Friday, September 28, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Magic, Medicine, and PTSD

Witchmark, by C. L. Polk (Tor) is one of the most unusual and compelling love stories I’ve read this year. The setting, very much like England in the throes of national PTSD following the First World War, a magic-yielding aristocracy, a conflicted hero, and so forth, are familiar enough to be recognizable, yet integrated into a freshly imagined world.

A brutal war has dragged on to end in a draconian peace. Men returning from the front are all too often shattered in mind as well as body, although the effects of their trauma are poorly understood. In our own world, WW I veterans were said to suffer from “battle stress” or “shell shock,” and both were associated with cowardice or lack of moral strength. In this world, however, some of them carry a spiritual darkness within them, visible only to those with magical sight. One such is our hero, working as a physician under an assumed name to escape the enslavement of being a “second-class” magician. He alone makes a connection between the dark presence and the reports of his patients that a mysterious he wants them to murder their loved ones. Creating a metaphor for dissociation born out of guilt and trauma is one of the things I love about fantasy. In this case the darkness is also a real, separate thing, related to the retaliation plotted by the losing side in the war, but again, I found myself wondering at the parallels between Polk’s vengeful, decimated vanquished and the rise of the Nazi Party following the Treaty of Versailles. One of the hallmarks of thoughtful fantasy is how it invites us to look at our own world, our own lives, through new perspectives.

Witchmark, however, is not at all a diatribe about the root causes of war. It’s an intensely personal story of a man who, fleeing one sort of persecution (the exploitation of his magical talents), dedicates himself to healing and then, without meaning to, gets caught up in increasingly larger crises. Through this all, he forges a connection-of-the-heart with a man of another race, an Amaranthine, this world’s version of Fae. Like Fae, they are immortal or nearly so, and are said to be incapable to loving as humans do. All of this makes the slowly evolving love story between Miles Singer and Tristan Hunter both tender and bittersweet.

The book has a lot of different elements, from the murder mystery that launches the action to the politics of the hospital where Miles works, to the aristocratic magic-wielders who subjugate those of lesser talents, to the international politics, to the bicycles criss-crossing the city. It would all be too much in the hands of a less skillful author, but Polk introduces each aspect of the setting, characters, traditions, and drama in such an easy, natural fashion, they all fit effortlessly.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Today's Moment of Art

Yosemite Falls, by Sobrina P. Lathrop (1853 – 1919)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

My Story in It Happened at the Ball

My story, "A Borrowed Heart," appears in the new anthology, It Happened at the Ball, edited by Sherwood Smith.

Here's the skinny:

The pleasure of your company is requested.

Graceful feet tracing courtly steps.
Eyes behind jeweled masks meeting across a room of twirling dancers.
Gloved hands touching fleetingly—or gripping swords...

Anything can happen at a ball.

You are invited to enjoy these stories of fancy and fantasy from thirteen authors, framed in the splendor and elegance of a ballroom. Be it at a house party for diplomats and thieves, or Almacks in a side-universe in which the Patronesses have magic, or a medieval festival just after the plague years ...

Prepare to be swept into the enchantment of the dance!

"A Borrowed Heart" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Sept/Oct 2011), and was later reprinted in their Russian-language "Best of" magazine (2012). It also appears in my collection, Transfusion and Other Tales of Hope (2015).

You can buy the ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple/ITunes. A print edition is coming soon.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interviews: M P Erickson

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?

M P Ericson: I've been writing stories since I could hold a crayon. Somewhere I still have one I wrote when I was four. Also I was read to a lot, and taught myself to read. There were always plenty of books around. My grandmother owned a bookshop, and I pretty much lived there as a young child. I read everything I could reach. It was my dream to get my own stories up on the shelves with all the others.

DJR: What inspired your story in Sword and Sorceress 33?

MPE: I'd written a story from Katti's point of view (Crossing the Dead Line) and got interested in the relationship between her and Elyse. I've studied law and trained in martial arts, so exploring the contrast between the two was fun. Liane turned up at the practice ring, and the story grew from there.

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?

