Genre Friday – Wuxia

If you had to sum it up in just a few words, I suppose you would call the stories in the wuxia genre Chinese, historical, martial arts epics. It’s almost the Chinese version of a western but, instead of the rough-around-the-edges, drifter with a gun that blows into town in the American west of the 19th century to clean up the place the hard way, it’s a lone, often lowly-born, wushu warrior in pre-modern China. Plus, there is normally an element mystery.

It’s actually got a pretty complex and storied history, so rather than attempting to explain it further, I’m going to hand it over to Chinese-born romance author, Sherry Thomas…

Wuxia Explained: A Look at Mystery Storytelling Across Cultures

Wuxia

Photo © Shutterstock

The Chinese enjoy a long literary tradition of stories dealing with crime and punishment. Often those stories have for a protagonist an incorruptible magistrate – not that easy to find, it would seem, in the imperial bureaucratic system, and therefore the more heroic for his rarity. The magistrate has a lot of power over his jurisdiction: He is prosecutor, judge, and jury, not to mention the lead detective on the cases that come before him.

Modern western mysteries were introduced to China late in the nineteenth century and quickly became popular. Chinese readers consumed a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures and Chinese writers produced many detective titles of their own. But after Communist rule was established in the mainland, that output ground to a halt, since it seemed to serve no “revolutionary” purposes.

Outside the Communist sphere, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, mystery writers continued apace. But mystery writers weren’t the only ones to adopt and adapt the formula: Some of the most widely read mysteries written in the Chinese language were, in fact, martial arts epics.

Collectively known as wuxia, martial arts epics are some of the most popular genre books in the modern Sinosphere. They feature heroes and heroines who are adept in the various disciplines of martial arts, and portray grand dramas set against something of an alternate society, in which characters belong to myriad lineages of martial training and often find themselves involved in blood feuds dating back generations.

Classical wuxia novels were more likely to be straightforward accounts of itinerant heroics. But the most influential writers of the modern era delight in incorporating mystery elements. Sometimes it is done as a partial plot arc, such as when the clever heroine of Legends of the Condor Heroes, a work comparable to The Lord of the Rings in its reach and influence, figures the true murderers of her fiancé’s masters. Sometimes it is the entire plot: Long before I knew what a locked-room mystery was, I had read one, about how a roomful of great martial arts masters, on seclusion to take their skills to the next level, were all found dead when the doors to the hall were at last thrust open.

Mystery novels aren’t just about solving the puzzle; they are also about seeing justice served. Classical western detective fiction usually did not deal with the portion of the legal process that would actually see the culprits punished; the implicit assumption was that, with means, motive, opportunity so clearly laid out, often with a confession to boot, the system would work as it should. (Agatha Christie sometimes liked to have the murderers commit suicide, just to be sure.)

But such a legal system does not exist in the parallel universe that is the martial world in wuxia novels. The revelation of guilt, therefore, is often followed by a battle royale, from which our heroes emerge victorious, and the villains are disposed of extra-judiciously, but justly, a solution that suits the ethos of wuxia literature, with its emphasis on a system of honor, rather than a system of laws.

The funny thing is, I had devoured all the wuxia novels I could lay my hands on in my adolescence, never once realizing that they were, in fact, a melding of eastern and western storytelling. It was only later, when I read more about the development of modern wuxia, that I learned its highest practitioners had made the deliberate choice to fuse the structure of detective fiction onto the age-old setting of the martial world.

All I can say, looking back at my voracious reading of yesteryear, is that as an artistic choice, it totally worked!

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Genre Friday – Hobbit Day Tribute Edition

Baggins BDay

Welcome to the house that Tolkien built. Epic Fantasy (also known as High Fantasy) is the quintessential fantasy sub-genre, the fount from which all other fantasy sub-genres have flowed, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves and orcs and rings (oh my) utterly dominate the field. There are, of course, stand-outs and outliers, stories that forge news paths in an old sub-genre, but even when a tale isn’t filled with staff wielding wizards and subterranean, master-craftsmen called dwarfs anything called epic fantasy still contains a few essential elements that were originally established when Tolkien first fleshed out Middle-earth on paper.

