Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Bandit Book Bloggers Tour- Chasing Azrael

It's been a while, but here's a new book feature for this month's Bandit Book Bloggers: a great paranormal mystery, Chasing Azrael, by Hazel Butler. Go check it out!




Chasing Azrael: Gritty New Paranormal Mystery Series Raises Vital Awareness of Bipolar Disorder.

The ‘Deathly Insanity’ series uses gripping urban mystery and heaps of the paranormal to keep its readers on the edge of their seats. However, the series is also serving a vital dual-purpose by openly examining societal attitudes towards Bipolar Disorder and Depression. The first volume, ‘Chasing Azrael’, sees author Hazel Butler serve up the perfect start to what’s poised to be a best-selling series.

Whilst many authors write for fame and profit, Hazel Butler is publishing books to garner attention of a very different sort – attention for Bipolar Disorder. Because many either misunderstand this condition or shun it completely, Butler uses a unique fusion of urban mystery, the paranormal, and a hint of romance, to study exactly how society perceives mental illness and what it is like to live with such conditions, both for patients and their loved ones.

The ‘Deathly Insanity’ series will delight fans of Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton – or just about anyone else enjoying adult-geared fiction with a twist of the unexpected. A Paranormal Mystery series set to delve into the darkest aspect of human (and inhuman) nature, the series’ first volume is ‘Chasing Azrael’.

Synopsis:

When Andee Tilbrook's husband died, her preoccupation with death turned to obsession. Thanks to her unique ability to commune with the dead, her husband remains all too close, yet never close enough. Mired in grief, she clings to James's spirit, slowly losing touch with the world, her friends, and any desire to continue living.
But when her friend Josh becomes the target of Natalya, a jealous, capricious and violent Russian beauty, Andee somehow finds the strength to free herself from her misery long enough to help him. They soon discover that Natalya is wanted by the police for her involvement in a series of grisly murders, and Andee is dragged into the inquiry by the same man who investigated her own husband's death.
Torn between new feelings for Josh and fear that he might be involved in the murders that seem to threaten anyone who comes close, Andee must face the realities of her life, her past, and her very nature—and do it all in time to save her own life.

“Andee is a petite Gothic Lolita; an archaeologist who lectures at Draethen University – so she’s certainly a quirky character who keeps readers engaged as they explore the many themes throughout the narrative. Chasing Azrael is most definitely a ghost story, however future books look at different aspects of the supernatural. The rest of the series will expand on the themes of book one to include a myriad of different paranormal characters, as well as thought-provoking issues,” says Butler, also an archaeologist.

Continuing, “They won’t all be told from Andee’s perspective, so readers can expect a cocktail of urban mystery where anything is possible.”

Of course, above all, Butler hopes her books will contribute in some way toward a better understanding of mental health issues in society.

“Bipolar Disorder is a daily struggle, and one many people just don’t understand. There’s a lot of stigma and blame for being a sufferer –so I’ve worked diligently to ensure that Andee and my future protagonists can quash any stereotypes and foster a greater culture of empathy,” she adds.

‘Chasing Azrael’, published by AƤdedian Ink, is available now: http://amzn.to/1l0IGVl

For more information, visit: http://hazel-butler.com

About the Author:

Hazel is a twenty eight year old author, artist and archaeologist from Cheshire, England. She is currently in the final year of her PhD, which focuses on Gender Dynamics in Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Britain. She studied archaeology at The University of Manchester, then Bangor University, and spent two years doing corporate archaeology and research excavations, both in Britain and Austria. She has had papers published in international journals and online.

Since 2010, she has been working on Chasing Azrael, a Gothic Literary novel and the first in the Deathly Insanity Series, a set of Paranormal Mystery/Urban Fantasy novels with overlapping character and plot-lines. Although these novels have a strong supernatural element they also explore themes of mental health, in particular Bipolar Disorder, which Hazel herself has suffered from since her early teens.

