Author: David J Nix

A Guy’s Guide to Regency Romance

A Guy’s Guide to Regency Romance

Just as grunting, inappropriate scratching, and endless sports trivia long have been the domain of the male of the species, so historical romance novels have belonged solidly to the realm of women. Female authors (mostly), female readers (mostly), and female bloggers (mostly). It is the “mostly” that brought me to a starling conclusion. Some men enjoy – and even write – historical romance. I’m talking about guys who run jackhammers, hunt wild boar, and perform their own plumbing repairs. Even more astonishing is that recently those thin but proud ranks welcomed me. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of historical romance novels and don’t yet know how deep it goes. As a newcomer to the genre, I feel it my solemn duty to leave a trail of breadcrumbs along the way, not so that I may return, but that others of my gender may follow. If they are man enough.

Types of Romance Novels in General

Historical romance aside, there are basically three types of romance novels. The primary delineator among them are questions of sexual acts:

  • Do they happen at all,
  • If so, do they happen outside of the marriage bed,
  • If so, do you get to watch when they do happen.

The first category of historical romance basically consists of novels about sex with a minimal plot painted over the surface to set them apart from the magazines your uncle kept hidden in the backyard shed. In short, the plot is simply a vehicle for repeated and graphic sex scenes. Think “Fifty Shades of Amorous Congress” here.

The second category consists of novels having an actual plot where sex occurs as part of the story. There are two sub-categories for this: “fade-to-black” and “Mabel! Cover the eyes of the children!” In the fade-to-black sub-category, sex happens off-screen, so to speak. The other sub-category looks remarkably like the first category above during the time when sex is occurring. Graphic. And detailed.

The third category consists of novels where sex does not happen outside of the marriage bed, and when it does, you aren’t invited to watch, thank you very much. The shades remain drawn. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The Regency Romance Novel in Particular

In general, good historical romance consists of categories two and three only. Why? Because the level of research needed to produce a reasonably accurate historical novel typically forces an actual plot. With all that time spent researching, why just have the characters mate continuously? Nevertheless, category two can produce some blush-inducing scenes. Often. And in graphic detail. The audience for this category is enormous, as you might imagine.

That brings us to category three, and the special relationship it enjoys with Regency romance. The modern romance novel was invented by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, or at least popularized by her. If you don’t know by now who Jane Austen is, then you either slept through high school literature or have never actually talked to a woman. If either is the case, I suggest you go now and find a monster truck to drive. Through an explosion. To get to a fight.

For those of you still here, I would remind you that Jane Austen wrote her novels around the Regency period about characters that lived around the Regency period. I would also remind you that the Regency period, which lasted from 1811 to 1820, was the time during which King George battled debilitating mental illness and therefore was unable to serve as king. Meanwhile, his heir, the Prince Regent, was busy attempting to personally bankrupt the British Empire with his spending habits. As a result, Parliament kept a tight rein on the prince, which allowed him to party, philander, and spend even further. In other words, Justin Bieber.

The upper echelons of society somewhat mirrored the behavior of the Prince Regent through lavish parties, endless social maneuvering, and forbidden trysts. However, the good and hypocritical people of society never admitted such impropriety, and roundly condemned anyone careless enough to get caught and too poor to sweep it under the rug. Given that society’s ideal was that wives bring their virginity intact to the marriage bed, and given that Jane Austen was the daughter of a church minister, and given that she never married, she wrote to the ideal of society in terms of male/female relationship. No sex outside the marriage bed. Ever. And for heaven sake’s, don’t even hint about it. Given that approach, Regency romance novels occupying the third category are the most direct heirs to Jane Austen’s work.

The Male Archetypes

Now, then. This entire guide thus far has been about sex. Given that this is a guide for guys, it only seems appropriate. We typically start off thinking about it, finish up thinking about it, and manage to squeeze out a few rational thoughts in between. On a good day. This brings us to a discussion of the male archetypes that occupy Regency romance novels. There are three basic male hero archetypes. If you don’t know what an archetype is, shouldn’t you be looking for a monster truck by now? Anyway, the three male archetypes are:

  • The unrepentant rake.
  • The brooding wounded man.
  • The iron but dying man.

Rakes are smooth-talking, overtly charming ladies’ men who move swiftly through society from one conquest to another. Only the heroine can save him from his wicked and self-destructive ways, and bring on repentance and monogamy.

