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I’ve fallen comprehensively off the wagon of recording what I read and posting about it, but I’d like to get back to that. So, without any attempt to catch up on the year or so that I missed, here’s the log from January.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Charlotte Gordon. The premise of this dual biography is that Wollstonecraft and Shelley influenced each other, even though Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to Shelley. The mother-to-daughter influence is easy to see; the daughter-to-mother influence is much more heavily inferred, based on the idea that Wollstonecraft was concerned with the future and with the lives of women, ergo with the life her daughter would have. I’m not quite sure I buy that half of the premise as much as the introduction made me expect, but that in no way stops this from being an excellent book that vastly expanded my understanding of both women. I had no idea how many other books both of them had written, nor the degree of respect Wollstonecraft had during her lifetime. (A respect that vanished almost immediately after she died, thanks to her husband’s misguided attempt to “rehabilitate” her image to the way he wanted to see her. She went from “respected intellectual” to “whore;” her daughter, who likewise got revised by her daughter-in-law, went from “whore” to “respectable Victorian wife.”)

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee. [Disclosure: the author is a friend.] The opening battle scene was gruesome enough, thanks to the exotic technology used, that I wasn’t sure what I would think of the book overall. Once I got past that, though, I was thoroughly sucked in (and the rest of the book is much less gory). The genre is space opera, but because the functioning of exotics is based on the enforcement of a calendrical system and heretical deviations from that system can make the tech stop working, it reads to me like fantasy poured through a mathematical framework. The worldbuilding reminds me of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, not in any of its specifics, but in the sheer wealth of detail, much of it the sort of thing I don’t usually encounter in science fiction. And despite the fact that I am thoroughly sick of the “asshole genius who makes everybody dance to his tune because he’s so damn brilliant” trope, Jedao was my favorite character in the whole novel. There are ways to make that trope work, and this is one of them.

Women in Practical Armor, ed. Ed Greenwood and Gabrielle Harbowy. Anthology I backed on Kickstarter, themed around female warriors. Most of what’s in here is very much classic D&D/sword-and-sorcery fantasy. My favorite story was probably the one that took the antho title most literally: “Pride and Joy” by Eric Landreneau, wherein the hazards of boob-plate armor get hammered home.

The Just City, Jo Walton. First of the Thessaly series. Athena gathers together people from throughout history to found the city described in Plato’s The Republic and see how it works out. By dint of its subject matter, I mentally classify this with utopian SF, but from the start it’s clear that while the Just City is an attempt to create a utopian society, it is deeply flawed in multiple ways. (As Apollo says at one point, what Plato knew about love and relationships would fit on a fingernail paring.) If, like me, you are the sort of person who bounces in glee at the prospect of seeing Athena and Socrates square off in a public debate, this is the book for you.

Elfquest: Fire and Flight, Wendy and Richard Pini. Re-read. I love this series so much. For more detail, see the re-read posts (but beware spoilers).

Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, Susan B. Hanley. “Premodern” here specifically means the Tokugawa period, with some attention to what came before and after for context. Hanley’s main thesis is that, contrary to how Victorian travelers portrayed things, the quality of life improved massively in the Tokugawa period, in large part due to technological advancements that came out of the Sengoku/Warring States period immediately prior. What I found the most interesting was the discussion of how many aspects of what we now think of as traditional Japanese culture were Tokugawa-era responses to limited resources: with the country closed to outside influences, they had to make do with what they had in their islands, and this influenced everything from food to architecture to clothing to sanitation. (When you don’t have enough arable land to waste much of it on livestock, you don’t have animal manure to use as fertilizer, so human waste becomes a valuable enough resource that you not only put in place systems for removing it to agricultural areas, you start having problems with people stealing it.)

The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, Samuel Noah Kramer. I must have bought this back in high school or early college, because the price sticker on it is from Half-Price Books, which I used to frequent in Dallas. The book itself is a mildly interesting read, but I would love to compare it against something more recent, because I imagine the state of Sumerology has come on a bit in the fifty years since this one was published. I welcome any recommendations from the commentariat.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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First of all, my friend Mike Underwood’s Genrenauts Kickstarter campaign is already nearly funded, because I’ve been crazy busy in the last week and a half (house-buying drama; turned out okay, thank god), but you’ve still got eighteen days left to back it. This is the “Season One” collection of Genrenauts, comprising six novellas (two already published, four to come), plus a bunch of extras. If you’re not familiar with the series, it involves a group of highly-trained agents parachuting into alternate realities governed by the laws of different genres, seeking to right imbalances that threaten the stability of our own world. Basically, catnip for anybody who likes thinking about and playing around with the tropes of narrative — which of course is why Mike started writing them, and why you all should read them!

Second, I’ve put up two items for auction via Con or Bust, a nonprofit that helps fans of color attend conventions they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The first is a signed hardcover of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and the second is a 9-CD edition of the audiobook for A Natural History of Dragons, narrated by the amazing Kate Reading. It’s for a good cause, so please, bid high!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

(I play too much Dragon Age. The word “enchantment” always comes out in Sandal’s voice in my head.)

I’m very pleased to announce “Tales of Enchantment,” a giveaway of more than 40 historical fantasy romances, plus a Kindle Fire to read them on. It’s organized by Patricia “Pooks” Burroughs, a fellow member of Book View Cafe, and features various other familiar BVC faces, like Irene Radford, Patricia Rice, and Sherwood Smith.

My own contribution to the bundle is an ebook of Midnight Never Come. Some titles swing the emphasis more toward “history,” some toward “fantasy,” and some toward “romance;” with more than forty books in the pile, there’s plenty to match all kinds of tastes.

The giveaway ends in seven days, so get your name in now! And note that if you share it and somebody else signs up from your share, you get extra chances to win. So spread the word!

Tales of Enchantment giveaway

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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One day left until the release of In the Labyrinth of Drakes! And so we move into the fourth of Five Days of Fiction, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of my first novel being published.

Today we turn our thoughts to the worlds in which the stories take place. Your question, should you choose to answer it, is: which fictional world would you most want to live in? With the stipulation that you get to choose what type of person you’ll be in that world; you won’t be J. Random Starving Peasant. (Because let’s face it, most fictional worlds would really suck if we were J. Random Starving Peasant there.)

This might not make the top of my actual list of Fantasy Retirement Destinations, but I have a very deep fondness for the World of Two Moons, aka Abode, which is the setting for the Elfquest graphic novels. Being an elf there doesn’t guarantee you a happy life — you only get to live forever if nothing kills you first, and since the time period for the main story is pretty much the Neolithic, there are quite a lot of hazards that might get you — but even a nasty, brutish, and short life as an elf tends to be at least a century long, and in the meanwhile, you’re my favorite type of elf in pretty much any story, anywhere. I love the different tribes, their different perspectives on the world . . . all of it.

Which is why one lucky respondent will receive a copy of the first Elfquest graphic novel! Let us know your favorite world in the comments, and in the meanwhile, here’s the guest answers!

***

~ I want to live in Iain M. Banks’ Culture. A space-faring utopian society that actually works? Bring it on! — Jaine Fenn, author of the Hidden Empire series

~ Iain Banks’ Culture, because no one is a starving peasant there, unless they want to be. — Sean Williams, author of Hollowgirl

[editorial note: okay, we’ve got a little theme here . . .]