Excerpt:

I knew nothing but the rhythmic slap of my feet on wet tarmac. It was the only thing I could focus on, and my focus was slipping.
I’m still running, I thought fuzzily, I have to keep running.
The back of my skull throbbed. Thick, cloying blood oozed into my hair, mingling with the rain, cherry streams running down goose-pimpled flesh. One bare, frozen foot landed badly. I tripped, knee slamming into the kerb. A car hurtled by, horn howling at my presence in its path, the glaring lights of its eyes forcing my own shut. When I opened them again, I was transfixed by the sight of my arms, waxen and tinged red in the fading glare of tail lights. I watched intently as bloodied rain dripped down them and into the gutter.
“James!” I screamed, but the night swallowed his name.
The injured leg dragged behind as I ran on, a dead weight, more blood now seeping between my numb toes. Rain pounded in my ears, the taste of blood biting at the back of my throat. Again I stumbled as more lights flashed in my eyes, stationary this time. Clustered before me stood a crowd of cars branded with words that should have offered comfort, but instead only confirmed my worst fears: Police, Paramedic. Squinting against the onslaught of headlights, I lurched past them. Voices added their cries to the night, but they were not my own, and they were not his, so I ignored them, the world twisting around me as my head grew ever lighter and the lights grew ever brighter.

“JAMES!”
Links:

Friday, 16 May 2014

The strong female character- fallacy or reality?

This is a post I've been wanting to write for a while, and AFE Smith's recent blog post on the same topic got me thinking again.

In recent years there's been a surge in most media of the trope of the 'strong female'. More commonly known as the 'Action Girl', these women are the polar opposite of the Damsel in Distress. They don't sit around waiting for a knight to rescue them; they rescue themselves, toast the bad guys, and get the boy  (or indeed girl) for their heroic deeds.

However, while it seems a great step forward towards a more balanced representation of women in media, there's more to this than meets the eye. A lot of the time, a so-called 'Action Girl' falls victim to the same faults of the Damsel. This isn't confined just to male authors/ writers, either.

It tends to happen for several reasons:

1. The creator writes the character as a female character, and not as an independent character who isn't defined by their gender. This automatically locks the Action Girl into a stereotype, and she will never grow beyond it.

2. The creator feels that making a female character too skilled will weaken the other male characters, especially if the protagonist is a male. Typically the 'strong female' is given a reputation of being formidable, only to be walked all over by an antagonist that the hero is then destined to defeat.

3. The creator fears that by stripping a female character of their gender roles, she loses her femininity and this needs to be compensated for. This can happen in the form of said character losing or having her skills weakened so the hero can step in and take over (where she becomes little more than romantic subplot), or by pushing the sex-appeal of the character to keep the male gaze interested (more often the case in visual media).

At its best, our Action Girl can have all the decent personality traits for a strong character, however they have to be physically objectified to make them more appealing. Not that it's not possible to be strong AND sexy, it just seems you can't be strong WITHOUT being sexy.

At its worst, all it is is giving a Damsel in Distress an 'action' attribute (like martial arts, or weapons training) that is completely useless and never used, or that the Damsel is too incompetent to use, making it pointless.

So, let's take a closer look at some of the supposed 'strong' females, and see if they stand up, or if they fall into the above categories. I'm sticking to video games and books, as I'm most informed about them. Remember, this is just my opinion, and they're plenty of other examples I'll miss, but these are the ones that stick out to me most.

Warning: Spoilers may abound.

VIDEO GAMES

BAYONETTA (Bayonetta, SEGA)

This is a slightly unfair example as I knew the developers deliberately pushed the sex appeal to ridiculous levels on purpose, but it's a good one to start. Bayonetta is a Witch who can't recall her memories before she was sealed into sleep for 500 years. As well as wielding her four guns, 'Scarborough Fair', she's acrobatic, physically strong, and can command the forces of darkness in the form of demonic summons.

As is obvious, Bayonetta falls into category 3- her badass skills (apparently) take away from her femininity, so she's sexed up to compensate. In fact it's really taken up to silly levels (like some of the Torture moves), and as I said, the developers were well aware of this. The game doesn't take itself that seriously, though, so you can still enjoy Bayonetta for her camp, sexified-gloriousness.

LIGHTNING FARRON (Final Fantasy XIII, SQUARE ENIX)

The (initial) main character of the 13th Final Fantasy. After her sister gets involved with a Fal'Cie, the legendary beings that brand their chosen warriors to a fate of living as a crystal (if they succeed their 'Focus') or turning into a dreaded Cie'th (if they fail), Lightning decides to take on the Fal'Cie herself. She's a soldier, skilled with a gunblade, and is a formidable opponent, as she uncovers a plot that would destroy her home world.

