Friday, November 30, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Bram Stoker and the Raiders of Ancient Egypt

The Night Crossing, by Robert Masello (47North)

Loosely falling into the category of historical urban fantasy, this delicious tale places Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, center-stage. Literally, since Stoker ran the theater that featured Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted. And figuratively, since this is essentially Bram’s adventure. In the 19th Century, “Egyptomania,” enthusiasm for all things ancient Egyptian, swept Western Europe. Ordinary travelers as well as serious scholars pillaged archaeological sites looking for treasure and curiosities, which they of course brought back to England. Never mind the damage done by amateurs to the archaeological sites. To be sure, some artifacts ended up with serious collectors who cared about provenance and preservation. Accounts relate “mummy unwrapping parties.” People apparently considered a fine way to pass an evening with port wine and removing the coverings of a mummy, searching for small articles folded in the bandages, which were then distributed as trinkets. (Some scholars now dispute these accounts, although not those of scholars holding similar public events.)

In the world of urban historical fantasy, Egyptian burial practices involve supernatural elements, including the ability to prolong life and reanimate the dead. Bram, searching for a high-concept premise to launch his literary career from obscurity into best-seller territory, takes notice when he runs afoul of a brother and sister duo who are using Egyptian magic to do just that.

Enter (Minerva) Mina Harcourt, intrepid Anglo-Romany adventurer, her century’s female Indiana Jones. While investigating the monumentally huge Carpathian sphinx (there really is such a thing), she comes into possession of a mysterious golden box (see the cover image). Enter also Lucinda Watts, a timid young woman who works in a match factory (owned by the brother of the above-referenced nefarious pair), suffers from phossy jaw (formally known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, from the white phosphorus used in match manufacture) and is the mother of an illegitimate son (the brother being a rapist, as well) who dies when the evil duo suck out his soul. (That’s an approximate summation of the process, which is actually more than a bit more complex.)

Before long, Bram and Mina are on the hunt not only for the Egyptian immortality thieves but the origin of her golden box and the shadows that mysterious escape from it. The mash-up of historical setting and real personages, the fictional inspirations for Stoker’s Dracula, and the dramatic twists and turns make this a delicious and occasionally shiver-producing thriller. The narrative style, rich in detail, atmosphere, and well-drawn personalities, kept me turning pages even through the parts of slower action. The variation in pace allowed for context, nuance, and emotional resonance, making The Night Crossing more than just a “fun read.” I’ll be on the lookout for more from this sensitive, skillful writer.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Monday, November 26, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interview: Marella Sands


Enter a wondrous universe…the latest volume of Sword and Sorceress, featuring stories from new and seasoned authors. Herein you will find tales of fantasy with strong female characters, with some version of either martial skill or magic. Not all the protagonists will be human, and sometimes the magic will take highly original forms, but the emotional satisfaction in each story and in the anthology as a whole, remains true to the original vision. The release date will be November 2, 2018.




Marella has a multitude of pets who are slowing destroying her carpeting but are too cute to be angry with. When she is not feeding the furry bottomless pits or taking them to the vet, she is more-or-less methodically making her way through her Netflix watchlist. Currently, she is watching The Great Interior Design Challenge, which has proven to her that she has absolutely no ambition to become an interior designer. This is her second story in Sword and Sorceress; the previous story, “Tortoise Weeps,” was in Sword and Sorceress XIII.

Deborah J. Ross: What have you written recently?
Marella Sands: I'm finishing up revisions on an alternate history novel with a tangled real-life backstory. I belong to a writers group called the Alternate Historians, none of whom write alternate history. The name was chosen in the early days of the group, and the people who voted for the name left soon after, so the group name has never matched what anyone in the group actually writes. Another member (Mark Sumner) and I decided to change that around 1994, because Mark wanted to produce a cable-access show that would be a fantasy/alternate history. We wrote a script, but by the time we finished it, the cable-access idea had faded, and we tried to market it through our agent instead. That didn't work out, so the script was mothballed. Then, in 2017, I was asked if I'd like to submit an alternate history novel to a small press, and so the idea was un-mothballed. Mark wasn't interested in pursuing the project, but gave me his blessing, so I've been working on that. A few more scene changes and it should be ready to go. Hopefully, it will be what the editor is looking for!

