Friday, February 26, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Magical Hands as a Tool of Racial Justice

Trouble the Saints
, by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Tor)

The core of the magic in this edgy, often disturbing fantasy is that the anguish of slaves was so deep, so powerful, that it created a spell persisting to the modern age. This takes the form of bespelled hands – hands that can detect a person’s darkest secrets, hands that can tell the future – and hands that crave justice. In 1940s New York, the descendants of those slaves, men and women gifted with magical hands, often end up on the wrong side of the law. Phyllis, the first of these characters, is an enforcer for a white mobster, his “avenging angel.” Her best friend, Tamara, dances with a snake and tells fortunes at the mobster’s night club. And Dev, who loves them both, is a bartender by night and police informant by day. But someone has been targeting Blacks and harvesting their hands…

Trouble the Saints is a difficult book to describe. It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it is an important book, fearlessly delving into issues of racism, injustice, murder, greed, and forgiveness.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Creating Characters in a Shared World

One of the most challenging aspects of continuing Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series--or any world invented by another author, for that matter--has been the portrayal of characters that are not my own. Most were created by Marion herself, but some came from one or another of the writers she had worked with before me. A case in point is Marguerida Alton, who began as a small child in Marion’s books but was brought to adult life, much to the delight of many readers, in the Darkover novels written by Adrienne Martine-Barnes.

To begin with, writing someone else’s characters is a no-win situation. No matter how carefully you, the new writer, study what has been done before, pouring through notes and out-takes and letters as well as published material, you’re going to get something wrong. Or perhaps not wrong but different. This is primarily because we are all individuals. Each creative vision, each way of working with characters, is unique. Added to that are the variations inherent in each story.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Short Book Reviews: My Introduction to Rebecca Roanhorse's Work

Black Sun
, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

This novel was my introduction to the work of Rebecca Roanhorse, of whom I had heard a great deal. From the beginning, I was struck by the originality of her world and cultures that were at once relatable and quite different from the typical Western-European-derived canon. Set in a fantasy pre-Columbian (or non-Columbian?) Central America, the story weaves together the lives of disparate characters, who will all come together at “the Convergence,” a predicted eclipse. The story is told from multiple points of view, jumping back and forth in time. This is often a recipe for reader confusion and disengagement, but I found the characters compelling enough to hold my interest and to welcome each new section. I found the jumps in time distracting and largely unnecessary, but I admit to a personal preference for chronologically linear stories. In the end, though, it was the novelty and richness of the world that enchanted me.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Yet Another Evacuation, The Report

Half a block from us

I live in the mountains in a redwood forest in Central Coast California. I love this place and the deep serenity it has brought me. But there’s a down side to every locale, and wildfires are part of the ecology of this region. Much of the plant life, including redwoods, has evolved to survive and even thrive with periodic conflagrations. Humans, on the other hand, aren’t too fond of having their homes burned down, so they put out little fires, allow underbrush to build up, and are loathe to control flammable invasive species (like broom). Increasingly long, hot, dry summers that are the result of climate change turns the region, like many in the West, into a tinderbox. Last summer’s freak lightning storm ignited thousands of small fires that merged into huge ones. I’ve written earlier about my experience being evacuated and watching, day by day, as fires engulfed this area but the heroic efforts of fire fighters spared my own street.

Almost as soon as the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, local authorities began an campaign of education and preparation for the next phase of this rolling disaster: debris flows. Debris flows are a type of mudslides.

Debris flows … are fast-moving downslope flows of mud that may include rocks, vegetation, and other debris. These flows begin during intense rainfall as shallow landslides on steep slopes. The rapid movement and sudden arrival of debris flows pose a hazard to life and property during and immediately following the triggering rainfall.1

In other words, debris flows are rivers of cement 15 or more feet high and moving at up to 40 mph. If you can see it, it’s too late. There’s no way to prepare except to get out of the way. Debris flows caused massive property damage and over 20 fatalities in 2018 in Montecito, Southern California. Our local agencies were understandably concerned.

We all studied the maps of debris flow risk and watched the weather forecast. November and December passed with only occasional gentle showers, well belong the threshold for triggering a debris flow. Some of us began to relax, hoping for a dry “La Niña” year. Old timers warned that often the real rains don’t set in until January. They were right.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Mystery, Mayhem, and Magical Sigils

 Ink & Sigil: From the world of The Iron Druid Chronicles, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

A delightful, stand-alone book and introduction to a whimsically wonderful system of magic, complete with supernatural beings and Glaswegian (that’s Glasgow-ian) accent. Not to mention its pervasive sense of raunchy humor. Before getting started, the author provides an introduction with pronunciation and dialect guide. I found the language hilarious, never mind the characters and plot, because when I moved to this (remote, forested) area, there was a pub a few miles out of town. The White Cockade (check your history for the meaning) was owned and bartended by a Glasgow émigré with an accent roughly equivalent to talking around bits of glass. The only way to understand him was to turn off the front part of your brain and let the words seep in through the back of your skull. Several minutes later, all would be made clear. Which resulted in interesting timing of conversation. Nice guy, though. Great cook of pub food.

So here I am in a first-person Glaswegian dialect narration, whooping with laughter and in general enjoying the story immensely. That’s pretty much all you need to know, other than there’s a reason why the Sigil Master’s apprentices keep dying of such causes as eating scones with raisins. To make matters worse, the above-mentioned Sigil Master has been cursed in such a way that if he speaks directly to a person long enough, they are seized by a sudden and violent hatred of him, no matter how loving or trusting their previous relationship was.  Although Ink and Sigil swept through a page-turning climax to a most satisfying ending, I hope to see more of its characters.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Having Fun With Women Characters in Thunderlord (aka “Jane Austen on Darkover”)

Across genres, we accept the importance of bonds between brothers; I would argue that in speculative fiction, at least, we give less weight to the loyalty and emotional intimacy between sisters. This may be due to the domestic setting for sisterly concerns. Brothers march off to war together, but sisters hold hands when one is giving birth. If one or both is unmarried, sisters set up housekeeping together, often living their entire lives under the same roof. Yet the relationship between sisters opens many fascinating and challenging story possibilities.

I’ve found that once I step away from the models of male-bonding or male-female romantic love as the only possibilities for central relationships, my stories get a lot more interesting and also emotionally powerful. They don’t necessarily have to be the sole or pivotal bonds in a story. Just as in real life, they form a critical foundation for any social setting.

Thunderlord’s  emotional heart is the relationship between the two Rockraven sisters, Kyria and Alayna. This being Darkover, I also included plenty of action and adventures — banshees and laran and bandits, oh my. Through all this — and a love story or two — the sisters are so integral to the tale that at times I felt as if I were channeling Elizabeth and Jane from Pride and Prejudice (or Marianne and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility). Sisters are not always close, but when they are, the relationships are complex, rich, and enduring. Lovers may come and go, the saying goes, but sisterhood is forever.

I didn’t set out to write “The Bennett Sisters on Darkover.” I began with a few pages of Marion’s notes on a sequel to Stormqueen, almost all of it backstory, and the title of the proposed book. I didn’t want to repeat the general plot of Stormqueen or its tragic ending, and I also wanted to experience whatever adventure the story took me on through the eyes of fresh, new characters.

Although the Rockraven family isn’t anything like the Bennetts, I kept finding similarities: a noble but impoverished family, the pressure for one or both girls to secure the family’s financial future by their marriages, their wistful longing to marry for love, how the sisters are different but devoted to each other, and so forth. There are no balls in the neighborhood, no mother with imaginary illnesses scheming to “make a good marriage” for her daughters, no problem about the inheritance of the estate, and certainly no Mr. Darcy to be unpleasant to everyone. Practical Kyria deals with her family’s poverty by donning her brother’s clothes and trapping animals for food. Romantic Alayna dreams of love stories while understanding that such a happy ending means they must be parted, most likely forever. Distances on Darkover are much greater than in Regency England!

Friday, February 5, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Orphans and Swordswomen and Haunted Houses, Oh My!

The Orphans of Raspay
, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Subterranean)

Another Penric adventure! With pirates! Calloo callay!

Our stalwart cleric, host to the chaos demon Desdemona, is returning from a routine (read: tedious) mission when his ship is taken over by pirates. He and the rest of the passengers are to be sold as slaves at the nearest port, once free but now ruled by aforementioned evil-doers. While captive, he encounters two young girls destined for the same fate. While he is confident that he’ll either be ransomed or able to negotiate his freedom through his (and Des’s) penchant for persuasion, the girls have no such resources. Of course, he takes them under his protection, which complicates and lends special urgency to escape efforts.

I loved seeing new aspects of Penric, who is as resourceful and determined as evr, as well as watching his relationship with Desdemona evolve yet further. And really, Captured by Pirates is a great way to begin any story.


Burning Roses, by S. L. Huang (

I loved S. L. Huang’s Null Set, which is science fiction (ish), with a heroine whose superpower is her genius at mathematics. Burning Roses takes us into the realm of fantasy with two aging women dragon hunters in a world in which humans can assume animal form, and distinguishing between them and true beasts poses critical moral questions. Each woman has her own tragic background, her own guilt, and her own path toward redemption. Rose, a European who came to this Asian-inspired land with her lover and daughter, has a long and tortured history through twisted fairy tales. The story pits the healing power of friendship against the crippling belief that one is beyond forgiveness. I loved the depth of the book, and also that the dragons are feathered, a bit like phoenixes. It’s not a long book, but one that should be read slowly, pondered over, and savored.


The House on Widows Hill, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)

Ishmael Jones, intrepid (and extraterrestrial) secret agent, takes on a haunted house, along with his charming companion, Penny. The story opens with a peek into Ishmael’s history, hints of the space ship crash that landed him on Earth and the existence of a second survivor. In return for help locating another of his kind, he agrees to investigate an old house with a nasty reputation. It’s the usual set-up, with Ishmael, Penny, and an assortment of psychics and ghost-hunters and such agreeing to spend an entire night in the house. Of course, spooky things happen. Of course, Ishmael and Penny don’t for a second believe these are due to supernatural apparitions.

Of course, things then take a seriously twisted turn, one even Ishmael can’t explain away.

The opening of the book felt comfortably familiar, with the legends and warnings about the house, the introduction and frictions between the guests, and the early, inexplicable events. But this is Ishmael Jones at work, and the story unfolds in the hands of a gifted writer who is much too savvy to follow expectations.

Marvelous fun, but with moments of reflection. I hope Ishmael gets his answers, but not too soon. The journey from here to there provides excellent entertainment.