~ That’s a tough one. Overall, I think it’ll have to be the Discworld. — Juliet McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass

~ The Discworld. I’d live in Ankh-Morpork. Daughter of a minor merchant, teaching herself witchcraft and sometimes making a muddle, which she would then need to clean up while attracting as little attention as possible. — Alex Gordon, author of Jericho (coming out tomorrow!)

[editorial note: aaaaaaaand another theme . . .]

~ Middle Earth, if I could be an Elf. Amber, if I could be one of Oberon’s children. — Alma Alexander, author of Empress

~ Well, damn. Struggle as I might, I can’t find anywhere I’d rather live than Middle Earth. I am a cliche, apparently. — Chaz Brenchley, author of Bitter Waters

[editorial note: theme number three!]

~ I’m going with the standard boring answer of the Star Trek universe, because it’s basically a post-scarcity paradise for writer slackers like me. I wouldn’t be one of those high-achieving Starfleet assholes, either. I’d write books (or holodeck adventures or whatever) during the day, and replicate myself some world cuisine at night, and live easy. — Harry Connolly, author of The Great Way

~ Also impossible to answer, but let me pick Cat Valente’s Fairyland for the moment. — Pamela Dean, author of Owlswater (due out later this month!)

~ Pern. But only if I can impress a dragon and completely overhaul the rampant sexism. Which I will do. With my dragon.

Seriously, though. There are many worlds I might want to visit, but the idea of having a psychic link with another sentient being such that I would always have that shared, unconditional love? Yeah. Sign me up. — Alyc Helms, author of The Dragons of Heaven

~ Does any writer not name their own world? Probably a few. But I would take a manor overlooking Veridon any day of the week. — Tim Akers, author of The Pagan Night

~ I think it would give me great joy to live in one of Patricia McKillip’s nested worlds, the ones that are full of music and riddles, secret libraries and ancient manuscripts, ink-stains and books, books, books. — Leah Bobet, author of An Inheritance of Ashes

~ Harry Potter, as long as I could be a wizard. — John Pitts, author of Night Terrors (due out on April 11th!)

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Day three of the Five Days of Fiction! We’re halfway through the celebration of ten years since the publication of my first novel. And In the Labyrinth of Drakes comes out in just two days!

Today’s question is: what’s a favorite book or series of yours? Note that I say a favorite, not the favorite; I couldn’t single out one above all others if you paid me. So just pick whichever one you most feel like squeeing about right now. :-)

Me, I’ll go with Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and especially the first book, The Game of Kings. (Not to be confused with A Game of Thrones.) It’s brilliant historical fantasy with amazing characters and complex plotting and holy crap her prose and THAT DUEL and I could keep raving but I won’t.

Instead, I will give away a copy! Tell me a favorite book or series of yours, and you may be the lucky respondent who wins a lovely trade paperback of The Game of Kings.

Let’s see what our guest bloggers had to say . . . .

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~ Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. They’re beautifully realised, fun, and witty. — Jaine Fenn, author of the Hidden Empire series

~ The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Its impact reminded me of what fiction can be. Many authors say they are inspired by a bad book to think “I could do better than that.” The Sparrow gives me something to aspire to instead. — E. C. Ambrose, author of Elisha Barber

~ The Discworld books. If I had to pick, I’d go with the Watch books. But it’s a difficult choice. I love the Witches and Death books almost as much. — Alex Gordon, author of Jericho (coming out on Tuesday!)

~ God, so many, but if I have to pick just one, I would say that Tanith Lee’s The Silver-Metal Lover is perhaps one of my ‘just about perfect’ books. It hits pretty much everything I love: an unconventional romance, philosophical complexity presented in a stunningly clear and simple way, gorgeous prose, an ending that is ‘right’ for the story being told. Just… unf. I love that book. It destroys me every time I read it.

A close runner up would be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Everyone focuses on the gender pronoun thing, which is an interesting bit of culture-building, and yet that completely overlooks what I think of as the meaty brilliance of that book, which gives the reader the experience of a multi-perspective non-human consciousness in a way that the reader can still relate with and connect to. Fucking genius. She manages to balance multiple high-concept themes – colonialism/post-colonialsm, diffused consciousness, artificial consciousness, gender identity, sub-altern identity – without skimping on any of them, and unlike a lot of high concept books that can be plodding, she does it via a ripping action tale with some really fun ‘tagonists. — Alyc Helms, author of The Dragons of Heaven

~ The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham — Tim Akers, author of The Pagan Night

~ That’s tough, but I have to go with Lord of the Rings, which changed my life when I was 10. It shifted my brain in ways I had never imagined. — John Pitts, author of Night Terrors (due out on April 11th!)

~ Ah, the impossible question. Sorry, I can never come up with an answer to that. I can offer you two excellent recent reads – Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, and Down Station by Simon Morden. Both offer me things that I’ve loved in books ever since I started reading – vivid, believable characters and compelling narrative with twists and surprises. — Juliet McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass

~ There’s a level on which that changes from month to month, but the book that is my soul, the book that’s woven into my bones, is Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. I read it the first time when I was exceptionally young, and reread it about once a year; every time I open it, it feels like a wild, beautiful, terrible wind blowing in. — Leah Bobet, author of An Inheritance of Ashes

~ I’m not one for picking a single favorite above all others, but The Chronicles of Prydain and Red Harvest were pretty influential for me. — Harry Connolly, author of The Great Way

~ This is utterly impossible to answer, but I will just randomly say Jo Walton’s Thessaly books, because Plato’s Republic meets the real world is just such a rich concept and she does it with so much style, grace, humor, and pure weirdness. — Pamela Dean, author of Owlswater (due out later this month!)

~ *rolls mental dice* A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, another fave from my youth. — Sean Williams, author of Hollowgirl

~ How about the whole Tolkien oeuvre? The Amber series? The Lyonesse series by Vance? And how about something like Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” which is not part of a series but which tears my heart out and gives it back into my hands still trembling like a bird?… — Alma Alexander, author of Empress

~ If “favourite” means “read most often over a lifetime”, that would be Tolkien again, LotR: how predictable is that? But actually now my favourite series for revisiting is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, which I can read on a yearly basis. — Chaz Brenchley, author of Bitter Waters

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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It’s day two of the Five Days of Fiction, my celebration of ten years since the publication of my first novel! The winner of yesterday’s giveaway is @lauracwhitney on Twitter, with her lonely cloud being befriended by a unicorn. :-)

With only three days left to the release of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, my next question is: what writer would you say has had the biggest influence on your life?

This one’s a no-brainer for me: Diana Wynne Jones. Specifically, her book Fire and Hemlock, because I distinctly remember putting it down and thinking, “I want to be a writer.” I’d made up stories before then (see yesterday’s post), but that was the first time I really thought about telling stories for other people to read. My career rests on that foundation; it’s hard to imagine a bigger influence than that.

As you might expect, the winner for this giveaway will receive a copy of Fire and Hemlock; I’m going to try to track down the library edition I read when I was nine or ten, but no promises. You may wind up with a different cover.

On to the guest responses! (I specifically asked my guests who influenced them as a writer, but for the purposes of the giveaway, any kind of influence is fair game.)

***

Read the rest of this entry  )

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 1: The Faust Act, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 2: Fandemonium, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 3: Commercial Suicide, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).

(I’m listing them all together for the sake of convenience, but they were interspersed with other things.)

This is a comic book series set in a slightly alternate version of our world, where every 90 years there is a “Recurrence”: twelve gods manifest in twelve mortal hosts (not the same gods every time). They become instant rock stars, or period equivalent, with people falling at their feet in ecstasy; within two years all twelve are dead.

