the characters are established and have settled into their relative roles. This book jumps straight in with the plot and there is a lot of plot. The first book of this series felt as much like a murder mystery novel as a supernatural adventure and this book comes back to that. Puck has a puzzle to solve to figure out the sorcerer’s identity, to track him down and to find a way to stop him, and lot of this feels like a crime novel and the questions keep you turning the pages to find out the answers.

There’s also a lot going on in this story, with various plot threads that are all connected but that also feel strong individually, such as the conflict with Nealy. Here we have a very human conflict surfacing in the form of lawsuits and lurking, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the action, and which brings out a different set of reactions in Puck.

These events also bring out a response in Puck’s PTSD. This book, like the others in the series, deserves points for the careful handling of this difficult issue. Puck suffers from PTSD following the events of the first book and it’s clear the author put a lot of time and effort into research because Puck’s symptoms feel very real. This book explores the impact of his PTSD in a deeper way than some of the others and includes Puck starting therapy to deal with it.

There are a lot of characters in this book, with Puck front and centre as the protagonist, but with the rest of Puck’s pack, Puck’s father, a local magic-expert, others at school and their families, some teachers, the werewolf-hunters in the area, contacts Puck has from the previous book, law enforcement officers, and so on, until there are a lot of people involved. There’s a reason why I thought a bit more introduction to some of the minor characters might have been helpful because there are a lot of people involved. It can get quite complicated, but the interplay of all these different people makes the story feel very real.

Definitely my favourite so far in the series, but as I said, if you’re new to these books you should probably start off at the beginning to save yourself a lot of confusion.