Friday, March 30, 2018

Short Reviews: A New, Award-Worthy Novella from Juliette Wade

The Persistence of Blood, by Juliette Wade (Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 138, March 2018)

Juliette Wade’s newest novella, set in her underground world of Varin, begins with what must surely squick out a certain percentage of male readers: a woman beginning her menstrual flow. But this is Varin, not Earth, and everything that looks familiar runs orthogonal to our expectations. The plight of Lady Selemei, who has now recovered sufficiently from her last, near-fatal childbirth to become pregnant again, must be understood in light of her technologically advanced yet highly stratified cavern-dwelling society. She is not a 21st Century Earth woman, and yet her situation must surely resonate with every woman who has thought for a heart-stopping moment that she might have an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy.

Selemei has few choices in the matter: forbidden to use or even possess information about contraception, and expected to churn out baby after baby for her caste in the hope that some of them might be healthy enough to survive, it seems her fate is sealed. If this description evokes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the resonances are deep rather than superficial. Selemei’s husband truly loves her, and the couple enjoys a rich and satisfying sexual relationship. She is not disposable in his eyes, or in her own. Celibacy to preserve her life is a an unappealing option. The two of them concoct a strategy to challenge the laws regarding contraception for their caste, within the limited circumstance of risk to the mother’s life. While insufficient in 21st Century terms, this represents a historic break with Varin tradition, certain to provoke fierce resistance. Whether in the chambers of the ruling council or a tea party for aristocratic ladies, or the simple fact that she cannot walk unaided, Selemei faces daunting obstacles.

The story’s strengths rely on the nuanced portrayal of the characters and the subtleties of their distinct, sometimes alien cultural context. In this sense, Selemei’s dilemma is not that of the Handmaids in Atwood’s tale or poor women throughout the world who lack affordable, effective birth control. It’s as much a love story as it is a political narrative. Never preachy, Wade invites the reader to draw conclusions not by diatribe but by following Selemei’s emotional journey. Courage comes in many different forms.

The painting is "Anxiety" by Edvard Munch.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Today's Moment of Art

"A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)," by Sanford Robinson Gifford

Monday, March 26, 2018

Crossroads of Darkover Author Interview: Marella Sands

Coming in May, an all-new Darkover anthology featuring tales of decisions, turning points, 
love lost and found, all in the beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Stories by Jenna Rhodes, Pat MacEwen, Gabrielle Harbowy, Evey Brett, Rosemary and India Edghill, Diana L. Paxson, and more! Order yours today at: iBookKindleKoboNookTable of Contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: What are you working on today?

Marella Sands:  I should be working on the next chapter of a novel I am writing with fellow author Mark Sumner. However, I'm kind of stuck in a place where I've got one character in a concentration camp, and another just outside the gate, and somehow they have to communicate enough to manage a rescue without much in the way of resources or backup. Thus, it seems like a good time to answer author interview questions. It's also laundry day and that's currently sitting on the bed in a pile waiting for me. So, you know, priorities.

DJR: What was your first novel-writing attempt like?

MS: Awful. I had no idea how to write a novel or structure a long story, and writing is a lot of work, which I didn't quite realize at the time. So I'd write a little every now and then when it seemed like fun. Needless to say, I didn't get more than five or six chapters in. I tried again a few years later and the same thing happened. I had to join a writers group where others were producing book-length manuscripts before I started to figure out how to do it and had people to ask questions of (this was in the pre-internet, pre-email era).

DJR: What was your first successful novel-writing experience like?

MS: When I finally realized how much slogging was involved in getting out a book, I started writing every evening after work from about 6:30-9:00. It still took me months to get the first draft out, but at least I got to the end. And then I got the joy of realizing how much MORE slogging was involved in getting draft #2 ready. What sane person does this to themselves? Since I'm still doing it 30 years later, my sanity is clearly in question.

DJR: Is there a Darkover story that has eluded you so far?