DJR: What lies ahead?
MS: Like many writers, I have too many projects that I want to get to. I want to take another

look at a novel I wrote ten years ago that got glowing rejections. There are more short stories that want to get told, and I am still trying to get back to my series of novellas about a bartender caught up in a war between fallen angels. I wanted to have six or seven of those done by now, but short stories like the one in this anthology, and the alternate history novel, have meant I am only on the third at this point.


Friday, November 23, 2018

Darkover Novel News



For those of you who like to follow such things, I've begun work on the next Darkover novel, Arilinn, about the founding of that Tower. I've been fleshing out the outline, and am about to begin writing the text itself. Go, me! Stay tuned for updates. If you'd like a sneak peek now and again, subscribe to my newsletter here.

Short Book Reviews: Vampires and Ogres and Were-Dragons, Oh My!

Shadow's Bane, by Karen Chance (Berkley)

Elsewhere I have written about the challenges of picking up a book in the middle of a series, and it’s worth repeating here:

 “Series” can mean a number of things, from stand-alone complete-in-themselves novels set in the same universe to one long story that extends over several volumes. Recently I listened to an interview with Peter Jackson in which he discussed the decision to not put a recap at the beginning of The Two Towers, the second part of The Lord of the Rings. He felt that one year between film was a short enough time for viewers (those few not intimately familiar with the books) to remember and anyone who went to see it without having seen or read The Fellowship of the Ring, oh well… I admit to not being as careful as I might about checking to see if a book is a sequel, so I rely on the skill of the author to furnish necessary backstory without inundating me with it, and to draw me into the story so that even if I have to work a little harder to figure out what has gone before, I’m already hooked. 

I began Shadow’s Bane without realizing it was “yet another adventure” in a series. To the ultimate credit of the author, for most of the book, I honestly could not tell if there was separate backstory (previous volumes) or if this was a brilliantly executed, complex novel that wove in aforementioned backstory, world-building, and characters, all while sweeping me up in a dramatic, action-driven plot.

The world is fascinating, multi-layered, and rich in its own history. Vampires exist, as do dhampirs (vampire-human hybrids, heartily loathed by both parent races), ogres, fae, mermaids, were-creatures, and magicians. Relations between the various races are uneasy at best and impossible to summarize here. Our heroine, Dory/Dorina, in addition to being dhampir, suffers from split personality that’s the result of her (vampire) father attempting to save her from her worser (waaaay worser) nature. So there’s a nice internal conflict, as well as rather spicy romance with a master vampire, a sweet friendship with a human woman who has (a) given birth to the heir to a fairy kingdom; (b) turns out to be a were-dragon, so don’t get her pissed, and various other friendships and enemyships.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Today's Moment of Art




Old Street, Bologna, by Melbourne Havelock Hardwick (1857 – 1916)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interviews: Deirdre M. Murphy


Enter a wondrous universe…the latest volume of Sword and Sorceress, featuring stories from new and seasoned authors. Herein you will find tales of fantasy with strong female characters, with some version of either martial skill or magic. Not all the protagonists will be human, and sometimes the magic will take highly original forms, but the emotional satisfaction in each story and in the anthology as a whole, remains true to the original vision. The release date will be November 2, 2018.




Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?
Deirdre M. Murphy: When I was a kid, I felt like books were my best friends.  They brought me a lot of joy and led, in the end, to me being less lonely in real life and finding human friends who understood me.  I wanted to be one of the storytellers, to give those gifts forward, in part, and to, in a sense, play with the storytellers I’d admired for so long, whether or not I got to meet them in person.

DJR: What inspired your story in Sword and Sorceress 33?
DMM: A panel at a science fiction convention.  We were discussing monsters as metaphor, and there was one pretty obvious metaphor that hadn’t been used much, which combined with the thought that dysfunctional behaviors are often functional behaviors done wrong, or occasionally the function is just misunderstood.