The storytelling here is a little bit disjointed — especially in the third volume, which is basically a collection of one-off issues that go into more detail on a selection of this particular Recurrence’s pantheon. But even when the story is moving forward, it often does so in a fashion that’s a little hard for me to follow; what I thought was the through-line turned out very much not to be. Despite that, I’m enjoying the series. I like the variety of gods: at the start of the series, not all twelve have manifested yet, but you’ve got Amaterasu, Baphomet, Minerva, Lucifer, the Morrigan (and Badb and “Gentle Annie” — she switches between aspects), Inanna, Woden, one of the Baals, and a Tara nobody’s quite sure of — there are several different Taras she could be. The gods appear to be no respecters of detail; Lucifer is a woman, Inanna is a man, and there’s discussion of what it means that Amaterasu showed up in the body of a white Englishwoman.

The main thing I will say — and I don’t think this is a spoiler — is that I don’t trust a single word that comes out of Ananke’s mouth. She is (in some theogonies) the Greek personification of Necessity, and she seems to be some kind of mentor figure to the pantheon each time around. She is also a highly dubious character, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s really up with her and the whole Recurrence thing.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. A fun romp, though ultimately it didn’t hang together as much as I wanted it to. You’ve got the decline of magic resource in England, the challenges to Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, the troubles on Janda Baik, and Prunella’s mysterious legacy — but because all the Janda Baik stuff was offstage, being reported second-hand by characters who mostly didn’t stick around long enough to make much of an impression, it felt more tacked-on than I would have liked. And Prunella’s backstory wound up being wholly unrelated, except insofar as she happened to be involved with the rest of it. Certainly it’s possible to go too far with linking things, tying every narrative strand up in such a neat little bow that it comes across as entirely contrived. But this didn’t link them enough for my taste (a Big Revelation doesn’t mean much if the facts revealed are entirely without context), and the resolution of some of the problems felt much too convenient — all the stuff at the seaside, basically. But I very much liked the complexity of the relationships between the two protagonists and their surrogate parent figures, and the fact that Prunella keeps one very practical eye on the necessity of securing her future by ordinary means.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, Richard Parks. Set in the same continuity as his Lord Yamada stories. I mentioned after reading the collection that the last piece felt much less like a short story and much more like setup for the novel; well, it turns out that it’s literally the beginning of the novel. It works much better in that context. Overall, though, I prefer the short stories — not necessarily because there’s anything wrong with this book, but just because I like what the stories are doing better. Each one of them tends to be a bite-sized look at some aspect of Japanese folklore, with Lord Yamada investigating and solving the mystery, then resolving the spiritual problem; here the same thing is generally true, but the additional wordage is almost entirely filled with politics instead of additional supernatural things, and that’s not really what engages me with this series. Plus, I do think Parks leaned overly hard on the “my protagonist and narrator has figured out what’s going on, but you the reader must remain in the dark” trick — which I know is a trope of a certain kind of mystery fiction, but it works better for me in third-person stories, or at shorter lengths. It made the Lady Snow stuff fall kind of flat in the end. Still, I’ll go on to read The War God’s Son at some point.

The Dragon Round, Stephen S. Power. Read for blurbing purposes. This was pitched to me as “the Count of Monte Cristo, with dragons” — which, yes, thank you, I’ll take that. As it turns out, it was less Monte Cristo-ish than I anticipated; it lacks the element of “mysterious and fabulously wealthy nobleman” which I think of as being the defining characteristic of that story type. But it’s a revenge tale, and one with certain kinds of complexity I very much like: for starters, when Jeryon is dumped into a boat by his mutinous crew and set adrift, he’s not alone. There’s an apothecary with him, a woman who refused to go along with the mutiny. And it turns out that the whole survival at sea/on a deserted island narrative feels 300% fresher when it isn’t just a tale of Rugged, Manly Individualism; Jeryon and the poth (as she mostly gets called, though she does have a name) have complementary skills that are both necessary, and along with struggling to survive, they have to figure out how not to kill each other during the lengthy period of time when they’re the only two human beings around.

As for the rest of the story — it doesn’t go the way you expect it to, and knowing not to expect the usual is probably helpful. I didn’t actually realize while I was reading this that it’s the start of a series, and the series is not about Jeryon getting his revenge. According to Power’s website, it’s about changes in the way humans and dragons interrelate — and Jeryon’s quest for revenge is more of an inciting incident than the spine of the tale. So if “revenge story” is not your cuppa, this may still be interesting to you.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

Over the last few months I seriously fell off the horse when it came to keeping track of my reading. So this covers December and January, but only the things I can recall reading — which isn’t very much.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu. I know this one ate quite a lot of December, because BRICK.

I . . . really, really wanted to like it. Epic fantasy, drawing on Chinese epic tradition! Sign me up. I was totally there for the worldbuilding and the character archetypes and the nature of the plot. And, courtesy of comments I’d seen elsewhere on the internet, I was prepared for (though not pleased by) the fact that the first half of the book has virtually no women playing significant roles, because I knew that there would be more showing up in the remaining pages. As indeed there are! But anybody without that advance warning would be justified in thinking that the only women in the story would be helpful wives, distant goddesses, or deeply problematic seductresses, so I can’t really say the second half justifies the first.

But the real problem for me was the style. It read a lot like an old epic — too much so. I fundamentally did not care about any of the characters, because the text never let me get close enough to any of them to form an emotional attachment. The style is incredibly distant, telling instead of showing, often spending more time narrating to you what is happening than letting you experience it. Let me give an example — it’ll be a spoiler, but (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) not much of one. If you’d prefer to avoid it, though, just skip the next paragraph.

So there’s a plot thread involving one of the few early female characters, who has been blackmailed by an enemy general into working for him. We don’t see her arrive in the lands of the rebels — that part I’m okay with, since it isn’t as important as what she does when she gets there. Once established among the rebels, she manipulates two men into falling in love with her: an uncle and a nephew, who have been inseparable for the nephew’s entire life. (These are major characters in the book; the nephew is essentially co-protagonist with another guy.) Once both of them are besotted with her, she plays off their jealousy, using it to create a rift between them, until they become wholly estranged and the uncle sends the nephew away at a critical moment when he needed to be present. Then she murders the uncle and commits suicide.

From beginning to end, this entire thing takes about sixteen pages.

Fully a quarter of which is spent on that last sentence, actually; the rest gets crammed into twelve pages, where it shares space with other things going on in the plot. We the readers are told that both of these guys have fallen in love with her. We’re told that they’re jealous. We get little snippets of actual interaction, a few paragraphs here and there, which present us with emotion (love! jealousy! anger!) the narrative hasn’t actually earned. I don’t consider this to be a spoiler because I don’t feel like there’s an experience to spoil; it feels more like me giving away the ending to a historical account of the Duke of Buckingham’s assassination. I majored in folklore; I’ve read a great many epics from different parts of the world, and can deal with that kind of arm’s-length approach. It is not, however, what I’m looking for in a novel. The sweeping scope of The Grace of Kings is impressive, but it only fits into one book because so many of the elements of modern fiction have been squeezed out. The result is that I found myself pronouncing the Eight Fatal Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” I finished the book, but have no motivation to pick up the sequel. Which is a pity, because I was so excited for the first one.

