Friday, January 31, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Plague of Magic

The Fever King, by Victoria Lee (Skyscape)

I loved the premise of this Young Adult fantasy thriller: a plague has swept the former United States, in the form of a magic-carrying virus. Most who are stricken die, but those few survivors now possess magic. Refugees seeking virus-free zones add to the social upheaval. One man, Calix Lehrer, an immensely powerful magic wielder, has survived from the beginning, and now rules the nation of Carolinia from behind the throne. 

The story follows refugee Noam Álvaro through his infection with the virus, his recovery, his new magical powers, and his recruitment into a elite corps of young magicians. As such, he is lifted from the refugee slums into a life of luxury, attending private high school and one-on-one tutoring with the great Calix Lehrer.

This part of the story, with echoes of Harry Potter but also Noam’s loyalty to the memory of his father and the refugees who were once his own people, drew me into the world. Slowly Noam makes friends, including the charismatically brilliant, beautiful boy, Dana, for whom Noam develops a passionate crush. The burgeoning attraction between the two was handled with sensitivity and forthrightness, as was Dana’s anguish about the secrets he is forced to keep.

As the story progressed, however, it seemed to lose the moral compass that was so much a part of the earlier part. Often fictional characters may seem to be either good or bad and then turn out to be the opposite or a complex blend. That’s true in this book as well. However, certain actions remain in one category or the other, especially for younger readers. Among them are a protagonist committing deliberate murder and the sexual exploitation of a young person by an older, far more powerful person. I don’t mean that these things cannot appear in YA literature, but that they must have appropriate context and consequences. They are not, and must not be, morally neutral. Perhaps other readers will feel differently about how these issues were depicted, but I found myself with the equivalent of an ethical hangover after finishing what was otherwise an engrossing tale.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Tajji Diaries: A Story of Her Own

This blog was first posed in 2015. Tajji has since gone over the Rainbow Bridge, but her spirit remains with us. I read an excerpt from this story, "Four Paws To Light My Way" at FogCon last year.

Tajji, our elderly German Shepherd Dog, came to live with us a little over a year ago when she retired from seeing eye guide dog work. She learned new behaviors in the process of “being just a dog.” Her behavior also showed us some of the many things dogs who help the blind must learn. Some of these are responses to commands. Tajji knows “Go Right,” “Go Left,” “Easy (slow down),” and “Back,” for instance. She was also able to enter a mall (a chaotic place for a dog) with her blind person and, never having been in this place before, guide him to an elevator, escalator, or rest room.

We also noticed other behaviors from her training. She would remain lying down in the same place after we had stepped over her, touching her. Not moving would allow a blind person to remember where she is (and not trip over her, at least, not twice.) She uses a gentle nose touch as a greeting (as do most dogs; it’s polite) but also to let us know when she has come to sit beside us. She asks for attention by touching an arm, sometimes neatly inserting her nose underneath a hand. In fact, she initiates physical contact so much we suspect she was not only trained to do so, but bred for the predisposition.

All of this got my writer’s imagination started thinking about different ways dogs can be partners with humans. Years ago, I loved watching movies about Zato-ichi, a blind swordsman in Japan. He had preternatural hearing, and his ears would twitch when he heard an enemy approach, undoubtedly a theatrical device to point out to the audience what was happening internally. Since I was preparing to write a story for Sword and Sorceress 30, the idea came to me of a blind swordswoman – and putting Tajji in the story. How would they interact? What could the dog tell my character and how? 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Math Genius and the Disappointing Sequel

Null Set, A Cas Russell Novel, by S. L. Huang (Tor)

I loved S. L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game, and Cas Russell, whose superpower is her ability to make lightning-fast mathematical calculations. She works at such irregular and occasionally dubiously legal jobs as tracking down missing persons, and enjoys an uneasy but devoted friendship with psychopath, Rio. At the end of the first book, a world-wide mind-control conspiracy had been defeated after many struggles and reversals. Null Set picks up where Zero Sum Game left off, with Cas and her gang facing rising gang violence, the result of eliminating the aforementioned mind control, and she herself beset by newly resurfacing memories of a previous personality, and a telepath bent on trying to help her before whatever was done to her to give her those memories kills her. Confused? So was I, for much of the story.

Alas, Null Set feels like either a sequel that author hadn’t planned on or the flabby middle book of a series. Cas spends way too much time agonizing over this or that, tormented by fragmentary memories, unwilling to ask her devoted friends for help, and in general not accomplishing much. When she hits upon a solution to the looming gang war, she only ends up having to undo it because if people are now unable to feed off each other’s anger, they are equally immune to sharing hope. Suicide and addiction rates skyrocket. I found myself wondering what the point of it was, since we would end up right back where we started.