MS: I want to write a story about the origin of the clouds in the Lake of Hali. At least, with "The Song of Star Girl," the characters visit the future location of the lake. But I still don't really know what story to pair up with that idea. I also like a line from "The Forbidden Tower" where someone says that, in the ancient days, the matrices were used to summon all kinds of monsters from other dimensions. I think a monster story could be exciting. Maybe some kind of wiggly tentacled semi-Lovecraftian thing could ooze out of the Lake of Hali after being called forth by a powerful matrix and an unscrupulous Keeper.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Superb New Single-Author Collections: Walton, Beagle, Yolen, Rowe

I’m delighted to see the single author collection returning as a literary form, for it’s immensely easier, not to mention more satisfying, to find if not all then surely the best of an author’s short fiction output all in one place. Here are four luminous examples:

Starlings, by Jo Walton

Jo Walton is not only an amazing novelist, but she is an accomplished poet. I’m always in awe of writers who can do both well. I settle into writing a novel with ease, but whenever I need a poem or song lyrics, it’s like pulling hen’s teeth for me to create anything serviceable. Yet poetry seems to flow from Walton with ease, if the poems she has posted on her LiveJournal are an example.  Starlings offers both, plus the script of a hilarious play, Three Shouts on a Hill.

One of the many things I loved about this collection was Walton’s comments on the process of writing short fiction (as opposed to longer-form novels). It’s been said that novels teach us what to put in a story and short stories teach us what to take out. Short stories are not truncated novels, at least not good ones, ones that work. They’re like tiny gems, focused and spare. In and out, nailing the ending. Not surprisingly, Walton’s short stories are as personal as her other work. Deceptively subtle, they evoke depths of connection and emotional impact.

This book would make a wonderful gift for someone you care for, someone who would love words like this:

Hades and Persephone
You bring the light clasped around you,
and although
I knew you’d bring it, knew it as I waited,
Knew as you’d come that you’d come cloaked in light
I had forgotten what light meant, and so
This longed for moment, so anticipated,
I stand still, dazzled by my own delight.

The Overneath, by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)

My children introduced me to the works of Peter S. Beagle through, of course, The Last Unicorn. I proceeded to delve into his other work (A Fine and Private Place, and so forth), and had the opportunity to “talk shop” with him on the lawn outside the reception at one World Fantasy Convention. Over the years, I’ve come across his wonderful short fiction, most notably a story in which the late, much missed Avram Davidson takes the author for a wild and woolly chase through alternate dimensions (the “overneath” of the title).

Over the decades, unicorns have populated Beagle’s stories. I reviewed his novella, In Calabria, here. The Overneath features a number of different traditional versions, including a dangerously nasty Persian beastie. The tales range from sweetly romantic to surreal to horrific (a spine-chilling aquarium), all expertly crafted with wonderful characters and powerful authorial voice. 

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen (Tachyon)

I’m not sure what I can say by way of introduction to Jane Yolen, recipient of SFWA’s Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, as well as uncounted other awards, that has not already been said. My children grew up on Sleeping Ugly, Owl Moon, and Commander Toad in Space, and I came of age as a writer with Sister Light, Sister Dark, Briar Rose, and The Devil’s Arithmetic.  

This current collection, the latest of many, showcases Yolen’s brilliant capacity for taking characters and situations, even worlds, and turning them literarily on their heads. Whether it’s Emily Dickinson sailing away on a starship made of light or Wendy organizing a labor strike in Neverland, or the real story of Disraeli and Queen Victoria, Yolen twists the old tales in innovative, delightful ways. I look forward to many more of her stories, short and long.

Telling the Map, by Christopher Row (Small Beer Press) 

This collection of loosely related short pieces follows the deterioration and transformation of society over time and environmental collapse. The farther from the present, the weirder and more wildly imaginative the technology and society. Most have been previously published, but the final one is original.

Although my favorite story was the first, “The Contrary Gardener,” as much about free will as agriculture, I loved this passage from “The Voluntary State,” which captures much of the sensibility of the collection:

But today, after his struggle up the trail from the each, he saw that his car had been attacked. The driver’s side window had been kicked in. 
Soma dropped his pack and rushed to his car’s side. The car shied away from him, backed to the limit of its tether before it recognized him and turned, let out a low, pitiful moan. 
“Oh, car,” said Soma, stroking the roof and opening the passenger door, “oh, car, you’re hurt.” Then Soma was rummaging through the emergency kit, tossing aside flares and bandages, finally, finally finding the glass salve.