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones. I don’t remember where I heard of this one; it’s an ebook that’s been sitting on my tablet for ages. Normally when I call something “Ruritanian fantasy,” what I mean is that it’s set in a secondary world, but has no magic (e.g. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books). In this case, however, I mean that it’s set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, but has magic. I suspect that Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword are among its literary ancestors, as one of the two protagonists, Barbara, is a woman trained as an armin (bodyguard) and duelist for an eccentric Baron. The other heroine, Margerit, unexpectedly inherits the Baron’s estate upon his demise — including Barbara, who was his property. The plot is moderately complex, involving the question of why he named his goddaughter his heir and why he failed to free Barbara as he promised (and why he owned her and trained her in the first place), running alongside a strand wherein Margerit begins to study the “mysteries” (sacred magic) and investigate why they no longer work the way they should. Overall it came together in a reasonably satisfying way, and Jones has a pleasingly solid grasp of the social politics of a nineteenth-century-type world: Margerit can’t just go “la, who cares” and blow off her obligations without consequence, however much she may want to. Plus, lesbian romance, which I know would be a selling point for many of my blog readers. :-)

Phoenix, Stephen Brust. Still working my way slowly through these. I liked Vlad’s interactions with the Empress: they struck a nice balance between the formal ceremony that accompanies such a role, and showing the Empress as a human being (well, for the contested values of “human” that apply in this setting). I’m also pleased, though not surprised, to see Brust follow through on what he began in an earlier book, with Vlad questioning his role in the Jhereg and his chosen livelihood of murdering people for money. I have no idea whether that was planned from the start, or whether Brust got a couple of books in, looked at his assassin hero, and reconsidered how good of an idea that really was, but either way it’s nice to watch the change percolate through the narrative. Where it goes in the long run . . . well, that will be interesting to see. “Phoenix stone” felt like a bit of handwavium to me, but I’d love to see more exploration of what pre-Empire sorcery was like, and how the Interregnum changed the way sorcery worked.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

This was one of those months that ends with me in the middle of reading a bunch of things, but not done with any of them. :-P

The Drowning Eyes, Emily Foster. Provided to me by the editor, Lee Harris. This is one of the upcoming novellas from Tor.com, a story set in a world where Windspeakers can control the weather — but for them to do so safely, they have to undergo a ritual which replaces their “wet eyes” with spheres of stone. Shina is still wet-eyed, but after invaders start killing Windspeakers and steal a priceless relic, she’s the only one left who can get it back. I very much liked the concepts behind this; my quibble (and it will be interesting to see whether this is a frequent reaction for me with novellas) is that I wanted more. The invaders never get explored in detail, and the story only begins to touch on the complexity of the Windspeaker thing. So it’s enjoyable, but I think I’ll enjoy it even more if this turns out to be the jumping-off point for a novel or series of novellas.

Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone. Third book of the Craft Sequence, after Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise (c’mon, Max, why couldn’t you take pity on us and number them in order). It’s a pretty slow burn compared to its predecessors; it starts off with a bang when Kai nearly gets herself killed trying to save a goddess whose investments have gone sour, but getting from there to the underlying issues takes a while. In the meantime, this is where this starts to look like a series: not only are there references to Alt Coulumb and Dresediel Lex, but characters from the previous books show up and play a fairly vital role. And as usual, Gladstone is also exploring social issues — in this case, the question of how a small island nation (clearly influenced by the Polynesian cultural sphere) can survive as an independent state in the face of much larger powers, and what constitutes the preservation of traditional culture vs. its commercialization for tourist purposes, and when it’s okay for a culture to change. The Penitents were super-creepy; they were probably the best part of the book for me, along with the pool in which the priests of Kavekana make and keep their idols. (The story of how Kai remade her body in the pool was excellent.)

Mountaineering Women: Stories by Early Climbers, ed. David Mazel. More research. It took me a surprisingly long time to get through this, given how thin of a book it is, but that happens sometimes when a book is a collection of smaller texts. (See also why it takes me forever to read an anthology.) The bulk of the content consists of excerpts from accounts written by female mountaineers from the nineteenth century up through the mid-twentieth, with brief introductions by Mazel to give context. It’s interesting to watch mountaineering techniques and jargon develop through the decades, and also to see feminism become an explicit issue, especially around the time when women started trying to mount expeditions without any male assistance at all.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

Somewhat delayed on account of World Fantasy.

The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly. This book can basically be summarized as “Jurassic Park, with DRAGONS!” Which, y’know. Kind of put it squarely in my field of interest. And it was a moderately entertaining read — but I kept being thrown out of the story by the fact that the author seemed to be watching the movie he hopes they’ll make of his book, and writing it as if it were that movie. This means a pov that wanders around aimlessly between close third and a camera-eye omniscient (complete with lines like “if they could have seen the vehicle from the outside, they would have seen X”), and choppy little not-even-scenes that are the textual equivalent of rapid camera cuts. See our heroine clinging to the outside of the truck! See the driver of the truck stomp on the brakes in a three-line “scene”! Cut back to our heroine barely holding on as the truck skids to a halt! That kind of thing works in audiovisual media; in text, it just keeps yanking me away from any engagement with the characters. I appreciated the fact that the heroine is a facially scarred herpetologist who basically saves the day with her knowledge of crocodiles, but she never really came alive for me. Also, while I’m fine with the idea that Chinese bureaucrats and soldiers might do all kinds of underhanded shit in pursuit of building an enormous dragon zoo with which to impress the world, the story really could have used more in the way of sympathetic and competent Chinese characters to counterbalance the bureaucrats and soldiers. (Not to mention the fact that the dragons are apparently all Western-style, even though the story gives a relatively clever explanation for why dragons are a real worldwide phenomenon.) Overall, I’d say give this one a miss, unless you are absolutely dying to read Jurassic Park with dragons.

The Last Airbender: Zuko’s Story, Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, art by Nina Matsumoto. Picked this one up because I met Alison Wilgus last World Fantasy and really enjoyed talking to her, and also because I’ve been reading various Avatar tie-in comics. This one feels thinner than the others simply because it’s filling in a minor hole from the show, rather than exploring new territory; it’s the tale of what happened with Zuko between the agni kai against his father and Aang turning up. So, while it’s well done, I didn’t engage with it quite as much as with the sequel comics. I should note, though, that it also includes a section at the back which compares the comic script to the rough sketches. If you’re interested in what a script looks like, and how the vision can change from the script to the roughs to the final version, it’s quite useful.

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers. Still working my way slowly through the Wimsey novels. I came up with a much more convoluted answer to this one than turned out to be the reality, reading too much significance into a particular detail. Wimsey undercover was pretty cute, though I feel I might have done with just a bit less exploration of the advertising industry; his interactions with Dian Momerie were . . . interesting. Not entirely sure what I think of them, though once again, it gave me a chance to see just how big an influence Sayers must have been on Dunnett.