MPE: Tolkien is my biggest influence – I read The Lord of the Rings as a child, and it blew me away. The sense of a new world taking shape in the ruins of an old one resonated with me. I grew up in Sweden, where Viking Age rune stones and Bronze Age rock carvings are part of the landscape. Most of my stories have traces of an older and deeper story somewhere in the background, which the characters aren't quite aware of.

Astrid Lindgren and Maria Gripe inspire me with their wistful tone and clarity of style. PG Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett with their offbeat humour and startling use of language. And Jane Austen with her mischievous wit. Those are the other main influences. But I have a magpie mind, I pick things up from all over the place.

DJR: Why do you write what you do, and how does your work differ from others in your genre?

MPE: I'm usually trying to capture an idea. Mood and tone are important to me, like in music or art. Perhaps there's an intensity in my work that's a bit different to most. A mythic quality, if you like. Being a migrant has probably affected me as well. My characters tend to be on the move, travellers in one sense or another. And I'm interested in relationships between people, what they see in each other and how that reflects themselves. Theodora Goss may be the closest in the genre. I'm a great admirer of hers.

DJR: How does your writing process work?

MPE: I start with an image. Something that pings the story circuits at the back of my mind. Then a character shows up, and then an opening line. That's when I start writing. Usually by the time I get to the end of the first page I know what's coming next, and then I carry on until I find the ending. If I go completely off the rails, I start a fresh draft and seldom look back. So by the time I have a complete draft I'm pretty much where I want to be. Revisions tend to be light. Sometimes I realise I'm missing a scene, or have one in the wrong place. Apart from that it's mostly tidying up, correcting typos and so forth.

DJR: What have you written recently? What lies ahead?

MPE: I wrote an underwater story about a shark recently (At the Edge of the Watching Deep), which was interesting. I've got some novel ideas brewing as well. I'd love to get back to the Battlehawk series.

DJR: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

MPE:  Find your own process. There's so much great advice out there, but most of it probably won't work for you. That's OK. Just keep writing your own stories, and trust them to reach the right readers eventually. And do have an actual real life as well. Everything you experience becomes rich material for fiction, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

M P Ericson lives on the edge of a moor in Yorkshire, England, with an assortment of spiders and mice. Her stories have been published in magazines and anthologies all over the world.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Interstellar Chocolate Thieves

Free Chocolate, by Amber Royer (Angry Robot Books)
Ah, chocolate. It must be one of Earth’s finest natural creations, right? That’s the premise underlying this charming YA novel in which First Contact with all those alien worlds out there is not for the purpose of cultural exchange, mathematical enlightenment, military domination, or any of the hundreds of rationales. It’s to raid Earth of its chocolate! Well, and a few other things, too, like coffee and vanilla beans.

Within a short time, humans and alien races are mixing freely, some combinations with more success than others, and chocolate production is rigidly controlled by a huge corporation, HGB – Hershey, Godiva, and Bissinger -- which “sprouted in the wake of the First contact War. They quietly made proprietary trade agreements with other planets…making it the most powerful organization ofn the planet.” Bodacious Benitez is living her life as a student, dating a gorgeous guy from Krom (whose irises change color depending on his emotions), when she’s catapulted into an interplanetary scheme to liberate chocolate. Her mother hosts an immensely popular cooking show, bolstering the HGB image.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is its use of language. It’s told in first person, as is much YA today. Bo is fluent in several languages, notably English, Spanish (her birth language), and Portuguese. This makes sense when you think about it because most cacao-growing regions are Spanish or Portuguese speaking. Bo liberally strews her English with words in Spanish and teen-speak:

I need a hot shower and un poco alone time with Love Hurts, my favorite flufferiffic soap opera – a guilty pleasure Brill knows nada about. 
Icy certainty settles in my stomach. I am muerto. Pero, I keep fighting the womborg [a wombat cyborg] anyway. 
“Mamá, I only tell the celebarazzi things like how unfair it is that the chocolatiers have to work and extra hour…”

On the down side, the deliciousness of the language forced me to read more slowly than usual. Although most of the meanings can be deduced from context, I kept consulting my Kindle dictionary to get an added bit of certainty. This, combined with the length of the book, had the effect of flattening the dramatic intensity. There’s plenty of action in the story, but it takes place over such a stretched-out length that the overall shape of rising tension and climax, etc., is diminished. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hours spent with Bodacious, Brill, and their friends.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guest Blog: Jane Lindskold on Emotional Continuity in Series

Jane Lindskold has been writing full-time since 1994. She is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of over twenty-five novels, including the acclaimed Firekeeper Saga, Changer, and the sword and sorcery classic When the Gods Are Silent. Her most recently released novel is Asphodel. She has also had published over seventy short stories.