Rowe’s beautifully crafted, emotionally literate stories are worthy of re-reading and savoring.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Today's Wisdom from J.R.R. Tolkien

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

-- J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 1939

Monday, March 19, 2018

Crossroads of Darkover Author Interview: Jane M. H. Bigelow

Coming in May, an all-new Darkover anthology featuring tales of decisions, turning points, love lost and found, all in the beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Stories by Jenna Rhodes, Pat MacEwen, Gabrielle Harbowy, Evey Brett, Rosemary and India Edghill, Diana L. Paxson, and more!

Order yours today at: iBookKindleKoboNook

Table of Contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: What about Darkover drew you in?
Jane M. H. Bigelow: The spaciousness of Darkover, and its variety, drew me in. There are multiple cultures (too often fictional worlds seem to be monocultural) and history that goes on for centuries. There are several intelligent species on the planet. After all these years, there are still unexplored corners of this world.

DJR: What do you see as the future of Darkover?
JMHB: I think its future lies in exploring the variety of cultures and attitudes, both on Darkover and in the wider universe.

DJR: What book would you recommend for someone new to Darkover?
JMHB: That would depend so much on the person! For a medieval history nut, something from Ages of Chaos or the Hundred Kingdoms; maybe Stormqueen. For someone interested more in cultural clash, one of the Hastur novels. 

DJR: What inspired your story in Crossroads of Darkover?
JMHB: I wanted to tell more of the adventures of Duvin, my amiable though not clever tourist, and Ginevra, a young woman of minor Darkovan nobility. At the end of "Duvin's Grand Tour", they had just acknowledged their love for each other. Ginevra had accepted Duvin's proposal, and they'd won Ginevra's brother's extremely grudging acceptance of the idea. Well, he'd put away his sword.

So, I set out to answer a few questions, such as, "Where will they live? How will Duvin support them? How can he convince the Terran bureaucracy to let him stay on indefinitely? What will he say to his family, who have some control over his inheritance?" Many of these questions remain unanswered, because of the aunts. Oh, those aunts! Duvin and Ginevra each have at least one, both of the bossy variety. My husband suggested that I title the story, "A Plague of Aunts." Like so many stories, especially those I set on Darkover, it didn't go quite as I planned.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Remembering Mary

My friend and fellow writer, Mary Rosenblum, died in a plane crash on Sunday, March 11. Like everyone else who knew her or knew of her, I was stunned by the news. She was so active, so intensely alive, that it’s still hard to wrap my mind around a world without her in it. She touched so many people’s lives, both personally and through her work. Everyone who knew her has Mary Stories. Here are a few of mine.

I met Mary near the beginning of our literary careers. Here’s her version of that encounter, from her introduction to Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life
Deborah Ross introduced herself to  me at the first Science Fiction conference I ever attended in Portland, way back in, hmmm, must have been 1989, right after I’d started selling my short stories and showing up in the reviews as a ‘hot new writer.’  The ‘new’ part was certainly true and I was so flattered when this established author introduced herself and had clearly heard of me.  We’ve been good friends ever since, through the ups and downs of our personal lives and our careers.

Mary and I used to joke that we were 2/3 of the Reed College Alumni Society of Science Fiction Writers, the other 1/3 being David Eddings. That’s changed over the years as more Reedies have ventured into the genre, but was worth a giggle or two.

This is one of my favorite pictures of Mary, taken around 1999. Often she appears solemn or sad, but she also had a great sense of humor. I love how happy and relaxed she looks.

I visited with Mary sporadically over the decades that followed, often using Orycon or my college reunions as an excuse to fly to Portland and see her, and also my best friend (more about that later).