Violence: A Writer’s Guide, Second Edition, Rory Miller. Yoon Ha Lee recommended this one, and I second the rec. When I put together Writing Fight Scenes (which is part of the 2015 NaNoWriMo StoryBundle right now, plug plug), I was very aware that I don’t actually have any personal experience with being in a real fight. Miller won’t tell you anything about how to put a fight on the page, but he has personal experience in spades, and says a great many interesting things about what being in a fight is like, what kinds of violence people engage in, and how people experienced with violence tend to behave. The book does have its flaws: it could use better organization (especially since he repeats himself occasionally) and it’s mostly concerned with violence in a modern society like ours, making it less than 100% applicable to premodern fantasy societies. In fact, I feel Miller is at his weakest when he tries to talk about historical situations; at one point he basically declares that before about 1800, the only possible responses to a violent crime were to a) go get revenge with your own two hands or b) suck it up and go on being a victim. Uh, the rule of law may have been imperfect in the past, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and that legal remedies were never available. Furthermore, at one point he says “unless you can not only write things like the mass slaughter at Halabja, but write from a point of view where slaughtering Kurdish men, women and children to test chemical weapons just made sense, your fiction will always be missing something. It will always be two-dimensional,” which I feel is overstating his point with a vengeance. Having said that, he’s got a really fascinating perspective on sex differences, focusing not just on the socialization regarding violence but the less-obvious consequences of that socialization, and also on biological differences in how adrenaline gets processed. I’m very curious to know whether that latter point is in fact true, because if so, it’s really helpful information.

Yak Butter and Black Tea: A Journey into Tibet, Wade Brackenbury. Dear lord, this book. I’ll say for starters that I read it for the first-person account of what it’s like to tramp around at high altitude across rugged terrain, and on that front, it delivered admirably. But it’s also the story of a couple of guys who decided they wanted to go to the Drung valley, in territory the Chinese government had put off-limits to foreigners, for no better reason than because no westerner had ever been there. They weren’t anthropologists; they weren’t journalists; they weren’t serving any higher cause whose worthiness and importance we could debate. They just got a wild hair up their asses and decided to do it. At one point Brackenbury finally arrives at sufficient self-awareness to think that, hey, maybe he and his traveling companion were really screwing over the people they dealt with while sneaking around trying to get to the valley: those officials they lied to or got into arguments with might have been terrified of losing their jobs, those people who were reluctant to sell them food might not have had much to spare, etc. But on the whole, they seemed to feel that “we want to go” was sufficient justification for them to break the law right, left, and center. So if you want to read about people tramping around at high altitude across rugged terrain, this book may be useful to you — but don’t pick it up unless you’re prepared to deal with some amazingly self-centered assholes.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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I was busy enough in early August that I completely forgot to make my book log post for July’s reading. Then in early September, I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. So you get a SUPER-SIZED THREE MONTH EDITION! . . . which is still approximately the size of some people’s one-month edition. Oh well.

Onward to the books!

Arabella of Mars, David Levine. Read for blurbing purposes, and the author is a friend. The book is a splendid YA adventure that marries Napoleonic nautical adventure to Edgar Rice Burroughs under the auspices of a girl protagonist, and I already want somebody to write crossover fic blending it with Chaz Brenchley’s “Old Mars” setting (which presently exists only in short stories, so far as I know, but I eagerly await the novel). A race to prevent a murder collides with an interspecies conflict as the native inhabitants of Mars rise up against their colonial overlords. Fun.

Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. I picked this up for the “Age of Empire” part and wound up reading the whole brick, which tells you something. Takeaway: HOLY SHIT MOUNTAINEERS ARE CRAZY. Seriously. Do not read if you are bothered by people losing bits to frostbite or just saying “yeah, okay, so thirty people have already died trying to reach the top of this mountain but let’s give it another shot.” Or by the section where they talk about women mountaineers and the sheer, gobsmacking sexism of one Galen Rowell, who not only tried to hold the women who summited Annapurna to a standard none of the men were expected to meet — not only made slimy innuendo about their sexual behavior — but did so in a letter he signed with his girlfriend’s name because “it would carry more weight.” Ahem. Anyway, good book.

Another, Yukito Ayatsuji. I no longer have my copy, so I can’t note the translator’s name. Japanese YA horror novel. I came very near to putting it down and not coming back, because dear sweet baby Zeus it took its own sweet time getting to the point where you learned anything concrete about the weird stuff going on. I’m also not sure how much of what bugged me about the narration is the author’s style, how much is the translator’s style, and how much is just Japanese doing its thing. I suspect a lot of the elliptical sentences where the characters hem and haw around things without quite saying them is a reflection of Japanese, but the (first person) text also had a habit of stepping back oddly to report what it had just done: the protagonist would ask a question, and then the narration would say “That was the question I asked her.” Etc. Interesting to read, but not really my cuppa overall, especially since the entire plot hinges on a specific unreliability on the part of the narrator. Which is why I no longer have the book on my shelves.

Elfquest, the Final Quest, vol. 1, Wendy and Richard Pini. . . . look, I can’t review this, okay? Partly because single volumes of graphic novels are pretty slight things and don’t leave me with much to say, but mostly because it’s Elfquest and I’m not very objective. I’ll try to say things when the whole story is done, but that won’t be for a long time.

Two Serpents Rise, Max Gladstone. I agree with those who say it isn’t as strong as Three Parts Dead, largely due to the leading characters: I am very difficult to sell on “I just met this person and now I’m totally obsessed with them.” On the other hand, this one pretty much had me at Aztecs. The city of Dresediel Lex is heavily based on Mesoamerican societies, with little reflections of that squirreled away in every corner of the worldbuilding, and the protagonist is the son of a priest a generation after the war against the gods left his father without a job. But the morality isn’t black and white: instead of torturing and murdering humans to keep the world going, now they torture and murder gods. Is that better? How about the ways in which Dresediel Lex is wildly out of balance with its environment, sucking down water faster than it can be replaced, and the price of that gets passed along to society’s lower classes in ways that are less obvious than cutting out their hearts but maybe not much kinder? Is it really justifiable to refuse to allow even voluntary self-sacrifice? (And if not, how can you be sure it’s really voluntary?) I said about the previous book that I would call it grimdark based on content but not on tone; that continues to be true. Gladstone explores the thorny edges of morality without assuming that everybody’s a shitheel at heart. I will definitely go on reading.

Gemsigns, Stephanie Saulter. So, I finished this book and promptly went to my computer to email Saulter and ask whether she wanted to blurb Chains and Memory (which she did, yay). Because this is a book about the gifts and disabilities of a genetic minority, and the question of where the line is between appropriate regulation and unacceptable abridgement of their human rights. Which is more or less what C&M is about. Plus it’s really good; it does an excellent job of balancing the larger-scale issue (the legal emancipation and protection of “gems,” genetically engineered humans who used to be the property of the firms that made them) with the more intimate stories of the actual people involved. I saw the big reveal with a certain character coming a long way off, but that’s okay — it was still effective. I need to pick up the sequel.

The Martian, Andy Weir. I basically picked up this one on the strength of an XKCD comic, because that is me yes sign me up. I could criticize the writing in some respects; these days I am very alert to the challenges of writing the sort of first person narration where the protagonist is consciously telling their story to someone, and there were places where I think Weir could have done a better job shaping Mark Watney’s recordings to sound like the way a person would actually record their thoughts. (Also, there were some very jarring shifts in the third-person sections of the book, though I’m not sure how much of that was an issue of ebook formatting — there may be breaks in the print edition.) However, all of that should come with the salt of “and then I devoured it in a single sitting.” Take that for what you will. :-)

Not Our Kind, ed. Nayad Monroe. Anthology; I think I backed a Kickstarter? <lol> It’s difficult to remember which books came from what source. Short stories about alien perspectives. I’m bad at reviewing anthologies without going through them story by story; it pretty much always boils down to “I liked some of these and didn’t like others.”