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?
DMM: This question is too big for a short interview!  I love stories that surprise me, that make me think, that give me a window into a different world or into understanding people who are unlike me in some fundamental way. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Prohibition, Booze Running, and Demonic Possession in Roaring Twenties Long Island


My introduction to the work of Molly Tanzer was her novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, a 19th century urban fantasy revolving around The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and demonic possession. Creatures of Want and Ruin takes place in the Roaring Twenties on Long Island, New York. The common thread between the two books is the role of demons controlling human lives. Demons take possession of people who freely agree to the arrangement, granting their hosts long life, wealth, beauty, or in this case the ability to detect falsehoods and to compel others to tell the truth. In exchange demons receive various experiences that can come about only through physical incarnation. Some demons are benign, but others are highly malevolent. Demons pass summoning instructions through generations or encoded in children’s books, as is the case here.

In this story two women from very different walks of life encounter unsettling changes in the sleepy community of Amityville. (The Amityville Horror, it should be said, lies decades in the future and does not play a part in this story.) One of the women is a boat woman engaged in the moonshine smuggling trade during Prohibition. The other is the wife of a newly wealthy Gatsby type of social idler who finds herself increasingly alienated from her husband and his party loving, booze zwilling friends. Spooky things are afoot: illegal liquor that causes most people to hallucinate. a preacher who gathers bigger and bigger crowds, bent on ridding their community of immigrants and anyone who isn't a white Protestant. And creepiest of all, slimy fungus growths that appear and spread.

The characters are engaging and the story moves right along. The creepiness grows, step by Lovecraftian step. Just when you think nothing more terrible could happen, something else goes disastrously wrong. Stopping the white nationalist mob and defeating the fungus-monster necessitate finding out the truth, which is where the bargain with the demon comes in. There are moments of sweetness, of courage, and of terrible but necessary choices. I loved every page of it and I'm eagerly looking forward to Tanzer’s next.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interviews: Melissa Mead


Enter a wondrous universe…the latest volume of Sword and Sorceress, featuring stories from new and seasoned authors. Herein you will find tales of fantasy with strong female characters, with some version of either martial skill or magic. Not all the protagonists will be human, and sometimes the magic will take highly original forms, but the emotional satisfaction in each story and in the anthology as a whole, remains true to the original vision. The release date will be November 2, 2018.




Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?
Melissa Mead:  I don't remember when I wasn't telling stories, even before I could write them.
My first attempt to write a story for publication actually came about when my then-husband suggested that I write a story for Sword and Sorceress, but they weren't open to general submissions at that time. My first submissions (and rejections) were in 1997. My first publication was in The First Line, in 1999.

DJR: What inspired your story in Sword and Sorceress 33?
Mm: Thinking that it's kinda creepy how so many girls in fairy tales end up marrying "Prince Charming" without knowing anything about him, or him knowing anything about her. And why WOULD the rulers of a kingdom need to invite every eligible maiden in the kingdom to a ball to get the heir to the throne married off, anyway?

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?
Mm: Gosh, probably more than I realize. I wish I had Terry Pratchett's wisdom and humor, Robin McKinley's gift for making familiar fairy tales come alive in new ways, and Lois McMaster Bujold's general brilliance. She writes the way I wish I did. And Gail Carson Levine inspires me not only with her work, but the wise and kind advice she gives to new writers in her blog. I'm sure I'm missing many more.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Love and Death: Would You Like a Little Romance with Your Action?

Crossing genres is hot business these days: science fiction mysteries, paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, Jane Austen with horror, steampunk love stories, you name it. A certain amount of this mixing-and-matching is marketing. Publishers are always looking for something that is both new and "just like the last bestseller." An easy way to do this is to take standard elements from successful genres and combine them.

As a reader, I've always enjoyed a little tenderness and a tantalizing hint of erotic attraction in even the most technologically-based space fiction. For me, fantasy cries out for a love story, a meeting of hearts as well as passion. As a writer, however, it behooves me to understand why romance enhances the overall story so that I can use it to its best advantage.

By romance, I mean a plot thread that involves two (or sometimes more) characters coming to understand and care deeply about one another, usually but not necessarily with some degree of sexual attraction. This is in distinction to Romance, which (a) involves a structured formula of plot elements -- attraction, misunderstanding and division, reconciliation; (b) must be the central element of the story; (c) has rules about gender, exclusivity and, depending on the market, the necessity or limitations on sexual interactions. These expectations create a specific, consistent reader experience, which is a good thing in that it is reliable. However, the themes of love and connection, of affection and loyalty, of understanding, acceptance and sacrifice, are far bigger.