The brooding wounded man is, as you might guess, a man who suffers deep hurt from a past incident (usually at the hands of a woman), and broods relentlessly as a result. Only the heroine can heal him and draw him from his wounded shell into the land of light.

The iron but dying man is one who lets no outside force penetrate his emotional armor, but is slowly dying inside from lack of emotional contact. Only the heroine can find a chink in his armor and pour into him the love that will save him.

Regardless, all of the above are typically tall, broad-shouldered, and fill out a pair of trousers like a Russian gymnast. In addition, they are usually wealthy, titled, adept at societal functions, and surprisingly good dancers. Oh, and they are quick to jump to incorrect conclusions regarding the heroine, which they do with alarming repetition. Most heroes have an antagonist or two, regardless of the hero’s archetype. His antagonist is usually a lesser man who has more money, more power, or a higher title than does the hero. The antagonist often sets his sights on the heroine, and often only wants her for shallow reasons such as social standing, more money, and more power. The undeserving lout!

The Female Archetypes

There is only one female archetype for the heroine, really. The under-appreciated woman with hidden talent, beauty, will, title, or a combination of those, who fights bravely against male-centric societal conventions to break the shackles while winning the eternal affections of the hero. To know her is to love her, but getting to know her can prove a torturous journey filled with maddening pitfalls.

The antagonist of every heroine usually comes in the form of a woman whom the heroine sees as more beautiful, cultured, and/or connected than the heroine is. Said antagonist usually sets her sights on the hero and tries to win him with her charms while simultaneously discrediting the heroine in a very passive-aggressive manner. The hero is often either too brainless or too honor-bound to just tell the antagonist to shove off.

The Story Arcs

Story arcs usually go one of three ways.

  • Love or lust at first sight, complicated by a barrier. That barrier could be title (e.g. one is beneath the other’s station), a prior agreement (e.g. a marriage promise to a less worthy woman), a damaging act (usually, either the hero doing something stupid or the heroine running away, or both). Most often, though, the barrier consists of a series of misunderstandings that cause significant strife between the would-be couple before they sort it out in the final pages. These misunderstandings are often fueled by the antagonists. In between, there is a lot of flirting, touching, and kissing even when the heroic couple are at odds. In the more carnal categories, there is often sex. “I hate you. Now let’s have sex.”
  • Animosity or apathy at first sight. Animosity or apathy is usually brought on by the fact that some societal rule or faux pas forces the couple together, that their families are at war with one another, or that they simply get the wrong impression of one another. This story arc is basically the same as the first, but skips past the societal barrier straight to the string of misunderstandings. From there, the two arcs progress very similarly.
  • The slow burn. The couple experiences an initial interest that slowly builds into passion. This is again like the first story arc, but the barriers only manifest after the couple begins to fall for one another and believes for a brief moment that all will be well. Then the full weight of society collapses on top of them.

In other words, virtually every Regency romance tells the same story under differing circumstances. The characters, the settings, the actions, the historical context – all of this can differ dramatically. However, a good Regency romance is ultimately about a man and woman navigating the mine field of the very class-conscious and rule-bound world of Regency England in an attempt to find love with one another.

Five Rules

If this is all too much to take in at one time, then consider my Five Regency Romance Rules of Inevitability for understanding a Regency romance novel.

  1. If it is possible for the hero and heroine to jump to the wrong conclusion about the words or actions of the other, they inevitably will.
  2. If the hero and heroine have the opportunity to provide enlightening information that will resolve the incorrect conclusion of the other, they inevitably will be interrupted just before sharing it.
  3. If the couple attempts to avoid one another, they instead will encounter one another inevitably, repeatedly, and with nobody else around.
  4. If society has the opportunity to squash the budding relationship, it inevitably will try in rather ingenious ways.
  5. No matter what happens, don’t sweat the details, because the stories all end with a “happily ever after” – inevitably.

If, by this guide, you believe that I am mocking Regency romance novels, then you are sorely mistaken, sir, and risk a duel by insinuating so. In reality, I can’t get enough of the stuff, much to my everlasting bewilderment. After I finish reading a Regency romance novel, I feel the overwhelming urge to grow a beard, chop down a tree with an axe, or drive a monster truck through an explosion. However, I also experience actual, dare I say, feelings. I catch brief glimpses into the feminine side of my soul, and it blinds me. Somewhere, Jane Austen is smiling and shaking her head while I search for sunglasses.

A SciFi Classic: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

A SciFi Classic: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Cover_Roadside_PicnicContext is everything. Would you like someone to frame you, shoot you, and hang you on a wall? If that someone is a photographer, then yes. Anyone else, uh, heck no. With that said, Roadside Picnic when read with no context is a 4 star novel. When read in context, it is nothing short of a SciFi classic. Stay with me on this.

Roadside Picnic follows characters called “stalkers” who risk their lives retrieving alien artifacts left behind from a brief alien visit to Earth. The area of the visit, called the Zone, is a house of horrors. Hell slime that turns limbs to rubber. Tufts of fuzz that eat flesh. Gravity traps that crush those who wander into them. Heat waves that cook skin on the bone. Grinders that twist a body like a limp dish rag, and more. The valuable artifacts are no less inventive: containers with no form, perpetual motion machines, everlasting batteries, and so on. In other words, technology so advanced that it seems like magic to mere human brains. When focused on The Zone and the dilemma it presents to stalkers, the story soars. Sometimes, though, it bogs down with pages of moral rumination by the characters. That perception may be due to my impatience as an American. The authors, on the other hand, are Russian, and Russians are generally more patient than Americans are.

Oh, did I mention that the authors are Russian? And that they wrote this story in 1971 near the pinnacle of the cold war and post-Stalin era censorship? That, my friend, is the context that makes this novel a classic. The morally ambiguous hero (or anti-hero) is a man named Red who subverts a repressive system in pursuit of making money in a black market capitalistic system. He defies authority at every turn, and breaks the rules with little regard for consequences. Given the time period in which this was written, it is a miracle that Soviet censors allowed this novel to come to print. When you consider the final words of the novel in this context, it is a wonder that the Strugatsky brothers didn’t end up in a KGB holding cell. Kudos to the authors for the courage to write what they envisioned, and all hail Science Fiction for providing a platform for defying authority in ever so inventive ways.

Face Like Glass: A Fantasy/SciFi Swirly Cone

Face Like Glass: A Fantasy/SciFi Swirly Cone

cover_face_like_glassI don’t always read Fantasy. But when I do, I read Frances Hardinge. She writes the most interesting books in the world. Face Like Glass is among her best: a twisted concoction of steampunk fantasy and post-apocalyptic science fiction that twists and turns like a chocolate-vanilla swirly cone. You know, like the kind you can buy at the local Dairy Queen, but only if you had the distinct pleasure/curse of living in a podunk small enough to merit a Dairy Queen.

Face Like Glass follows the young life of Neverfell, a child who appears in the underground city of Caverna with a distinct deformity. While all others in Caverna are expressionless by nature and must practice and perfect facial expressions, Neverfell can’t help but let her emotions appear naturally on her features. Those expressions serve as a window to her feelings – giving her a face like glass. After years of hiding with a reclusive cheesemaker, she is suddenly thrust into the midst of Caverna’s odd and highly dangerous Court, where intrigue and murder are all the rage. Neverfell’s deformity should make her the most vulnerable of all … but it might just be her salvation. And Neverfell’s salvation intertwines with the fate of Caverna is ways she can only imagine.

Ms. Hardinge’s writing is reminiscent of that of J.K. Rowling in the quality of weird and quirky wonder that pervades the pages. Aggressive wines that can attack an unsuspecting passerby or make you forget a particular memory. Cheeses that allow you to see the future at the risk of death. Cartographers who drive you insane if you listen to them for more than five minutes. Weird. Quirky. Wondrous. And just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing throughout.

Five star’s for one of Frances Hardinge’s best.

A Better Version of the Hunger Games: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

A Better Version of the Hunger Games: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

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I resent you, Pierce Brown. Your absolutely riveting novel, Red Rising, kept me awake for nearly three days because I virtually could not put it down. In those moments that I did manage to pry my Kindle from my fingers, my brain couldn’t leave the story alone. I hope you feel bad about that. For the rest of you, forgive Mr. Brown in advance, because this novel will capture you completely.

Red Rising follows a young man called Darrow who belongs to the Reds – the huddled masses of miners who live their entire lives beneath the surface of a futuristic Mars, burrowing for the precious Helium-3 used for transforming Mars into a habitable planet. The Reds accept their lot, knowing that success means relief for the dying masses of Earth. One problem, though. The story is a lie. Mars was colonized hundreds of years before and the Reds remain as ignorant slaves far beneath the crust. For Darrow, everything changes in a moment of sacrificial rebellion. He is transported to the Mars above, a land ruled by Golds and populated by lesser colors of people. Physically re-created into a Gold by a terrorist group, Darrow soon finds himself competing in brutal and deadly war games with other young Golds for an honored place in Gold society. And Darrow proves very good at waging war. But can he continue to hide what he really is? Can he find a way to win at the Gold’s game without sacrificing his Red soul? Can he bring down Gold society and free his people without destroying them both?