The Confusion, Neal Stephenson. Lordy, I don’t even remember when I started reading this one. Possibly February of last year, which is when I finally finished Quicksilver, though I said then that I was going to take a break, so maybe not. I know that by the time I picked this up again on my vacation, I had utterly lost track of what was going on. Then I remembered that I had described the previous book as “a giant pile of words and characters and events and places and historical tidbits [which] wanders vaguely in the direction of several different things that might, in the hands of a different writer, be a plot.” And you know, if I wasn’t sure what was going on while it was fresh in my mind, it didn’t much matter if I didn’t know what was going on now. So I kept reading, and it kept being amusing, even though I really don’t know where the hell it’s going in a more macro sense. If you like Stephenson and historical fiction and don’t mind a whole lot of rambling, these are excellent. Otherwise, probably not for you.

The Check Your Luck Agency, KS Augusin (Cara d’Bastian). I bought the omnibus ebook on somebody’s recommendation; so far I have only finished the first volume. Not sure if I’ll keep reading. The concept sounded great: the protagonist Ursula Formosa works for a business in Singapore that “checks your luck,” i.e. investigates to find out whether your sudden good or bad fortune has a supernatural cause. Nineteen times out of twenty, it’s utterly mundane. The twentieth . . . unfortunately, the story is kind of shapeless, especially when you take each volume on its own. There’s a case, which turns out to be non-supernatural. Then Ursula gets recruited for a TV show, which has zero connection to the first half of the book. Oh, by the way, all that time she spent telling you she doesn’t believe in ghosts and the supernatural? Apparently she can see ghosts. And she admits they’re real. Which would be fine if she expressed disbelief to the other characters, but she expresses it in her own head, too, in ways that don’t actually read like her being in denial, and then she’s like “oh yeah ghosts are actually real and I can see them.” I like the setting detail; it’s pretty clear the author knows Singapore well, though she’s uncomfortably prone to broad generalizations about Asians en masse. But the story really isn’t hooking me, and the writing isn’t, either.

The Islands of Chaldea, Diana Wynne Jones (finished by Ursula Jones). I don’t know where DWJ’s sister picked up the manuscript to finish it, but I do know that I can feel the difference. The ending felt rushed, a few too many revelations coming up too rapidly, with not enough time for their implications to breathe. Still and all: I had to read it, and I’m glad I did.

Living in Japan: A Guide to Living, Working, and Traveling in Japan, Joy Norton and Tazuko Shibusawa. This is specifically a book about the arc of culture shock (and reverse culture shock when you go home), written by people with a counseling practice who deal with those issues a lot. Its major flaw is that it’s really, really short: I would have loved to see it fleshed out with example scenarios, rather than just mentioning “people may have trouble with X” and then moving on.

Turbulence, Samit Basu. I think Rachel Manija Brown recommended this one. A plane full of people on a flight from London to Delhi all get superpowers based on their dreams: this ranges from a supersoldier to a little girl who is a full-bore anime magical girl. It’s amusing, though it has a substantially higher body count than the tone led me to expect. I wish it had delved further into the ethical questions it raised; possibly the sequels will do so? One of the characters can basically control all kinds of digital stuff, and at one point he decides he’s tired of waiting around for the others to get their act together and do stuff to improve the world, so he goes and starts flinging money around online, bankrupting bad people and giving their money to good causes. Then he finds out this has backfired and made things worse and led to a lot of people dying. I wanted the story to keep going with that, but instead it dropped that aspect and went for a more conventional showdown — with the characters questioning the entire “conventional showdown” motif the whole way, but still, it kept going. And then it ended with some wildly unaddressed questions about the ethics of mind-control powers. So, entertaining but uneven. Also, the text is unfortunately riddled with comma splices, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself the book wasn’t self-published. The copyeditor must have been asleep at the wheel.

Writing Fight Scenes, Marie Brennan. I needed to fix an error in the ebook, and wound up finding several more as I went through.

Himalayan Circuit: A Journey in the Inner Himalayas, G.D. Khosla. A slim book from the ’50s, written by an Indian civil servant who participated in an expedition to some remote valleys for official purposes. If you want to write about that kind of terrain, he has excellent descriptions of the landscape, though he only touches on the inhabitants relatively briefly. It’s also surprisingly hilarious in places, like his extended description of what it’s like to ride a tiny Himalayan pony.

In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Marie Brennan. Page proofs.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

Very, very belated. But at least I’m managing to get it posted before August?

High volume of reading this month, and 100% of it was for work. It was revision/copy-edits/whatever, or it was material for a blurb, or it was research, or it was Hugo reading. There was nothing I finished this month that I picked up just because I felt like it. This makes me slightly cranky, even though I enjoyed a lot of what I read. Especially since so far in July, the pattern has been much the same.

Anyway, the books. I’m leaving the Hugo stuff out because I discussed it already in a separate post.

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Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

I’ve accepted that I will probably not make it through all the Hugo reading before it’s time to vote. Uff da — what would I do in a normal year, when there aren’t chunks of the ballot that I’ve ruled out entirely? I have no idea. As it stands, I already kind of resent the amount of time I’ve spent reading things that aren’t what I would have chosen if left to my own devices. Possibly this means I am just not good Hugo voter material.

But anyway! I figure that before I make my (extremely belated) post about what I read in June, I should make a post about what I’ve read out of the Hugo packet. Not so much because I’m campaigning for people to vote in a particular way — rather, I want to work through my reactions to things, and my first attempt at thinking through “do I consider this to be Hugo-worthy material?”

If you need to refresh your memory on my personal Hugo reading rules, do so now. I did indeed end up reading some of the Puppy candidates, though I did not finish them all. I’m skipping over the Dramatic Presentations and the artists in this post.

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Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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From Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, following a discussion of George Mallory’s social circle in Cambridge which features a number of quotes that make you think “my, that sounds more than a wee bit homoerotic”:

“But it was James Strachey, the future translator of Freud, and not his older brother Lytton who evidently initiated Mallory into the pleasures of ‘the higher sodomy,’ as [the Bloomsbury Group] called it. The precise nature of ‘l’affaire George’ is unclear and ultimately uninteresting. What is interesting and of some significance to the history of Himalayan mountaineering is” . . .

No. No, you do not get to drop a phrase like “the higher sodomy” into your book on the history of Himalayan mountaineering and then declare it uninteresting. You were interested enough in it to mention it; you bloody well ought to explain it. If the explanation does not fit into this book, then neither does the phrase. Stick with the fact that George Mallory slept with men; you don’t have to leave your reader wondering what precisely distinguishes “the higher sodomy” from “the lower sodomy” — a question which only invites the brain to come up with increasingly creative answers, all of which are an unnecessary distraction from the tale of how Mallory came to be chosen for the Everest expedition.

(One also cannot help but wonder if Isserman and Weaver were slightly uncomfortable with Mallory’s sexuality, given that they later say “the heterosexual side of his nature asserted itself permanently when he met and fell in love with Ruth Turner,” Mallory’s eventual wife. This book was written in 2008: bisexuality had been invented by then, guys. You don’t have to use a phrase that implies Mallory got over his attraction to men.)

EDIT: My brain being what it is, of course I had to go and google the phrase. As near as I can tell, “the higher sodomy” was the groundbreaking notion that instead of just buggering your fellow students in the good old public school fashion, you should also have romantic feelings for your partner. Shocking!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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So Mary Robinette Kowal and I were on tour back in May, which gave us abundant time to chat about various things. At one event, an audience member asked several questions that began with the disclaimer of “this probably isn’t a thing you’ve bothered to think about, but” — which had the effect of proving that no, really, Mary has thought about pretty much everything in the world of her Glamourist Histories. As we were changing back into civilian clothing at the end of the event, I said to her, “I’m willing to bet you’ve thought about the uses of glamour for porn.”

To which she laughed and told me about a glamural Vincent created in his student days.

Here is the tale of Vincent’s old glamural — and how Jane wound up seeing it.

All errors are my own (and there may be more than a few, since I wrote this on the plane flight from North Carolina to San Francisco and did basically no research whatsoever, apart from asking Mary a couple of glamour questions while we were retrieving our luggage). She is in no way responsible for any missteps of either history or canon. But I when I told her I was going to write this fic, she laughed so very evilly — and I hope you all will laugh, too!

(No spoilers for the series, apart from the inevitable and rather obvious one of “which characters got married at the end of the first book?”.)

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

You may recall that my good friend Alyc Helms just published her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven. Well, this Saturday at 3 p.m. she is doing a reading and signing at Borderlands. And if you come to that event, you will get to see something special . . .

. . . which is to say, a cast of thousands* performing a certain scene from Alyc’s novel. Including yours truly, in the role of a fox spirit, for which I will trot out my best “bored Cate Blanchett” voice (as Alyc tells me that’s what all of her fox characters sound like in her head). So come at 3 p.m. to see the extravaganza!

*by which I mean about half a dozen

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Cover for The Dragons of Heaven, by Alyc Helms

Full disclosure: I’m not going to pretend I’m anything like objective here. Alyc Helms and I have been friends for fifteen years; we met at an archaeological field school in Wales, the same field school where I wrote a sizable chunk of Doppelganger. She’s one of about half a dozen people who read the original draft of the book that eventually became Lies and Prophecy, way back in the day. She crits most of my short stories; when I’m working on a novel and my plot runs headfirst into a wall, she’s the one I fling the manuscript wailing at her to hellllllllp meeeeeeeeeeee. I critiqued this book in an earlier draft — heck, I was a player in the game where Missy Masters first got created — and so when I tell you to go read it, I am very, very far from being an impartial judge.

You should still go read it anyway. :-)

Cover copy:

Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadows and his enduring legacy as the legendary vigilante superhero, Mr Mystic. After a little work the costume fits OK, but Missy is far from experienced at fighting crime, so she journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather. She becomes embroiled in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the allegedly mythical nine dragon-guardians of all creation. When Lung Di – Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy – raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier. It’s a superhero novel, a pulp fantasy novel, with lashings of kung fu, immense kick-ass dragons and an unfailingly sympathetic heroine – yes, it’s another wonderful Angry Robot title.

Alyc talked a while ago at Fantasy Faction about the trope of white protagonists going to the Far East for their training montage and coming home essentially unchanged. This is not that kind of book. Nor, for that matter, is it what I think of as the “Eat, Pray, Love” kind of book, where the exotic locale definitely changes the protagonist — because that’s its sole purpose in the story, to play catalyst for the outsider. Missy goes to China, yes, to learn from the dragon who trained her grandfather . . . but she gets caught up in his story, rather than the other way around. “It falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier” not because the Dragons of Heaven need a white person to save them, but because somebody has decided that Missy makes a useful pawn in their game. She’s not so much rescuing anybody as trying to fix the mess she inadvertently helped create.

Style-wise, it’s like a mashup of The Shadow with Big Trouble in Little China, with a narrative structure that goes back and forth between “then” (when Missy, realizing she didn’t have the skills necessary to operate as Mr. Mystic, went to find her grandfather’s teacher) and “now” (when the repercussions of that decision are playing out). It is available in many lovely formats, from many lovely retailers. It is a very fun book (actually, I believe my description that wound up on the front cover is “a hell of a lot of fun”), and I highly encourage you all to go check it out!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

Read a good deal less than I expected to last month, mostly because my free time on tour was devoted much more heavily than usual to actual writing. I did get through a few things, though!

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Usman Malik. Novella on Tor.com. I liked it well enough while reading it, but just a few weeks later I can’t remember much about it. I’ll note that I’m making an effort to read more short fiction this year, though (including short stories, which won’t get logged here), so I can have some idea of what to nominate when the Hugos roll around next year.

The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard. Read for blurbing purposes; this will be out soon. The blurb I sent in was “If you think the image of Lucifer sitting on a throne in the ruins of Notre Dame sounds awesome, this is a book for you.” :-) Post-apocalyptic angel war fantasy in Paris. First, I believe, of an intended series.

Writing Fight Scenes My own books don’t count. Skimmed back through this one as a refresher for my own brain.

Hostage, Rachel Manjia Brown and Sherwood Smith. Sequel to Stranger, which I posted about here. This one moves somewhat away from the decentralized nature of the first one, which gave equal weight to something like half a dozen different pov characters; the structure of this one means there’s a stretch where the focus rests heavily on just two. Which entirely isn’t a bad thing; as I said about Stranger, having to shift between characters every chapter often risks losing my immersion in the story. It does give this one a different feel, though. I liked how Hostage was about the characters learning to live with the scars of what happened to them, and I also liked the ways in which Voske’s kingdom is dystopian without being wholly awful: the ruler is a terrible person, and terrible things happen there, but the residents also have things like electricity. I can look at that and see the possibility of major improvements in the future, if the cities start working together.

Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai, Michael Dylan Foster. Academic book on the supernatural creatures of Japan, and the changes in how they’re viewed between the Edo/Tokugawa period and the present day. Read for research purposes, and interesting, but way less about the details of actual yokai than I anticipated; he tends to pick out a couple of examples and explore them in depth, mostly through the lens of “here’s how this fits in with the zeitgeist.” Fortunately, I have other books headed my way that will take care of the other aspect.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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I bounced off a lot of books this past month. Nearly as many as I read. But every time I think to myself, “maybe you’re being too harsh; maybe you should have given them more of a chance before you stopped,” I think of The Summer Prince and Three Parts Dead, and how I didn’t have to give those books a chance. They hooked me from the start, and didn’t let go. I need an exceedingly good reason to spend my time on books that don’t do that, when I know there are books out there that are so much better.

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter, Richard Parks. A collection of Parks’ “Lord Yamada” stories, about a demon hunter in Heian-era Japan. Because these are often structured as mysteries (the real challenge is for Yamada to figure out what’s going on with the supernatural problem, rather than finding a way to make it stop), they can be a bit repetitive; I recommend reading this in leisurely doses, rather than trying to mainline the whole thing in go. I especially liked the stories that diverged more from the formula — there’s one where Yamada doesn’t even really solve the problem, except insofar as he lectures the person who should be solving it until they come up with a clever solution. The weakest for me was probably the last tale; it read to me as setup for the novel I also have on my shelf, rather than a substantive conflict-and-resolution in its own right. But I picked these up because I wanted to read about yokai and ghosts in Heian Japan, and was pleased with what I got.

Captain Alatriste, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I retain enough trivia about seventeenth-century European history that the instant a certain nickname got used, I went “oh JESUS is that what’s going on,” long before the actual explanation arrived. Which was not a bug: I liked tumbling to it early, rather than feeling as if that spoiled the story. I’m not sure I’m going to continue with the series, though; I didn’t really warm to any of the characters, and am still in a mood where having the two most prominent female characters be a) not very prominent and b) a former hooker and a little girl described, with no irony I can discern, as having been born evil, did not sit very well with me. On the other hand, if you want more Dumas and have run out of Dumas to read, this may well scratch that itch for you.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman. Short story collection, read for review purposes. I’ll link to that when it goes live, and for now only say that I think it’s about on par with his previous collections: not every story worked for me, but enough did that I enjoyed reading it overall.