Epic fantasies create entire worlds, with long and complex histories and vivid cultures and lifestyles. How complex and vivid? Tolkien actually created (or adapted) a historic timeline leading back to the creation of the world, myths, legends, deities, several races of creatures (many of which have become staples of the fantasy genre), multiple kingdoms, and an entire language for the fictional inhabitants of his world! If you look hard enough in the right places I bet it wouldn’t take too much effort to find someone that speaks at least passing Elvish. They are not all that in depth, but that is the kind of detail you are potentially looking at when you jump into an epic fantasy.

In case that isn’t enough to wrap your head around, epic fantasy also almost always has a large cast of characters taking part in quests and adventures that will affect the fate of an entire kingdom or world. Possibly multiple worlds.

So, it is a complex workout for your imagination and memory. What else?

MiddleEarth

While hand-drawn maps of the world are not strictly mandatory, they are strongly encouraged. 

It’s big. Aside from its often immense geographic scope, as it is not unusual for the cast of characters to have to trek across continents and cross oceans in the pursuit of their goal, these stories can also cover large spans of time, with years, decades or even generations passing by in the course of the story (or series of stories). They are also big in another way – these are not typically short books. Once you get sucked into an epic fantasy series you are in it for the long haul.

 

Examples:

Sheepfarmer's DaughterThe Belgariad series by David Eddings

The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

The Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks

The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

Genre Friday – Pastiche

We continue to stretch (and occasionally ignore) the definition of “genre” here on Genre Friday. This time around we’re dealing not with a “genre” that is tied together by similar form, or theme, or subject, but by what it is attempting to do instead. That’s right, it’s pastiche time.

First, it’s pronounced pa’ steesh.

Second, it’s sort of like that saying that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Unlike parody, that imitates something in order to poke fun at it, pastiche imitates something to honor it or to bring it to life for a new generation. The results of such an attempt can be light-hearted, even flippant, but it is still generally respectful of the original material. It is done as much out of admiration for the original art or artist (and it can be applied to any art form – painting, films, music, literature, etc.) as anything else.

It’s actually a really nice idea if you think about it.

House of Silk

“Hey, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, James Joyce, Agatha Christie, and so on, and so on, I am really picking up what you’re putting down. I want to be like you when I grow up.”

Sometimes the new work is only loosely related to the original (think West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet). Sometimes it is an off-shoot or continuation of a pre-existing story or set of stories. Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, for example, is an authorized continuation of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, however, is not an official sequel to Gone with the Wind, but still pays homage to the original source in its style and subject, not to mention main character.

Plus, once you get the hang of it, it’s kind of fun to say. Pastiche.

 

Genre Friday – Rampant Technology Horror

Toaster

Like this except, you know, evil.

It’s late, the wind is howling outside, you’re all alone in the house… and then your computer comes to life with malevolent intelligence and takes over all your appliances. Next thing you know your chased screaming from your home with sinister kitchen appliances and a surprisingly angry vacuum cleaner close on your heels only to find your lawn mower and snow blower waiting to ambush you in the front yard. Through the creative and unrestrained use of a shovel and framing hammer (thank goodness the simple tools haven’t turned against you) and running, lots of running, you manage to barely survive the night.

We’ve all been there.

Rampant Technology Horror (aka “The machines are alive and killing everyone!”) is a small but memorable horror subgenre dealing with exactly what it sounds like – technology and machines that have either taken on a life of their own or are being controlled by some mysterious outside force and subsequently turned on their erstwhile masters. It all exploits the fear that man has gone too far and dared too much, creating machines and technology that we can no longer understand (who knows how an iPad works? *crickets*), let alone control. The best (read most ridiculous and therefore entertaining) of the subgenre, in my humble opinion, comes from the late 70s to early 90s when it was all evil automobiles (see Stephen King’s film Maximum Overdrive, based on his short story Trucks) and horrifying home appliances (again, Stephen King provides an example with his story The Mangle about a violent washing machine). Once the digital age was upon us and computers became a household item though they stole the limelight and it all became frighteningly plausible.