Okay – this story is fantastic on so many levels. The moral level as Darrow walks a razor thin line between winning the war and losing himself. The emotional level as Darrow tries not to like (or love) those whom he should hate. But the power of the story lies in Darrow’s prowess at war, and his unconventional and counter-intuitive strategy to win. The war games competition, from the writing to the flow to the twists, make Red Rising a better version of the Hunger Games – with more nuance, more turns, and more moral dilemma than Katniss ever faced.

I still resent you, Pierce Brown. But I thank you for an incredible tale that plumbs the depths of the human spirit. Well done, young man. Well and truly done.

Fresh Zombie Take: The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Fresh Zombie Take: The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

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I have a confession to make. I’m done with zombie stories. Every plot has been written multiple times. Every angle has been explored. There is simply nothing new to be told. Or so I thought before reading The Girl with All the Gifts.

To say too much about the plot would be to deprive unsuspecting readers some spectacular plot twists. But, in the interest of not being entirely unhelpful, here goes. Six year old Melanie is a genius. She reads the classics, performs Calculus, and quotes Greek literature. Her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, adores Melanie above the other students in a very unique class. For each day, Sergeant and other hardened soldiers roll Melanie and her classmates into class strapped helplessly into wheel chairs. No one ever touches the children, or gets too close to their teeth, or releases their bonds in the presence of adults. Why? Melanie doesn’t know at first, but gradually learns of the undead “hungries” that have killed the world outside of the school. That world seems so far away … until it crashes in on the school and destroys it. What follows is a frenetic journey of self-discovery and survival as Melanie, Miss Justineau, and Sergeant attempt to survive a brutal outside world. For the truth about Melanie and the danger she poses to those she loves most becomes the girl’s most difficult lesson yet.

This novel has everything – everything – I look for in a story. Compelling characters you cannot simply classify as good or bad who soldier on with hope despite a hopeless situation. Twists and turns galore – some you see coming and some you don’t. And best of all, an ending that you don’t see coming, but when it does, you know it is perfect.

Five enthusiastic stars for this novel … and I would give it six if I could. Just read it, okay. You can thank me later.

Better Than the Movie: The Hunger Games

Better Than the Movie: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Imagine a future America where a central government rules all with an iron fist, fed by the tribute of 12 subjugated colonies. Those in the capital city live lives of ease, abundance and entertainment at the expense of the colonists, who struggle against nature every day to survive. This is the life of the teenage Katniss, a girl who risks punishment for excursions beyond the electric fence to find food for her widowed mother and young sister.

Her slow trudge toward a bleak future is suddenly interrupted when her sister’s name is drawn to compete in the annual Hunger Games, and Katniss volunteers in her sibling’s place. The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. Twenty-four teens from the 12 colonies are chosen to fight to the death in an arena of diabolical design, their every word and action televised to a riveted nation. Because the colony of the winning contestant receives extra food allotments for an entire year, the full attention of the colonies focuses on the outcome.

 

The story follows Katniss through her preparation and competition. Although she wishes only to survive, Katniss’ ingenuity, selflessness, and defiance soon earn the admiration of viewers across the nation. She slowly becomes that which the Capital fears the most: a symbol of rebellious hope to the oppressed colonies. Even if she survives the games, she may not survive the wrath of the central government.

 

Much has been said about the Hunger Games trilogy – that it is a knock-off of previous works, that it is simplistic in its view of humanity, that it is little more than a moral parable. The critics, however, have missed the bigger picture. Ms. Collins has painted a portrait of an America not far removed from our own – one where the oppression of race has been replaced by the oppression of class, and where the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has grown deep. She achieves what every author should – to have the reader care deeply for the main character, and to have the reader think deeply about the circumstances and actions of that character. This novel is a tremendous mixture of action and relationships, and should not be missed by any teen reader.

The Best Post-Apocalyptic Short Story. Ever.

The Best Post-Apocalyptic Short Story. Ever.