Welcome, Jane!

Editor Deborah J. Ross interviewed me about writing, my story in the forthcoming issue of Sword and Sorceress and other things. In it, I touch on how negative influences have had a strong impact on my writing.  Here’s an example.

Last week, I took a week off writing to immerse myself in various aspects of the Firekeeper universe before moving into the next part of the story.  One of the complications about writing the seventh novel in a series is how easily it is to gloss over small details.  Add to this that I haven’t written a Firekeeper novel in over a decade and the complexity grows.

By coincidence, my pleasure reading included a series I am enjoying very
much – especially for the evolving relationships of the central suite of characters.  I’m not going to go into details, but something I read made me think about an often neglected element of continuity – emotional continuity.

When something traumatic happens to a character, something that is key to a great deal of the action of that particular book, and then in the next book, something similar (but not identical) happens, I expect the characters to comment, to remember.  When they don’t, my sense that the characters are “real” suffers.

I’m not saying that the author must provide  a full recap of past events, not at all.  However, real people remember what happened to them and those memories influence how they act in the future.  Indeed, one could argue that our core self consists of an accumulated suite of experiences.  Whenever something new happens, we seek to understand it by relating it to what we have experienced before.  When something recurs, the most common reaction is “Here we go again!”   Even new experiences are often understood by how they relate to past ones: “I’ve had milk chocolate with fruit and nuts, but never with chile pepper flakes!”

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Today's Moment of Art

Coastal Scene With Figures And Ships, by Melbourne Havelock Hardwick (1857 – 1916)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Auntie Deborah's Advice to a Young Writer Suffering From Writer's Block

As a young writer, you’re probably grappling with learning many different literary skills at once. One is how to write a story, any length story. Another is how to determine the best length for a story idea. When I started selling professionally, over 30 years ago, the conventional wisdom was to begin with short stories and master craft issues at what was presumed a more manageable length, then go on to novels. (And this is what I did.) Since then I’ve met (and become friends as well as colleagues with) writers whose natural story length is long. Novels. Trilogies. Series. After years of writing at a pro level, most of then can write short as well, but it would have been a bad choice to begin with. Most, however, are just the opposite.

So one possibility is that you’re attempting a novel before you have all the necessary literary tools. You may have a solid beginning idea but not the skill to develop it into enough substance to sustain 100K words, so you’re running out of steam, as it were. Perhaps you don’t know where the story is going and have written yourself into a dead alley, but don’t yet have the critical eye to see where you tied yourself into knots.

Another possibility, as I indicated above, is that a novel isn’t your natural story length. You may be trying to stretch a short story-sized idea over 500 pages. Or you may have insufficient twists and turns and whatever nifty stuff lights you up about writing so that all the fun has gone out of it.

Whatever you do, though, don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many of us who’ve gone on to successful careers writing novels have trunks of unfinished novels. If yours isn’t a source of joy, set it aside. Or steal the juicy bits and weave them together with new! improved! sparkly! bits. Try writing short or short-short. Try poetry. Write journal entries. Blog. Keep at it — and notice when you hit your stride. In other words, go where the fun is. The fun and the heartbreak and the adrenaline. That’s what will sustain you page after page, novel after novel, for an entire career.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Sword and Sorceress 33 Author Interviews: Jane Lindskold

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?
Jane Linskold: I’ve been a storyteller since I was very young, but I didn’t really make any sort of focused effort to write those stories down until I was a college undergraduate.  By the time I finished my PhD, I knew that I wanted to be a fiction writer.  Therefore, as soon as my dissertation was completed, I put the time I’d been using to write that into writing fiction.  I had a lot of rejections, but finally started selling.

DJR:  What inspired your story in Sword and Sorceress 33?
JL: As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in the non-human perspective.   For various reasons, I found myself wondering what it would like to be a familiar.  Many Fantasy stories feature familiars, but I couldn’t think of any where they weren’t either sage advisors, flippant commentators on the action, or (worst of all) simply another tool in the wizard’s kit.  I decided to try my hand at writing a story from the familiar’s point of view, and this is what resulted.  I very much like both the (currently nameless) familiar and the people it meets.  I definitely plan to write more about them.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Victims No More

Fury, by Rachel Vincent (Harlequin)

This is yet another book I’ve innocently dived into, unaware it was part of a series. “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.

Rachel Vincent’s Fury definitely falls into this category. For the first couple of chapters I vacillated between “this is a sequel and I can’t keep straight who and what all these characters are” to “this is a stand-alone that brilliantly weaves the backstory into the present, trusting the reader to gradually put it all together.”

The book begins with parallel stories from the past and present. In the past, we learn of a mysterious rash of murders that leave one child survivor, always a six-year-old. In the present, a small band of cryptids (werewolves, redcaps, oracles, a minotaur, and the like), having escaped a brutal captivity, struggle to maintain their freedom while tracking down their abusers. Their journeys kept me reading on, dying of curiosity about how the two story lines would come together, and I was quickly so in love with these characters that discovering there were not one but two previous novels filled me not with disappointment but anticipation. There’s lots more, even if I read them in the wrong order. You, on the other hand, can reap the benefit of my experience and start at the beginning.

In some ways, this book made me think of the flip side of Seanan McGuire’s “Incryptid” series, which I like very much and have reviewed elsewhere. In McGuire’s world, as Vincent’s, these nonhuman people are at tremendous risk from the mundane world, only there is an extended family devoted to their protection and preservation. While it’s a terrible shame such heroes do not exist in the world of Fury, here the cryptids are their own saviors, which makes for a different but no less satisfying tale.

The usual disclaimer: I received an advance reading copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Today's Moment of Art

Clark Hulings (1922-2011): Covered Market, Guanajuato, Mexico

Friday, September 7, 2018

Short Book Reviews: An Unrealistic Depiction of Recovery

The Shifting Pools, by Zoë Duncan (Trafalgar Square Publishing)

I requested a review copy of this book based on its description: 
Fleeing war and the death of her family, Eve has carefully constructed a new life for herself in London. Yet she is troubled by vivid, disturbing dreams, symptoms of her traumatic past, which intrude increasingly on her daily life. As she is drawn further into her dream world, she finds herself caught up in a fresh battle for survival. A dark, lyrical fantasy about healing and reconnecting with the full richness of the self.

As the family member of a murder victim, I am especially interested in stories of survival and healing. Although competently written on a prose level, The Shifting Pools turned out to be an example of telling the reader how to feel. (Actually, bashing the reader over the head.) Sections alternate between modern London, where Eve has begun psychotherapy (not, as the author says, psychoanalysis, a mistake that threw me out of the story!), Eve’s childhood trauma, Eve’s dreams that make no more sense than any other dreams, and a “fantasy” fairy tale that lacks the internal structure, sense, and mythic elements that make such a tale work psychologically.

Besides being confused by constantly switching from one brief scene to another, I found each thread unbelievable. I’ve already remarked on the fairy tale. Although Eve and her family are brutalized by an invading army, they read like an ordinary Western family. Given what has been happening to refugees in the past few centuries, this depiction of white privilege, with all its wealth and resources, struck me as shallow. Certainly, wealthy people can be victims of violence, but in this case there was the opening for a deeper cultural context.

More than that, modern Eve didn’t feel like a person grappling with buried trauma. Her journey into the dark places of her own psyche came across as superficial and trite, much too easily accomplished, without the soul-deep agony and strength of real survivors. The list of references at the end is light on psychology, and includes the outdated psychoanalytic work of Frankl and Jung but none of the modern understanding of PTSD and its treatment. Medication, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), PE (prolonged exposure) and other clinically proven methods aren’t even mentioned. The result might be poetic and overly dramatic but struck me as not at all realistic. My suggestion is to go spend some time with people who actually have survived PTSD and listen to how they talk because I didn’t believe Eve was one of them.

