Monday, July 30, 2018

Scientific Wonders, July 2018 edition

A potpourri of nifty discoveries to remind us, in the midst of so much political anguish, what an amazing universe we live in.

Baby Snake That Lived Among Dinosaurs Found Preserved in Amber

Using uranium-lead dating, a research team led by Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences and Michael Caldwell from the University of Alberta dated the fossils to about 99 million years old. A technique called synchrotron x-ray micro–computed tomography allowed the researchers to get a close look at the tiny specimens inside the amber without having to break them apart.

Wandering Star May Have Disrupted Outer Solar System's Order

Astronomers have been wrestling with a few puzzles about the neighborhood for a while now. First, there's just not nearly as much stuff out there, all told, as they would expect. Also, it's odd that Neptune is more massive than the closer-in Uranus. And many of the small objects in the outer swath — like Sedna, a strange dwarf planet — follow extreme, stretched orbits at stark angles to the rest of the solar system's more orderly inhabitants.
Those quirks suggest that something must have stirred up the pot after the planets and large moons clumped together and formed out of the cloud of dust surrounding our sun early in its life. One possible culprit is a star that might have slipped next to our solar system and tugged objects off their original paths, throwing some out of the solar system entirely and skewing the orbits of others.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Short Book Reviews: The Ghost Who Said No to a Mortal Life

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

This novel continues the story of Rose Marshall, killed in the 1950s when her car was forced off the road by a lunatic bent on immortality. She’s bound to the “ghost roads” (the name of this series), taking on physical form to steer drivers safely away from avoidable accidents and guide the newly dead to a more peaceful place. But Rose’s nemesis isn’t done with her, and now he’s scheming to harvest her soul to buy him more time. After he strips away her supernatural protections, she makes a desperate bid to be rid of him, but he’s a step ahead of her and she ends up in a mortal body. 

From there, as to be expected, matters descend into chaos as Rose realizes that she has become, essentially and forever, a road ghost. The changes a living person experiences, whether a cold or a cut or the slow aging of her cells, are now intolerably terrifying. The way back to her ghostly condition involves a journey to Hades to petition Persephone for aid, but a journey that depends entirely upon a human ally, the woman who had sworn vengeance on Rose for the death of the drag racer boyfriend.

The “Ghost Roads” series continues to delight me with its combination of angst-ridden narrative voice, plot convulsions, and moments of unexpected compassion and wisdom. My suggestion is to start at the beginning, because on the Ghost Roads, the ride is the destination.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Lace and Blade 5 Table of Contents Reveal

The fifth volume of Lace and Blade isn't scheduled for release until next Valentine's Day, but here's a sneak peek at the delicious treasures within. (Stay tuned for the cover reveal, and author interviews...)

by Dave Smeds
by Shariann Lewitt
by Harry Turtledove
by Gillian Polack
by India Edghill
by Doranna Durgin
by Marella Sands
by Adam Stemple
by Steven Harper
by Julia West
by Robin Wayne Bailey
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
by Pat MacEwen
by Anne Leonard

Monday, July 23, 2018

My WorldCon Schedule (yes, I actually have one)

There's a whole lot of outrage and discussion right now about the failure of WorldCon 2018 programming to accord even a single panel to many long-time professional authors. I'm not going to comment on that here, but to invite any of you who will be there to come hang out with me at my two events (I believe sign ups are necessary). I'd love to see you!

Kaffeeklatsch: Deborah J Ross

Format: Discussion Group
18 Aug 2018, Saturday 17:00 - 18:00, 211B1 (San Jose Convention Center)
Deborah J Ross

Writers Workshop #11

Format: Workshop
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 14:00 - 16:00, 212A (San Jose Convention Center)
Writing Workshops are one of the best opportunities to get your work in front of published authors and publishing professionals for advice and critique. The format is as follows:
Scheduled workshop participants will apply to submit the first 5,000 words of a work in progress (novel, essay, short story, novelette, screenplay, videogame script, etc.) via email to the Area Head for Writers Workshops. A panel of professionals will read your work in advance and then critique it at WorldCon76. There will be time for questions as well after each critique. Each workshop lasts 2 hours, so each work will receive 30 minutes of critique and 5 minutes for questions, with a 5 minute break between participants. There are three participants in each workshop. You'd be surprised at how much you can learn from someone else's critique.
Jason Schachat (M), Kevin Andrew Murphy, Deborah J Ross

Friday, July 20, 2018

Short Book Reviews: A Welsh Legend in Chicago

Rough Justice, by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press)

Continuing stories that center on the same cast of characters, advancing their relationships yet complete in themselves, face a number of hurdles. Whether linked short stories, novellas in this case, or entire novels, they must furnish enough backstory and setting to orient the reader. The first episode is in many ways the easiest; everything is new, nothing taken for granted. Often the protagonist explores the world via the plot, taking the reader along. In subsequent stories, the task requires progressively higher levels of finesse to give the reader the necessary history and detail in a smooth, unobtrusive fashion without interrupting the dynamic flow of action. Too much information will becalm the reader in a Sargasso Sea of exposition; too little creates disorientation and puzzlement.

At the same time, each story must stand on its own in terms of plot: inciting event, reversal, tension building to a resolution, and so forth. Not all ends need to be neatly tied up, but the reader should finish with a sense of satisfaction.

Rough Justice succeeds to a greater or less degree in these areas. Two concepts drive the story: a set of characters, avatars of ancient Welsh figures, who lead the Hunt, giant black red-eyed hounds and all, while wrestling with their previous incarnations and present lives (an attorney, a PI, and an ex-biker, all living just outside present day Chicago); and a very nifty murder mystery, complete with twisty turns, devious motives, and red herrings. PI Olivia (“Mathilda of the Hunt”) is on the brink of ordering the deadly finale to her first Hunt when her qualms allow the condemned man to escape. The Huntsmen claim to have an infallible supernatural method of determining guilt according to their “rough justice,” but Olivia isn’t convinced. She and her lover, attorney Gabriel (Gwynn in the old story) investigate what turns into a double murder/coverup/setup. That part is sneaky enough to please anyone who loves a puzzle.

