The OF Blog: Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Mihir from Fantasy Book Critic

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Mihir from Fantasy Book Critic

In this third installment of the Rabid Squirrel Interro-views of online reviewers and bloggers, I turned to Mihir Wanchoo, who is part of the dastardly cabal that runs the popular SF/F review site Fantasy Book Critic (I kid; I've known most of their team for years now and have a great deal of respect for each of them).  Hopefully, this interview will be of as much interest to readers here as were the first two installments.

Fantasy Book Critic is one of the few SF/F-related group blogs that aren't operated by publishers.  How did you come to join the team there?

We are mighty proud of the fact that we don’t accept any money from anyone or advertise anything on the blog. Fantasy Book Critic is run entirely as a passion project started by Robert Thompson and backed by a team of contributors (Liviu, Cindy, Sabine, Casey, Lydia and me). As to me joining the team, I think it was serendipity. Back in the early 2001-02 was when I started getting into fantasy after discovering Winter Warriors by David Gemmell. Previous to that I was primarily a mystery/thriller reader.  At that time in India, it was very hard to find SF &F books so I slowly went about finding rest of DG, Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Brooks, etc. A few years later I discovered fantasy blogs like FBC, Pat’s Hotlist, and Graeme’s Fantasy review among others. These blogs were my only way of getting to know about upcoming fantasy books as at that time I was still living in India and barring a couple of places (who had limited titles) there were still no major bookstores that carried any SF/ fantasy titles (This has changed vastly now).

After regularly following FBC’s posts, I started interacting with Robert Thompson and I would like to think I became a friend of his. I was also interested in interviewing authors and so when I got an opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors Sarah Ash. I requested Robert if he would be interested in posting Sarah’s interview and he replied in kind.

After that Liviu and Robert asked if I would want to be a part of the FBC team and I’ve counted that day as one of my luckiest ones J

How does the FBC team divvy up books for review?  Is there constant communication between the team members?

That’s very simple we stick to “Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock” on skype and that usually helps settle all email inquiries. The not-so-fun part is when Liviu gets into his Clint Eastwood mode and keeps calling us punks ;)

Jokes aside, we usually divvy all email queries within our group and since we kinda know what interests each person. It becomes easier plus when interests overlap we have 2 people co-reviewing it. This isn’t a perfect method but sure beats the alternative of Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.

So who gets “lucky” and covers vanity-press offerings?  Or is that something that is agreed never to be discussed?

That falls under the latter part but we always like to give all books/authors a chance and so if the blurb or excerpt excites any of us, we give it a shot (no matter the route of publication)

FBC covers primarily SF/F.  Do the books you read/review there correlate to the books you read outside of FBC?

The primary focus for Fantasy Book Critic has always been Sci-Fi and Fantasy however from time to time; we have also focused on thrillers, historical fiction, urban fantasy and horror.Usually the books I review on the blog are the books I want to read in various genres such as fantasy, UF, SF and thriller/mystery.

That being said while I still read thrillers and mystery titles, Ihaven’t reviewed much of them on FBC as with my previous reviews, we used to get a rash of comments saying that this is a SFF blog and the readers would like us to focus more on that. So with that in mind I still read thrillers but I don’t review most of them. Lastly I also enjoy urban fantasy and in this regard I think Bastard and I are the only male bloggers who enjoy this field IMO. So I always make it a point to review or keep with UF books on both the blogs (FBC and Bastard books).

So pretty much you split what you review between two different blogs?  Does this affect the way that you approach writing a review for each site?

Oh yes, with FBC, there’s a pattern to the reviews. With Bastard Books, it’s more informal. Overall though the review matter doesn’t change one bit just the way it is showcased. That and I’ve call Bastard my overlord all the time!

Bastard overlord, huh?  What if there were a pack of chittering rabid squirrels that demanded that you review more squirrel-friendly literature?  Would you cave in or would you stick to your (reviewing) guns and cover only what interests you?

MW: One can never say no to anything that has the adjective rabid to it ;) but honestly I often try to expand on my reading habits. Time though is the biggest factor that determines which books I read and review. So to be fair if you have any recommendations for me I’ll be glad to take them on with the caveat that maybe we could also see a more recent fantasy/sff book on the OF blog.