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

Short Book Reviews: Another Bannerless Winner from Carrie Vaughn

The Wild Dead, by Carrie Vaughn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I loved Vaughn’s Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Bannerless, and eagerly dove into this, its sequel. Vaughn’s vision of an egalitarian, post-collapse world struck me as a welcome and necessary antidote to the commonly portrayed descent into dog-eat-dog chaos. In her world, people worked cooperatively after “The Fall” to select and preserve technology and to establish social structures that promoted communities living in ecological balance, carefully limiting overconsumption, overproduction and birth rate. In other words, the survivors were intelligent about how they went about rebuilding civilization. That’s just the background, the setting, to the murder mysteries in Bannerless and The Wild Dead.

Given lots of knowledge but scarce forensic resources due to a generation-ago picking and choosing, how would you go about solving a murder? You know basic chemistry and anatomy, and you have solar power and well-machined instruments, but have no way to analyze DNA, trace evidence, or microscopic kerf marks. When Enid and her apprentice, Teeg, arrive at the Estuary as investigators, this world’s traveling magistrates, their initial task, the one they’ve been requested to adjudicate, pertains to the fate of an old house that’s one of the few relics of “Before” yet is too badly damaged to be easily repairable.

As they examine the issue of the house, a body washes up in the river, a young woman of the wild folk who live outside the communities of Coast Road, and it’s up to Enid and Teeg to solve the murder. Without modern forensics or knowledge of the history and social interactions of the Estuary households, yet with a deep moral sense and compassion for this unknown victim, Enid dives into the case. As with Bannerless, Enid’s own intelligence and intuitive understanding of human nature guide her to the unexpected but perfectly prepared result.

I can’t praise Vaughn’s work highly enough. The elegance of her prose rises and falls like harmonic waves, from serviceably transparent to downright poetic, enhancing the emotional beats. Even her secondary characters are beautifully depicted. Most of all, I admire her decision to place her unusual murder mysteries in a world that gives me hope for the survival of sanity and kindness.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Belated 2018 WorldCon Report

With fellow Book View Cafe author, Madeleine Robins
I confess to a love-hate relationship with big conventions. I love the energy. I love seeing friends and colleagues from all over the world, particularly since most of the time, I am something of a hermit, nesting in my redwood forest. The prospect of so many of us getting together in one place at one time is intoxicating. Likewise, the richness of the programming (in this case), the celebration of creators and fans, is powerfully attractive. On the other hand, big conventions like WorldCon never come at the right time in my life. There seems to be a universal constant that says t(WC) = D(stress)max, where t = time, WC = WorldCon, and D = Deborah.

This year was no exception. The reasons are many and mostly personal, but suffice it to say that when August rolled around, I had not had an emotional break or a chance to fully recover from earlier events. When I pushed “Send” to email the latest Darkover novel to the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust (which holds the copyright and must give their approval before it goes to the editor), I felt as if I needed a month’s “dodo time.” Dodo time being an expanse of possibilities without any expectations of productivity.

Nevertheless, I had made a commitment while my brain was under the influence of the first paragraph. I had requested (and been granted) several events, including an autographing session, hosting a KaffeKlatch, and being a pro writer for the writers workshop. Stories from participants had been duly received, read, and critiqued. Not only that, but my publisher, DAW, would be in attendance, and I’d set up meetings with both my editors.

Since San Jose, locale of this year’s WorldCon, is local to me, I had originally intended to commute from home (an hour-plus drive, mostly along twisty mountain roads), but my friend and fellow writer, Juliette Wade, invited me to stay with her — and to drive us both. So Friday morning, I presented myself at her place, and she and I and her kids, and the wonderful Kate Johnston headed for San Jose.

This is what WorldCons are like for me: I see a panel or twenty I’d love to hear, I start in that direction, I meet a friend I haven’t seen in x years (where x = 1-30), we hug, catch up on news both personal and professional, we each say we have a panel to get to, I return to my path, I go five paces, I seen another friend, and so forth. It’s a sort of Brownian motion and almost always results in many joyful reunions and lively conversations but few if any panels attended.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018