Lightning's in FF XIII is actually pretty well done (I'm ignoring the sequels). While the focus of the story does shift away from her as the game progresses, she doesn't fall into many of the common pitfalls. She's NOT paired up with a love interest, her skills are NOT weakened to compensate for a lack of femininity, and her in-story motives are NOT driven by her gender. In fact, she acts much more like a 'protective big brother'. There remains of course the sex-appeal element (JRPGS always have a thing for legs, for some reason), but it's not as heavily emphasised (and definitely not to the degree done in Bayonetta).

AVELINE De GRANDPRE (Assassin's Creed Liberation, UBISOFT)

Since most of the Assassin's Creed games rely on historical settings, all of the games, bar this one, have had male protagonists (given women's restricted roles in society in the past), although that's not to say those games lack strong female roles entirely.

Liberation, however, stepped up the game by giving us our first female lead character. And Aveline is just as skilled and courageous as her male counterparts. Yes, she does have a degree of sex-appeal (via her costumes) to help with her interrogations, but her main outfit is pretty damn practical (especially by female standards), and again she isn't forced into a romantic subplot. Although a lot of fans like to pair her with Connor (who coincidentally also isn't forced into a romantic subplot in his own game).

There's even a nice nod at the end as to one of the most important figures in the Human vs. Ones Who Came Before rebellion (I won't spoil)...

ALEXANDRA ROIVAS (Eternal Darkness, SILICON KNIGHTS)

An underrated classic, Eternal Darkness for the GameCube is an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his dark ethereal horror. Again, like Assassin's Creed, as many of the game plot points take place in distant history, there's only two main female characters. Thankfully one of these is the protagonist, Alexandra. Called in the middle of the night to attend the murder scene of her grandfather, she's swept into the family legacy, and must stop the return of an ancient evil, or drown in insanity.

Alex is a pretty gender-neutral character. There's no love interest to speak of (but then given the nature of the game that's not surprising), and her talents are fairly balanced. She's got decent amounts of physical health, magic and sanity, and these aren't defined by her gender, as some of the male characters have lower health than she does. She's a pretty competent melee fighter, too. And her physical attributes are hardly emphasised. Probably the closest we've got so far to a strong female who isn't that sexy (or at least doesn't have this aspect played up as much).

LITERATURE

HERMIONE GRANGER (Harry Potter)

I've always found Hermione's role very mixed in the series. At first she filled up almost all the snobby female character traits that were a staple of authors like Enid Blyton. In the early books she's bossy and a know-it-all, a stickler for rules, and she has a strong aversion to danger or risk.

Fortunately, she does develop through the series. She gains insight into what's really important, she learns to face her fears, becomes an excellent strategist, and by Deathly Hallows she's able to fight as well as Harry. She isn't entirely relegated to a romantic subplot, either; she remains a key character in her own right. She actually manages to avoid category 2- her abilities are shown to complement Harry and Ron's, rather than be something that needs to be weakened so she doesn't outshine them.

So, while initially Hermoine is very much defined by her gender, her development allows her to cast this off, and her skills are not diminished, nor is she left waiting to be 'claimed' by the hero at the end. Not quite gender-neutral, but certainly no Damsel.

MAERAD (Pellinor Series)

Given author Alison Croggon's background, you'd hope that poor Maerad didn't fall into any of the above categories. And she doesn't. Living as a slave after she and her mother fled their burning home, Maerad doesn't know she's a Bard, and the Chosen One. When fellow Bard Cadvan of Lirigon stumbles onto her and senses her power, he helps her escape, and she embarks on an epic fantasy quest (with Dark Lords and the like) to fulfill her destiny.

The Pellinor series isn't simply a gender-flipped Lord of the Rings, though. While some of the details reflect Maerad's gender in the story (like when her 'time of the month' comes), the main thrust of the plot does not. It isn't being female that makes her helpless at the start, it's her lack of knowledge, and she rapidly grows into her powers once they kick in. And in an ironic twist, it's the main male side character who gets relegated to romantic love interest in the end (not that he doesn't contribute to the overall plot, though). More emphasis is placed on the brother-sister relationship, too, which also helps avert the gender pitfalls.