Fair enough.  If FBC will consider reviewing some of the shortlisted titles for either the National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, I'll endeavor to review a few more recent SF/F books here.

I see that you are active on Twitter.  How has Twitter impacted what you cover on FBC or what you read in your spare time?

I’ve been handling the FBC twitter handle since the last year. Twitter has been fun as I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of cool folks (both authors and bloggers). The best of it has been that I’ve discovered a lot of new and upcoming authors whom I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten to know about quite so early.

The not-so-good part is trying to stay out of twitter arguments and similar ilk.

What are some of those “twitter arguments” that you wish could be laid to rest, perhaps with a stake through the heart?

Oh I don’t think most of them are ever going to go away. But the one perception that I wish to change is that UF and PNR are pretty much the same thing. Not all UF books are the usual trope-laden stuff. For example Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series is a fantastic example of an urban fantasy series that basically stretches the imagination of its readers as well as the magical boundaries of the world.

I would urge SFF readers not to shrug and roll their eyes at this fab sub-genre which is slowly finding its feet.   There are so many good and different UF series out there that I implore all naysayers to give those hidden gems from Ilona Andrews, John Connolly, Tim Marquitz, B. Justin Shier, Kari A. Stewart and many, many more. Hell, just bug me on Goodreads and I’ll be more than happy to point all the titles out.

But I’m one of those philistines who refuses to use Goodreads out of general principle!  You’ve mentioned urban fantasies a few times now.  As someone who is not very familiar with it, what are some of its characteristics?

Ah that’s a very touchy subject. Most detractors would gladly point to the covers featuring females in various awkward poses and leather pants/tight pants. Then there’s the sassy/tough female protagonist who might have parent issues and needs to find love with a big, bad misunderstood dude. Lastly there’s the smoldering love looks that occur with them in vicinity of each other. All this is true of all PNR and some UF books. But this trope is the same as the earlier fantasy books that had the same pseudo-tolkien outlook and very derivations of the same LOTR themes.

 In the past few years, there have been a few UF books that are different and are willing to pave newer roads in this sub-genre. There’s Ilona Andrews who explore a fascinating culture of the were-humans in a post-apocalyptic world as seen through the eyes of a mercenary anti-hero with a sharp sword and a laconic wit. Then there’s Myke Cole who’s rather ambiguiously exploring how the world and governments would react to the presence of magic in his Shadow Ops series. There’s John Connolly who in his Charlie Parker series tries to connect human suffering, choices and actions with the supernatural world in a very sublime way and with absolutely stunning prose. There are so many more examples which I don’t wish to bore you with by enumerating them all.

Lastly philistine or not, Goodreads would be fun for you Larry. There are all sorts of folks and with that comes all sorts of drama and flame wars. They might not be of the intellectual sort but every once in a while you do come across like-minded folks and book suggestions that might surprise you.

Perhaps, but I really don't have the time for even considering that right now.  Plus I have a history of wanting to have fewer "voices" influencing me, but that's another time/place discussion, as I'm not being interviewed here! Moving on...

Frequently there are discussions online, both on blogs and on Twitter, regarding "the state of genre."  What is your first (and maybe second) reaction to that term, "the state of genre?"

That’s a very interesting term “state of genre”. If you listen to different people, you’ll get different definitions of what it means. My first reaction is honestly that there’s no exact definition to it. Are we talking about the slow movement away from the pseudo-European world setting (the sooner this occurs, the better) or the advent of grimdark fantasy and the slightly nonsensical backlash against it?