In my own reading and writing, I prefer the widest definition of "love story."

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Today's Moment of Art



Figure in a Rowboat, by Albertus Del Orient Browere (1814 – 1887)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interviews: Jennifer Linnea


Enter a wondrous universe…the latest volume of Sword and Sorceress, featuring stories from new and seasoned authors. Herein you will find tales of fantasy with strong female characters, with some version of either martial skill or magic. Not all the protagonists will be human, and sometimes the magic will take highly original forms, but the emotional satisfaction in each story and in the anthology as a whole, remains true to the original vision. The release date will be November 2, 2018.



Deborah J. Ross: How does your writing process work?
Jennifer Linnea: I have a day job, so I write for a few hours every morning before work. Sometimes I write in coffee shops, alone or with other writers, but most of the time I write in my home office. It’s a tiny room decorated with images from stories that have inspired me throughout my life – Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels, and Star Wars, to name a few. I also keep a shelf with my favorite speculative fiction novels, and another with books about writing. Everything else is pretty loose: some days I compose on a computer, other times I write longhand; sometimes I start with a writing exercise or journalling, sometimes I jump right in. But there’s always tea. Lots of tea in iron teapots and gaiwans and mugs with tigers on them. And once in a while, if I’m trying to finish a project, I set aside an entire day. Days spent writing are some of my favorite days. 

DJR: What advice would you give an aspiring writer? 
JL: Find people who can critique your work, and whose work you can critique. If the critiques all say the same thing – listen! Then rewrite. It will make your writing better, and help you self-correct in time. As a beginning writer, I thought a story had to be working in the first draft or it was a failure, but that’s not true. Rewriting critiqued manuscripts and helping other writers improve theirs was how I went from aspiring writer to published writer. (Incidentally, “The Secret Army” was critiqued by about six people and then rewritten into the draft I submitted to Sword and Sorceress.)

Friday, November 2, 2018

Short Book Reviews: When World-Building Isn't Enough

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee is the third and last volume of the trilogy, “Machineries of Empire,” that began with Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. I absolutely loved the first two books with the concept of a space-faring empire based on a mathematically derived calendar. It tickled my geeky self that to see mathematicians highly valued in a society. It struck me as weird and wonderful that a revolution could happen through the means of instituting a new calendar. In this universe exotic effects make space flight and many other things — including immortality — possible, and these effects are in turn the result of the way human beings conceptualize time. (Of course everyone is not on the same page about which calendar is the correct one.) I loved the way this creative intersection of mathematics and physics and culture interacted with the tendency of humans to form armies on opposing sides. I was intrigued, if sometimes a bit appalled, by the Immolation Fox, Shuos Jedao, a brilliant general who committed unspeakable atrocities many hundreds of years ago and whose physical remains are incarcerated in something called a black cradle but whose mind now occupies the body of a fairly ordinary woman in the soldier caste.

“Which one are you?” it asked Jedao-Cheris-whoever.

“Whoever I need to be,” Jedao-Cheris-whoever said. Their eyes were sad. “I used to be one person. I was a Kel. Now I have fragments of a dead man in my head.”

Revenant Gun begins with Jedao awakening in a body much older than his self-perceived age and quite ignorant of recent history, as well as all the things that he supposedly knows about military strategy. To my disappointment I found that the magic had gone out of the story arc. The gimmick of space flight by via calendrical manipulation had lost its luster, and the characters and their interactions seemed artificial and forced. There is one extremely nifty revelation about halfway through the book, which I won't say reveal because it’s a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that even though I found this on a par with the wacky and delightful inventiveness of the world-building in the first two books, it was not enough to sustain my interest through this climactic volume. I really wanted to see the revelation played out in all its consequences and implications, and was sadly disappointed.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Scrub Jay Cuteness




Scrub jays, despite the humdrum name, are wonderful birds, smart, fearless, and opinionated. Plus, beautiful blue plumage. My older daughter, an avid bird-watcher, caught this fine fellow in our back yard.