SABRIEL (Sabriel)

One of the first fantasy books I ever read, and it remains my favourite of all time. A desperate message from her father sends Sabriel into the dangers of the Old Kingdom, where she must search for him and realise her powers and role as the Abhorsen, a guardian of the Dead.

Again, like Maerad, it's Sabriel's inexperience that hinders her more than her gender, such as when she escapes the Mordicant chasing her. There is something of a romantic subplot, but fortunately this doesn't detract Sabriel from her tasks, nor make her powers weaken. If only the same could be said for modern fantasy fiction :P

KATNISS EVERDEEN (Hunger Games)

An obvious choice, maybe? Let's see. Living in the divided Districts of Panem, Katniss volunteers in place of her sister to be a contender in the Hunger Games- where tributes (children) fight to the death in a live reality-esque game show. But things don't go as smoothly as previous games, and Katniss opens a whole can of worms that threatens the very structure and stability of the world she lives in.

I found Katniss to be a lot like Lightning; she's logical, focused (for the most part), has strong survival instincts and is protective of her younger sister. She can be reckless, though, letting her emotions take over occasionally. The plot does demand she stick to her gender roles, such as with her on and off-screen relationship with Peeta, and the forced love triangle with Gale. Ii found this actually does weaken her, particularly in the third book where she does a lot less in terms of driving the story. So, my conclusion is that Katniss falls under category 1- she's still defined too much by her gender, and while she does have action skills like mastery with the bow and hunting, she's written first and foremost as a female, so she's not as truly independent as she seems.

Of course I've missed tonnes of other examples (Game of Thrones is often touted but I haven't read the series), but do you disagree? Do you think we should define 'strong females' by other criteria, or drop the definition entirely and just try and opt for a gender-neutral approach? Feel free to share.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

New feature: Azaria Locations

Hey everyone! I was feeling very inspired by the Virtual Azaria Tour, so I've decided to embark on a new feature. Now you can see what the locations in the book would look like in real life!

All images were created using stock photographs (credits can be found by clicking on the link).

The first location is Lake Breska. It's the second largest lake in Azaria, situated between the two major mountain ranges (the Earthfire Mountains and Airwater Gorge). In the summer months, it's used as a reservoir for the neighbouring cities of Lanaran and Dhjerba. In winter, it's totally frozen over, and provides some of the most beautiful scenes Azaria has to offer...




Take a look at Eliza's first visit: (extract from chapter fourteen of The Binding)

Ignorant of my annoyance, Ryan squinted through the tree cover. I followed his gaze. We’d come to the border where the pines ended and the lake began. Except in place of grey water stood pure ice. It gave off a bluish tinge, contrasting with the conifers, and the centre resembled etched glass. Pieces of forest debris were trapped within it, blemishing its surface with dead branches and bleached logs. Finally, a break in the clouds let sunlight filter through, setting the whole lake sparkling.

“It’s beautiful,” I murmured, resting my hands on Ryan’s waist. For once, I didn’t have to fight a rush of emotions; the scene was peaceful enough to quell even the Binding.

“Told you,” Ryan chuckled. “And you get to enjoy the view for the rest of the journey.”

I scoffed.

“Oh please, pour on any more charm and I’ll drown,” I said. “Let’s get going before we’re joined by anymore unwanted company.”

“Aha,” Ryan said, “so you prefer us being alone? You should’ve told me sooner.”

I rolled my eyes. He was in a flirtatious mood all of a sudden. No doubt trying to take my mind off his evasive answer earlier.

“Maybe you should get your head out of the clouds and concentrate on riding,” I said, poking his shoulder. I could save the brutal questioning for later. “Onwards, driver.”

I didn’t have to see Ryan’s face to know he was grinning. He chose a path parallel to the lake’s edge and the trees. I shifted back, taking in the view. Snow dotted the ice, and the air was still. Hard to believe that only a mile beyond the trees lay one of the busiest roadways in Azaria. I curled against the back of Ryan’s neck, warming my cheek against his collar. Perhaps this trip wouldn’t be so bad, after all.