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A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber. With a claim like that, it better be incredibly good. It is. Written in 1951, the story begins with a startling premise: Earth has been ripped away from the sun by a ‘dark star’, the atmosphere lies in frozen layers on the ground, and everyone is dead. Well, not quite everyone. The tale’s narrator is a young boy who survives with his small family in a hand-built refuge, valiantly staving off human extinction. The story owes its title to one of the boy’s daily chores: donning a suit, going outside, and retrieving a pail of frozen air. As the fire inside warms the air, it turns to gas and thus sustains the family.

Why is this one the best short story ever? Because, the family’s situation is utterly hopeless, but the characters maintain hope anyway and fight on. It is this quirk of the human spirit that makes every post-apocalyptic story so compelling; it is this quirk that inspires me. Stories like this one initially drew me to the genre and keep me coming back.

You can read the story for free at the following link posted by the original publisher.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

The page begins with a short introduction, so just skip to the first line “Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.” Yep – still gives me chills. No pun intended.

My Take: The Martian by Andy Weir

My Take: The Martian by Andy Weir

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My reading of The Martian was one long-running reaction of, “How did Andy Weir research this much material?” The answer in a moment. The reason for the question is this: the story follows the desperate struggle of astronaut Mark Watney to survive alone on Mars, and the main character applies countless implementations of chemistry, biology, physics, and math to ensure survival. Sounds boring, right? Wrong! The story moves so swiftly from one edge-of-death experience to the next that I found myself rooting for principles of science and Watney’s brain to pull him out of the fire again and again. And despite the grim circumstances, the story is told with an abundance of gallows humor, both from Watney’s perspective and the perspective of those on Earth trying to rescue him.

 

So what about the question? How did the author research this much material? Easy. His entire life has been devoted to a fascination with science, space, and planning a Mars expedition. In other words, Mr. Weir has prepared for decades to write this novel. The result is a miracle that makes Robinson Crusoe and Hatchet look like child’s play. This novel is destined to be a classic! [Addendum: The film did a respectable job of capturing the tone and humor of the novel]

The Difference Between Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Literature

The Difference Between Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Literature

My favorite SciFi sub-genre is post-apocalyptic science fiction, with dystopian literature coming in a respectable but distant second.

Why?

Because I’m fascinated by the behavior of people when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away and all hope is lost. What remains is a true glimpse of humanity at its worst and best, and the question “what makes us human” leaps to the forefront.

For the past several years, dystopian literature has been hot, especially with young adults. Many readers remain confused about the subtle difference between dystopian literature and post-apocalyptic literature. Allow me to explain my interpretation of the difference.

A dystopia is a society where societal perfection or societal transcendence is obtained at the expense of something else. That “something else” could be a devalued class of people, the loss of a fundamental freedom, or the surrender of some aspect of human nature. Literary dystopias often arise through a slow process of societal change, or more abruptly as the result of some cataclysm. In either case, the dystopia represents society in a stable state, albeit a state most of us find appalling in some manner.

Post-apocalyptic literature, on the other hand, focuses on the instability during and/or following a cataclysmic event that shatters society both in form and headcount. During the story, whatever society exists is typically small, isolated, and highly threatened. Often there is little or no hope for any meaningful future. Although it is true that post-apocalyptic events can lead to the formation of dystopian societies, it is the immediately endangered nature of the society that interests me as a reader.

For example, consider the blockbuster series The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This is a dystopian story because it describes a stable but imperfect society that has sacrificed morality and most of the population for the comfort of a few. However, as a lover of post-apocalyptic stories, I wanted to know “how.” How did this society emerge? What happened to create such a place? The story offers few clues, other than hints of a horrific war.

I preferred the very poetic Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. The survivors of a zombie-plague apocalypse huddle together in a small community surrounded by a chain-link fence, unaware of other survivors. Pretty hopeless, right? Despite that hopelessness, a small band of teenagers ventures into the unknown with a vague hope that there must be something better “out there.”

So … it may come as no surprise that I wrote a couple of post-apocalyptic series. Write what you like; write what you know – right? The Shore of Monsters series depicts a society 100 years after a cataclysm that is barely hanging on to survival. The Well series describes an underground society 300 years after a cataclysm, one that believes it is stable but is in fact slowly dying. In each case, as is true with most post-apocalyptic literature, an act of courage is needed to save the world.

The Shore of Monsters (on Amazon)

The Well (on Amazon)

I’ll leave you with this. The best example, in my opinion, of an utterly hopeless situation where survivors soldier on is the short story “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber. It’s available free on-line by the original publisher, Baen books. If your tastes mirror mine, then do yourself a favor and read it at the link below.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

(Note – there is a short Preface, but the story starts at the line “Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.” Good opening line!)