The problems arise with the way the ancient Welsh myths play out in the lives of Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky (Arawn). There’s an enormous amount of backstory and lore including how these three learned of their past lives, their roles in the Hunt, history and rules for same, the romantic triangle between Mathilda, Gwynn, and Arawn and how it relates to Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky (or not). Plus the personal stories, relationships, and dark secrets of the three modern characters. This is where Rough Justice succeeds less well.

A certain amount of this setting and history is of course necessary but much more is presented in ways that paralyze the forward momentum of the pot. Although the story opens with the dramatic Hunt, it’s soon bogged down in backstory and long discussions of why the head Huntsman would set newbie Olivia up with a questionable verdict (and the question of whether the Huntsman is manipulating Olivia is never resolved).

On the other hand, Gabriel’s abusive, now-senile mother is being cared for by two women whose roles and relationships were never clear to me – family, professional caregivers, or fae guardians who strangely know little of Gabriel’s childhood? Therein lies the problem of trying to develop novel-length subplots in novella-sized chunks while reiterating everything that has gone before.

The setting and characters are intriguing enough to interest me in searching out the earlier installments of “Cainsville Tales” and certainly looking out for newer ones, especially if they contain similarly fascinating mysteries, but I can’t help thinking this tale would work better as a single-volume novel.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Definitely Not "The Princess Bride"

Kill the Farm Boy, by Kevine Hearne and Delilah S. Dawson, Del Rey

These days I’m on a Kevin Hearne reading spree (see my reviews of A Plague of Giants and The Squirrel on the Train) so I dove into Kill the Farm Boy, discovering to my delight that Hearne’s co-author, Delilah S. Dawson, is none other than another of my recent favorites, as Lila Bowen author of the excellent “The Shadow” series. Delight rapidly gave way to hilarity as this story unfolded, tackling one fantasy trope after another, turning them on their heads and planting petunias between their toes.

The titular farm boy is Worstley, younger brother of Bestley, who had been stabbed in the heart by Lord Ergot (if you don’t know what ergot is, pause now and look it up) for being too handsome. When a malicious pixie named Staph (aureus?) casts a spell to change Worstley into the Chosen One (and gives Gustave the goat the ability to speak, which he does in smart-ass style), it does not set well with The Dark Lord Toby (whose most powerful spell causes baked goods to rain from the sky). Opposing The Dark Lord Toby’s nefarious, yeastly plans are Fia, a 7-foot tall barbarian warrior, and her sweetheart, Argabella, a woman enchanted to be a half-rabbit, who incidentally is the world’s worst bard:
She … sang an improvised song of obfuscation:
We are not food
No sir Mister Monster
We taste super bad
Oh gods we are not food
Really really really
You gotta believe me
It’s hard to beat that.

The silliness isn’t restricted to spooks of characters from pose, verse, and film (although familiarity with J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, The Princess Bride, The Wizard of Oz, Grimm’s fairytales, Conan the Barbarian, and Norse mythology, to name a few, enhances the humor).

I found that I couldn’t read too many chapters at a sitting, but the play of tropes, not to mention the puns, kept me coming back for another fun visit to the Lands of Pell.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Update on The Laran Gambit

I just finished the first draft of The Laran Gambit, the next Darkover novel. Whew! Now to take a little time off to play and then dive into re-reading it and the first revision (which will include making sure the characters' names and eye colors are consistent, that the same conversation doesn't occur 12 times in as many chapters, that there aren't too many plot idiocies and so forth).

I am majorly proud of myself at the moment.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Short Book Reviews: More Steampunk Airship Adventures

By Fire Above, by Robyn Bemis, Tor

In this sequel to The Guns Above, Robyn Bemis continues the steampunk adventures of a woman airship captain.  Once again, Josette Dupree, captain of His Majesty’s Signal Airship Mistral, along with her intrepid crew and not-so-intrepid supercargo, aristocrat Lord Bernat Hinkal, have been given an impossible mission: with glamorous but woefully inadequate repairs to the airship, she is to play a largely ceremonial role at the capital city. None of the real damage the airship sustained in the last batter has been repaired, including the “steamjack” engines. The bags are filled not with expensive, inert luftgas but explosive “flammable air,” a very bad combination with an engine apt to throw off sparks. Needless to say, Josette is unprepared for the courtly intrigues into which she is suddenly propelled (and with which Bernat, who grew up in such a milieu, is happy to reverse roles and become her guide). In the air, conducting a battle in three dimensions, Josette is as cunning as she is courageous. But thrown into the viper’s nest of courtiers or forced to face her own romantic feelings for Bernat’s brother, she finds herself all too fallible.

Josette has no intention of becoming a trophy hero and soon maneuvers to lead a mission to free the border state where her estranged mother (and Bernat’s lover) lives. From there, one mishap after another balloons (excuse the pun) into disaster.

As in the first adventure, I was impressed by the detailed construction of the airships, as well as the scientific (hooray for physics and chemistry!), mathematical, and engineering principles involved, as well as the strategies when battles are fought in three dimensions (up/down as well as side/side and forward/backward). The action sequences were breathtaking. My reservation, as before, pertains to the creation of a political geography so akin to Western Europe that it made no sense to not use the actual nationalities and thereby avoid reader confusion with made-up names and cultures. That reservation aside, I heartily recommend the series and hope to see more Josette’s unfolding stories (and I expect to see her, like Horatio Hornblower, become admiral one day).