It felt as if the ideas and plot of a novella or maybe an even shorter novelette got stretched out into novel length. I’d loved feisty, independent Cas in the first book, but now found her indecision, unwillingness to trust anyone, and general crankiness annoying. Even her very cool mathematical genius couldn’t compensate for the loss of sympathy as a character. There’s supposed to be a third book, but I think I’ll skip it and consider Zero Sum Game as a nice, tidy stand-alone.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cover reveal: Collaborators

I'm re-issuing my Lambda Literary Award Finalist novel, Collaborators, in an author's revised version, with additional maps and blog posts about writing the book. It's slated to be released March 10, 2020, from Book View Cafe, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine outfits, in print and ebook editions. Stay tuned for sneak peeks and more details.

Here's the first look at the cover, designed by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff:

Friday, January 17, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Treasure from Lisa Goldstein

Ivory Apples, by Lisa Goldstein (Tachyon)

Lisa Goldstein is one of the treasures of fantasy literature, with each new work a gem. Ivory Apples is, I think, her best yet. It centers around a book of the same name, one of those magical favorites that gets re-read a hundred times by obsessive fans, that helps readers weather desolate times, and that spawns fan clubs, websites, and entire conventions devoted to the story, its character, and its mysterious author. It’s also the secret in the lives of young Ivy and her three remarkable sisters. From as long as she can remember, her Great-Aunt Maude has been a recluse, an extreme introvert terrified of publicity, the family visits to her remote home never to be spoken of. For not only is Maude the author of Ivory Apples, she wrote it while partnered with an actual Muse. Soon the entire family becomes the target of Kate, manipulative and unscrupulous and single-mindedly set on getting a Muse of her own. I found myself swept up and captivated by the story in very much the same way Maude’s readers have been transformed by Ivory Apples. This book is a true treasure, worthy of multiple re-readings, a perfect holiday gift for the child in all of us.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Monday, January 13, 2020

In Troubled Times: Rumors of War

World War II cast a long shadow, and my generation was born in the aftermath. Then the shadow burgeoned into a decades-long frenzy of terror of communism. The Soviet Union was the incarnation of evil, of course, and war was ever imminent. Not just any war, though, for the atomic genie had been released from its bottle. The world came perilously close on a number of occasions. In between crises, every international twitch was scrutinized, analyzed, and dissected. Meanwhile, we kids were practicing “duck and cover,” as if hiding under a school desk could protect us from a nuclear blast.

Presidents came and presidents went, and the threat of annihilation waxed and waned but never left us. We focused on smaller wars where we had the illusion we could actually change the world. As it turned out, all those protest marches against the Viet Nam War did make a difference in the end, although at the time it didn’t seem so. In retrospect, I believe the sense of powerlessness and insignificance caused as much damage to our confidence in the future as any military threat. Which is not to say that the threat of nuclear war was not real, but rather that my generation internalized it in a way that left us vulnerable to being triggered by other events.

Humans aren’t very good at estimating the relative danger of various things. We exaggerate some risks and minimize others. Some dangers frighten us out of all proportion to the odds of them happening to us. We casually ignore other things that are much more likely to injure or kill us. The possibility of war and its affect on us, personally and nationally and globally, is no exception. We panic or we shrug or we pretend or we drive our fears into our subconscious minds, where they erupt as irrational behavior or nightmares.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Saving the World from Cursed Objects

Trifles and Folly (A Deadly Curiosities Collection), by Gail Z. Martin, and Trifles and Folly 2 (SOL Publishing)

“Trifles and Folly” is the name of an antique store in Charleston, South Carolina, run by Cassidy Kincaide, with a bit of help from Teague, her magically talented hacker and weaver-witch assistant, and Sorren, vampire and silent business partner. But it’s not an ordinary store, it’s a front for the collection, safeguarding, and occasionally the destruction of magically dangerous objects.

In the early stories, each featuring a different cursed or otherwise evilly charged object, Cassidy is new to the business of keeping the world safe from ghouls, ghosts, and wraiths. She’s just coming into her own as a psychometrist who can experience the history of those who owned those objects, as well as forming a network of allies, each with their own particular skill. My favorites were “Father Anne,” an Episcopal priest skilled in exorcism, and “Bo,” the ghost of Cassidy’s golden retriever, still fiercely loyal and protective.

 As the stories unfold, Cassidy gains in skill and experience. The bonus stories to the first volume feature Sorren in his early life, a mere century into his vampiric existence, charged after the death of his maker with continuing the work through the shop, Vanities, a precursor to Trifles and Folly. I love that Sorren isn’t infallible, and that even his vampiric strength can be overcome with sufficiently ancient and evil sorcery. Like Cassidy, he finds allies, both human and supernatural. His shortcomings and limitations give him add to him being a sympathetic character.