I can’t say what my second reaction is because I am still a bit confused as to what my first reaction is. I honestly think that the fantasy field is an evolving one, in the 90s and the early 2000s we saw the advent of long-winded series. From the latter half of the first decade there has also been a rise in morally ambivalent fantasy and characters. So I would think the state of the genre is definitely heading in interesting directions. What I want to see more of: World settings (focussing on non-European history/civilizations, fat protagonists and possibly a series/trilogy where the apocalypse isn’t prevented and the world actually ends (I know J. Fallon has done something similar in one of her series, but there’s a caveat to it).
I believe “state of genre” as a term is a very fluid concept and it’ll be interesting to hear what others think of it though.
You said earlier that you grew up in India.  How available were Anglo-American SF/F in India during your youth?  Also, how different would “state of genre” be if we weren’t implicitly talking about Anglo-American SF/F but instead how this literary genre is viewed in other parts of the world?
Aah my youth was spent looking for books to read but back in the 90s decade as well as the earlier half of 2000s, SFF books were very hard to find. In Bombay/Mumbai we had this are called Fort wherein along a long road, there were lots of roadside vendors/hawkers who used to sell SF, fantasy, mystery, thrillers and loads of other stuff. I often found lots of new books over there and not in the stores like (The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker, Most of Terry Brooks’ and David Gemmell’s bibliography among others.)
However after 2006, there have been newer bookstores coming up that catered a lot of the SFF books that weren’t available earlier. I would like to hope that currently there’s definitely more if not less of the same.
When you think of State Of Genre and look it up from the desi viewpoint, it’s hard to find any similarities as it’s fairly European based. I had written a short post about Indian Speculative fiction and how our rich cultural heritage could often be viewed as SFF from a non-religious point of view. We have had very few fantasy stories wherein the culture mined is not a European one or a facsimile of it. Some examples that come to mind are Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, Kate Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy (not entirely Indian but has some small ties to a south Asian outlook), Robert Jordan’s WOT which had its core belief of time being a wheel and various cycles that followed, sounded awfully similar to some of the stuff in Hindu and Buddhist scripture.
But overall there’s almost next to nothing that connects to us desi readers based on our historical and mythological background. Of course there have been a few authors like Amish Tripathi, Krishna Udayasankar and Samit Basu who have made their work know to audiences away from the Indian subcontinent but I believe we are yet struggling to compete with Anglo-American SF/F from a SFF writer point.
You bring up authors like Jordan’s mammoth WoT series that utilize elements of Hindu mythology?  How do you feel about this adaptation of Indian stories/beliefs to suit a Western audience?
While I enjoyed that bit and the start of the WOT series. I honestly can’t call myself a fan, I gave up on it after book 7 when the plot still wasn’t escalating much and the braid-tugging was going on at full steam. I enjoyed RJ’s scope and vision for the series and how he incorporated several different aspects of various cultures and religions (The age cycle, Arthurian mythos, etc) to make up his world that basically launched the EPIC back into the epic fantasy genre. It also heralded the dawn of long winded series and inspired many more writers (I believe GRRM acknowledges this and had a couple of nods to RJ and his series in his books).
But honestly that was a very small nod to Desi mythology; a recent and more pronounced acknowledgement was to be found in Mage’s Blood the first book of the MoonTide quartet by David Hair.  The book is about a clash of civilizations in this case literally the East versus the West. The author has quite interestingly portrayed a land which is a facsimile of the Indian subcontinent and has modelled it quite sharply down to the narrow details such as festivals, Gods, swear-words, etc. (The swear word bit was a bit amusing to read as the author quite smartly captured the Indian swearwords and kept them to the same biting context).   
Obviously I would love for authors to explore more of the Indian culture, history and mythology and Max Gladstone has also written a fascinating post about the ignorance of the Western world with the world’s longest epic The Mahabharata which is also my favorite story of all. Also I would have given my left kidney to see David Gemmell write about Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire and a heroic figure who is perhaps worthy of an equal status among the nine worthies such as Hector, Charlemagne, etc.


Gabriele C. said...

Maybe you could hook Guy Gavriel Kay on some Indian myth / history to explore. I'd like to read that.

Larry Nolen said...

To be honest, I wouldn't. I am not a fan of Kay's, or at least of the appropriated settings in the three books/two series I've read (the two Sarantium one, the first alt-China). Not that I have an inveterate opposition to having alt-worlds resemble actual cultures, but rather that I think Kay has lifted settings too much in a "whole cloth" fashion for me to warm to his tales.

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