On these visits, Mary and I cooked together, for some loose value of “messed about in the kitchen.” Mary made the most amazing sourdough biscuits, the kind that are all tangy and crusty and crowded together in a pan. When I asked her for the recipe, she said: Deborah, I’m almost embarrassed to give you the recipe for the sourdough biscuits. I warm some milk, add starter and flour until it’s the consistency of cake batter. Let it set overnight or all day. Mix 1 ½ tsp yeast and 1 T sugar into the starter and give it 15 minutes to dissolve. Mix 1 c. flour, 1 tsp baking powder, and 1 tsp salt, and dump into the sponge. Mix, and then knead in flour until the dough is solid enough to cut, but not too heavy. Cut into rounds and bake at 400 until done, about 20 minutes. Is this vague enough for you? I’m afraid I do bread stuff by feel, not by measure. If you pour boiling water into a pan in the oven before you put in the biscuits, you’ll get that crisp woodstove crust.

Now you too can enjoy Mary Biscuits, although ice cubes work even better than boiling water, as they do eventually boil at 400 degrees.

Another food-related memory is watching Mary make ricotta cheese from her goat milk. Whatever she did, whether it was farming or goat management or dog training or elk hunting or aviation, she approached it fearlessly and with enormous gusto. As a consequence, she was very good at many things.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Short Book Reviews: An Extraordinary Ghost Story from Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

It’s been wonderful to watch Seanan McGuire mature as a writer. For someone so prolific, her work is consistently entertaining and more and more rises to the truly memorable. Her outstanding novella, Every Heart a Doorway, won multiple awards, including the Hugo and the Nebula. Her innovative, deeply moving ghost story, Sparrow Hill Road, is just as good, although in a different way. 

She begins the with legend of Rose Marshall, the Prom Date ghost, the Girl in the Diner, a hitch hiking spirit who is drawn to people soon to be involved in fatal accidents, and who sometimes manages to prevent their deaths. She’s no ordinary ghost but a psychopomp, who guides the spirits of those she cannot save to the next stage of their journeys. 

The story proceeds like a chambered nautilus, sometimes spiraling back on itself, jumping back and forth in time to weave together the threads of the story until we come to the crux of Rose’s ghosthood, how she died, and who killed her. Absorbing, wise, funny, and tragic, all in all a superbly executed ghostly tale.

The usual disclaimer: This review is in response to a complimentary review copy and contains nothing but my own demented opinions.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Crossroads of Darkover Author Interview: Shariann Lewitt

Coming in May, an all-new Darkover anthology featuring tales of decisions, turning points, love lost and found, all in the beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Stories by Jenna Rhodes, Pat MacEwen, Gabrielle Harbowy, Evey Brett, Rosemary and India Edghill, Diana L. Paxson, and more!

Order yours today at: iBookKindleKoboNook

Table of Contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: How did you discover Darkover?

Shariann Lewitt: Hmm, I don’t actually remember. It’s all back somewhere in the haze of nerdy girlhood along with Pern and Witchworld and everything else I read while I dreamed of a life in space.

DJR: What about the world drew you in?

SL: Pretty much everything. But I think what made it very different from all the others—and that kept me with it even as I grew up—was that it felt very real to my own experiences as a nerdy girl who wanted to do something with her life, but had to fight for it. In other worlds, women either were magic users or victims of the patriarchy. On Darkover—a world with the extreme gender roles that my mother insisted were my lot—women who were willing to fight for their dreams could have them. Yes, many of them had laran, but others didn’t. That inspired me and gave me a lot of hope when I was young.

DJR: What do you see as the future of Darkover? How has its readership changed over the decades? What book would you recommend for someone new to Darkover?

SL: I think it says a lot about the world that, unlike many of the other series I grew up reading, Darkover is still vibrant and alive, with new stories and characters. I think it will continue to grow, to expand, and to explore more within the expanse that Marion left. To recommend to someone new to the world, well, that would depend a lot on the person. Some people would prefer a book on the Renunciates, or maybe Hawkmistress to start. Maybe for someone who is more Science Fiction oriented, I’d possibly choose The Heritage of Hastur because of the Terran/Darkovan interaction. Though Thendara House would be good for that as well. But if it were someone who preferred fantasy with lots of politics, then I’d recommend The Fall of Neskaya. Really, it would depend a lot on the person.