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers. Another Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. Ye gods the bell-ringing detail in this . . . but it avoids being as tediously dreary as Five Red Herrings, so that’s good. I figured out how the guy had died a bit before the characters did, and felt like they were a little slow in not thinking of it sooner — and nrgggggh, how awful — so while this one was enjoyable, it’s certainly not at the top of my Sayers list.

Lifelode, Jo Walton. Lovely domestic fantasy set in a world where moving between east and west changes not just how magical the world is, but how rapidly time passes. The main character can see through time, kind of, which is (I presume) why the book is told entirely in present tense, with little to no signaling when it’s about to slip from one point in the timeline to another; once you get the hang of that, though, the effect is lovely. And I adore the way religion operates here — Hanethe’s experience with Agdisdis and so forth.

In the House of the Seven Librarians, Ellen Klages. Not sure if this is a novelette or a novella or what, but I read it in a stand-alone printing, so it goes on the list. Seven exceedingly peculiar librarians keep running a library after it’s shut down, and then find themselves raising a little girl when someone drops her through the return slot along with a book of fairy tales several decades overdue and a note apologizing for the lateness and offering up a firstborn child in repayment.

The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson. This, as I mentioned above, is the book that made me decide that I’m right to drop things that don’t hook me fast enough. It’s probably the best YA book I’ve read recently — but it’s hard to describe why, because part of what makes it good is its complexity. The setting is four hundred years post-apocalypse, and the characters live in the stratified Brazilian city of Palmeres Tres; you could call it a dystopia, but that implies the society is straight-up bad, which undersells the reality. Johnson got her Golden Bough on with the worldbuilding: the city is ruled by a queen, who is chosen by a summer king elected by the people. But the summer king reigns at her side for only one year, at the end of which the queen sacrifices him in a public ceremony. In the story, the current summer king is a guy named Enki who hails from the lowest stratum of society, and the narrator, June, becomes obsessed with him, in ways that are only partly romantic. She’s an artist who likes to play with the idea of transgression; through her interactions with Enki, her work becomes more genuinely revolutionary. So the story is about art and politics, and life and death, and the tensions between age and youth and technological progress or the lack thereof. The whole way through, there is the inescapable awareness that Enki will be dead before long, and what his death will or will not mean. It’s full of beautiful detail, and I devoured it in record time.

ITLoD, Marie Brennan. Revisions. My own books don’t count.

Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone. This is one of those books that defies description. The tech level of the setting doesn’t pigeonhole neatly into any real historical period, and when it comes to describing the plot, I wind up kind of flailing my hands and saying something about necromantic lawyers trying to sort out claims on the essence of a recently deceased god. Except that if I describe it that way, it sounds like the type of thing I would put down very fast, and the opposite was true. Partly this is because the book is not infrequently funny: there are a lot of aspects that would make me call the book grimdark, if it weren’t for the fact that the narration keeps being hilarious. Plus the main characters are mostly good people, underneath their various character flaws — and the ones driving the largest percentage of the plot are women, too, so bonus points for that. Add in a wild assortment of interesting worldbuilding touches (yeah, it’s a theme with me), and I am looking forward to picking up the next one. In fact, if the series continues this good, I think I know what one of my Hugo novel nominations will be next year . . . .

Avatar: The Rift, vol. 3, Gene Luen Yang. Third and final volume of the trio I started in March. The conflict here is one that shows up again in The Legend of Korra, and I’m glad I read this, because I haven’t yet finished watching the show, and I’ll be curious to see how the two interlock.

Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal. Last of her Glamourist Histories. I devoured it in a single afternoon and evening, which will be more significant when I explain to you that this one is a brick — roughly twice the length of most of the other installments. Vincent and Jane go to Antigua to sort out issues with his father’s estate, and things get REALLY COMPLICATED when they arrive. But the story does not quite go in the expected directions, and is frequently more interesting for doing so. Also, the payoff of the repeated “I am not a china cup” line is possibly the best moment in the entire series. :-D

And on that note, I remind you that Mary and I will be touring together starting this week. I hope to see some of you there!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

Avatar: The Promise, vol. 1
Avatar: The Promise, vol. 2
Avatar: The Promise, vol. 3, Gene Luen Yang.

I read the first of these a while ago, but forgot until I went to shelve my new acquisitions that I hadn’t read the rest of the set. So I backed up to the start again.

In this trilogy of comic books, Yang takes on issues of postcolonialism and interracial marriage — no, really. It got me reflecting on the differences between what I’ll term a “simple” treatment of something and a “simplistic” one: here, those issues get resolved more easily than they would be in the real world, but they are present. I think of that as a simple treatment, but not a simplistic one. The city of Yu Dao is a Fire Nation colony, but it’s a century old; it has been built up from a tiny village by a mixed group of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens, some of whom have intermarried, others of whom are close friends. Making amends for Fire Nation imperialism by yanking all people of that ethnicity out of Yu Dao would not actually be justice . . . but just leaving them there isn’t quite a solution, either. And this all gets tangled up in a promise between Zuko and Aang, which provides your regularly scheduled dose of Zuko Angst. :-) I quite enjoyed it.

Avatar: The Rift, vol. 1
Avatar: The Rift, vol. 2
, Gene Luen Yang.

Haven’t acquired and read the third volume yet. Aang takes the Gaang to see an old sacred Air Nomad site, and finds a factory has been built on top of it. Things get complicated from there. I’m really enjoying these comic-book continuations; they provide nice explorations of the world and how it changed from Aang’s day to Korra’s. And I really like how the Air Nomad fankids are being handled.

Chains and Memory, Marie Brennan. My own books don’t count.

a friend’s novel in manuscript I won’t give the title or author here, because this book hasn’t even been submitted to editors yet, and it would be cruel of me to taunt you all with gushing about its awesomeness when you won’t be able to read it for who knows how long. :-) But never fear! I will be back to talk about it more when the time comes.

Chains and Memory, Marie Brennan. Can you tell what I’ve been revising this month?

Taltos, Steven Brust. The structure of this one was interesting. Based on the cover copy, I was quickly able to make a general guess at what was going on in the brief/later bits opening the chapters, and it added a nice (if slightly vague) element of tension. The flashback stuff . . . I liked it, but I think I would have liked a smaller/less frequent dose of it, just because it kept pulling me out of the main story with Aliera/Morrolan/the Paths of the Dead/etc. The latter had some very cool moments in it, and I would have liked to stay in that mood, instead of jumping back and forth. But hey: I don’t fault Brust for experimenting. With a long series like this, it’s nice not to have every installment be like every other installment.

The Guns of Avalon, Roger Zelazny. I was a little unfair to this one: I started reading it some number of months ago, got interrupted, and when I came back I didn’t feel like re-reading the beginning. So it took me a while to get my footing and remember what Corwin was doing, apart from “trying to take over Amber.” I got into it pretty well by the end: there was a point where it seemed entirely possible that the message of the story was going to be “by the way, the protagonist is the villain,” and even though it didn’t go down that path, it went far enough to be interesting. And I want to see what’s up with Dara, though given the time period these were written, I recognize that the answer to that question may frustrate me more than it pleases.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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