Although the entries in the first volume are all short stories, those in the second include longer novellas. The “Deadly Curiosities” novel series offers even more complex delights for readers like me who find the characters and their challenges enchanting in the best possible way.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Sexuality in Fantasy

For a number of years, I had the privilege of editing the anthology series, Lace and Blade. The concept was a certain flavor of elegant, romantic sword and sorcery, witty and stylized, sensual yet with plenty of swashbuckling action (think The Scarlet Pimpernel with magic). Because the publishers wanted to release the first volume for Valentine’s Day, I contacted a group of seasoned professional authors, people I could depend on to understand what I was looking for and to deliver top quality stories to deadline. For various reasons, the publisher insisted that the second volume be open to submissions. If I had any idea what I was getting myself into, I would have refused. Insulated in the world of competent fantasy writers and readers who are versed in the grandeur of everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Tanith Lee, I was ill-prepared for what mundanes think of when they hear “fantasy.”

Needless to say, when I talk about sexuality or eroticism or sensuality or gender issues in fantasy, I do not mean pornography. It seems that for far too many people, sexuality is such an emotionally difficult subject that instead of facing it honestly, discussing it openly, they shroud it in prurience and embarrassment, or else turn it into something salacious or forbidden. Yet just about every human being over the age of puberty has had sexual feelings (notice my delicate use of qualifiers). So if sexuality in fantasy does not mean “your most lascivious and pornographic imaginings, regardless of whether you’d really like to do these things, because how would you know what you enjoy if you’ve never been permitted to experiment?” what is the role of sexuality in fantasy? Does it even have one? Should we keep sex out of fantasy literature, restrict the love stories to a chaste kiss now and again, and keep the hero/ine’s mind firmly fixed on nobler causes?

I believe that sex is such a powerful force in human lives that it is impossible to portray the full scope of emotions and motivations without it. People might not, for a whole panoply of reasons, act on their sexual desires, but they have them. They have them in wildly inappropriate situations, as well as those times and places that nurture genuine emotional intimacy. The feelings are ignored or fulfilled, misdirected or frustrated, overly indulged or denied utterly. Freud had a few things to say about what happens when such a basic drive does not find healthy expression, and although his theories were dead wrong on many counts, he was not mistaken about the fact that sex will not go away simply because society (aka The Authorities, secular or clerical) disapprove. So already, we have two ways in which considerations of sexuality are important to any story: character development and world-building.

What are the attitudes and practices regarding sexuality in this culture? Is it permissive, repressive, or a combination? Is marriage live-long or fixed-term? Monogamous, polygamous, polyandrous? Do different cultures in your world treat love, sexuality, and marriage in the same way? (For example, how are sexual fidelity and jealousy regarded? Is marriage a personal or a business relationship? Who determines what is acceptable in sexual behavior? Have norms changed over time and if so, why? What are the social, moral or legal consequences of transgressions? Are there times, places, or partners for whom “anything goes”?

Friday, January 3, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Jaguar Shapeshifter Murder Mystery

A Study in Shifters, by Majanka Verstraete (Monster House)

This murder mystery set in a high school for shape shifters falls squarely within the “School for Supernaturals” category, so if Harry-Potter-with-wereteens is your cup of tea, this book is for you. Even more so, Marisol Holmes is the heir to the jaguar clan, which holds the throne among shifters, and she’s the descendent of the legendary detective. At the beginning of the story, she’s still reeling from what she refers to as “The Big Betrayal,” in which her much-loved cousin died, and also in which she trusted the wrong charismatic, manipulative, devilishly handsome suitor. To make matters worse, she’s unable to shift into her jaguar form and is desperate to keep that failure a secret.

Now Marisol must earn her place in the law enforcement Conclave again by solving the murder of a high school student from a rival, leopard clan. On the surface, it looks very much as if the jaguar clan (and therefore Marisol’s mother, the Queen) are going to be ousted as a result of their role in the murder. Marisol suspects the evidence is a setup, planted for political reasons. Now all she has to do is find out who really did it, while dealing with her snake shifter supervisor and the haunting memories of her past. Has Mannix, the suitor who lured her into the plot that killed her cousin, returned and if so, for what purpose? (I found it no coincidence that Mannix and Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis, begin with M.) Then there’s Roan, fellow jaguar shifter and intimate pen pal, who’s mysteriously disappeared after attending the same high school Marisol is investigating.

A Study in Shifters fits neatly into the magical high school and teen detective murder mysteries categories. It’s similar enough to stories of both types to be immediately accessible – the students even make reference to Harry Potter. Yet the elements of the shifter clans and their politics and abilities offer fresh, original material, and the mystery unfolds in unexpected ways that kept me turning the pages. I loved Marisol’s “inner jaguar” and her perfectly depicted teenager uncertainties. Marisol is faced with not only solving the mystery but coming to terms with her own nature and choices. For me, that makes for an immensely satisfying story. I look forward to more from this author.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020