DJR: What inspired your story in Crossroads of Darkover? How did you balance writing in someone else’s world and being true to your own creative imagination?

SL: Darkover is a big world and there’s room to go just about anywhere. But there are enough limits that it’s fun to play with them. This story, well—I was in the middle of writing another story, a story about a young Comyn woman with laran, and then Nyla showed up. I couldn’t put her down. Her situation really fascinated me because mostly on Darkover we think about people who are gifted as having laran. What about other gifts? We know there are musicians and poets. What about scientists and mathematicians? Is there a university? I realized in all the books I’ve read (which I think is all of them at this point) I’d never really noticed one. That kind of hit me over the head, so I had to explore what would happen. And, of course, Nyla was there to guide me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Freedom and Autonomy in a Robotic World

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz (Tor)

My quick take on this book is “feminist anarchist new-wave cyberpunk,” but that doesn’t do it justice by a long shot. In a world dominated by pharmaceutical companies, illegally reverse-engineered drugs offer the only hope to the poor. But when her attention-focusing drug creates lethal obsession, rogue scientist Jack desperately tries to get her pirated version off the streets. That’s half the story and I was already hooked (scientist heroes, check; women scientist heroes, double-check). The second half of the story centers around the private military team (human Eliasz and robot-with-human-brain Paladin) dispatched to apprehend Jack. That’s where things get really interesting, because in this dystopic world, robots are chattel and sometimes so are people. Both can earn their freedom, but what does that really mean?

Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments … became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles established the rights of humans to become indentured, too. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?

“For bots, industry always precedes autonomy,” explained a final string of text.

Legal autonomy, emotional independence, freedom from obsession and pharmaceutical control of mood, thought, and desire? Newitz deftly blends the themes and resonances into a dramatic story that feels refreshingly current and yet fits easily within the genre. I look forward to her next work.

The usual disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through NetGalley, and nobody paid me to hold my own opinions about it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

I'll Be at FogCon -- See You There?

At the last minute, I've decided to attend FogCon. I badly need to run away and hobnob with my tribe. No panels, but lots of schmoozing. If you see me, please come say hello.

Today's Moment of Art

Florent Joseph Marie Willems (1823 – 1905) 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

"This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Short Book Reviews: A New Pathfinder Tale

Gears of Faith (Pathfinder Tales) by Gabrielle Harbowy (Tor)

One of the tests of a shared world is how accessible the stories are to a reader who is a stranger to that world. Pathfinder is an extremely popular fantasy role-playing game (along the lines of Dragons and Dungeons, for non-gamers like me). There’s a wealth of material about the various landscapes, races, characters, and histories of the world, and a series of novels (over 30 of them) set in it. This current addition includes a glossary and maps to aid the unfamiliar traveler. 

The set-up is this: two characters (Keren, a knight dedicated to the goddess Iomedae, who incidentally was once human; and Zae, a violet-haired gnome who is both a fanatic tinkerer-inventor-engineer and a mystical healer; oh, and also incidentally, they are both female and are lovers) arrive in the great city of Absalom to continue their respective training, only to find themselves caught up in a series of increasingly violent attacks that center on the theft of a supernatural device. The story weaves together mystery, action, romance, with the question of the proper balance between trusting one’s sense of what is right and obedience to a higher authority. Pacing allows the newcomer to explore this colorful world while falling in love with the characters, yet there is sufficient drama and escalating tension to keep a familiar reader turning the pages.  

My favorite parts were the scenes of Zae in her engineering classes, with lively dialogs with her fellow students (of various races and temperaments) and the inevitable results of her fearless curiosity. Her mount, a large dog named Appleslayer, adds warmth to the family. Plus, it’s very cool to have a dog as a companion on a quest.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book as a gift; everything I've said about it is my own opinion and no one paid me to say nice things; are you happy now, FTC?