Genre Friday – Pulp Fiction

Actually, it has surprisingly little to do with Quentin Tarantino.

Pulp

Pub. January 1952

Initially more a format than a genre, Pulp Fiction was a general term used to describe the stories published in pulp magazines – cheap magazines printed on rough, wood pulp paper (magazines printed on smooth, high-quality paper were called “glossies”). It was not a complimentary description.

Pulp fiction was synonymous with run-of-the-mill, low-quality literature that got by more on its cheap thrills and lurid details than on any merit.

It was, of course, wildly popular.

At least until WWII, when paper shortages and rising production costs spelled the end for many pulp publications.

Pulp_modern

Pub. June 2017

Today pulp fiction lives on mostly as an homage to those early 20th century writers and short stories. Pulp fiction, whether it be sci-fi, adventure, crime fiction, etc., had a certain sensationalist feel and many common themes and elements that developed over the decades of their popularity and some modern authors (especially hard-boiled crime authors) have taken those elements and brought them to their books and stories today. Or movies (there’s your Tarantino-tie-in).

 

 

 

 

Genre Friday – Cozy Mysteries

Mysteries are all about twists and turns and misdirection. There is often danger. There is almost always a dead body or two. So where does “cozy” come into it?

Cozy Cottage

Not to be confused with a cozy cottage… although a lot of cozy mysteries take place in and around cozy cottages. Hmmm, I wonder if there’s a connection.

The Cozy is a pretty popular mystery sub-genre with a pretty specific set-up. They are generally set in a small town or village, with an amateur (meaning not professional law-enforcement or a PI or anything) sleuth, although they will always have some sort of connection, official or otherwise, that will allow them to gather information on the case. The sleuth is almost always a woman… and not infrequently of the grey-haired, grandmotherly variety. The murder – there is always a murder – is over pretty quickly or happens before the book begins and someone just finds the body to kick things off. There is little to no additional violence. Think Murder, She Wrote for a good, well-known example.

And that’s that. Although, if you are intrigued, this sub-genre has a bunch of subcategories (animals – often cats, crafts, cooking, etc.) all its own so you can delve pretty deeply into the cozy rabbit hole if you should so desire. And, as always, the library is a great place to start.

 

Genre Friday! Presents Historical Romance

It’s a romance set in the past. Well, sort of, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

Three MusketeersFirst, there are the different meanings of romance to consider. “Romance” in the days of yore was pretty much the same thing as what we would call a novel today – a story that someone made up and, to keep it interesting, filled with a bit more drama and action than most people would find typical to everyday life. Thus a historical romance can technically be most any novel written prior to the first half of the 20th century (although particularly in late medieval Europe). This gets even more confusing because some historical romances (read “novels”) focus on a love story, making it qualify as the modern definition of a romance as well.

Of course, this ambiguity is mostly avoided these days due to the simple fact that 99% of the people who go looking for historical romance are looking for books about romantic love that are set in the past. I may have been overstating how complicated it was to take advantage of a teachable moment… Librarian.

Still, even if you are looking for the modern definition of a historical romance, there are choices to be made; mostly involving which time period is you favorite. Most popular are the stories set in the late historical periods of Europe and Great Britain (there is a lot of attention paid to Scottish Highlanders). The American Civil War is also popular, but it doesn’t stop there; ancient Egyptians, Caribbean Pirates, Vikings, you name it, it’s out there somewhere – something for everyone.

Examples:

Traditional Definition:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Rogue by Any Other NameModern Definition:

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean