Friday, July 30, 2021

Book Reviews: Women Seizing Power

The Women's War
, by Jenna Glass (Del Rey)

Reminiscent of both C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain and Louise Marley’s The Terrorists of Irustan, this world’s women, although as capable as men of using magic, are denied its practice. Their value lies in the marriage alliances they can bring and the magic their sons may inherit. In the dominant Western European-style realm, even women from rich and aristocratic families are treated as chattel, discarded at whim into The House of the Unwanted and a life of prostitution and economic slavery. The story weaves together the lives of a number of women caught in different ways in this pernicious system: the widowed daughter of a king, despised by her half-brother and desperate to protect her children; one of the Unwanted, thrust from sex slavery into leadership, for which she feels singularly unprepared; the despised wife of the heir to the throne who sees her only worth in her unborn child; the princess royal of a small kingdom, destined to save her people by sacrificing love for marriage.

The world changes dramatically when several kinswomen, who have been practicing and refining their magic secretly, enact a curse over all the realms, and then perish. With their deaths, no one can reverse what they have done. The curse ensures that no woman shall be pregnant unwillingly. Across the realms, women who are not truly willing to bear children either miscarry or fail to conceive.

Political chaos threatens. Scapegoated and then exiled, the surviving Unwanted journey to a barren land, that guarantees extreme hardship and poverty. What they discover there will change their world even more than the curse.

The women and their plight, their courage, and most of all, the way they learn to work together swept me up from the first chapter.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Deborah Goes Blackberry Picking (a video adventure)

 Join me and my daughter, Sarah, as we pick blackberries, observe bees enjoying fennel pollen, and turn blackberries into compote.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Characters Hurling Insults For Fun and Profit

How many times has a discussion escalated into an argument, or an argument into violence, with the hurling of insults? It seems we human beings never outgrow the impulse to call people who disagree with us nasty names. There have been enough compilations of creative, gleeful, or historical insults to fill entire libraries. We so much enjoy our own cleverness that we blithely ignore whether calling someone names actually encourages them to change their behavior or whether it firmly cements their own negative opinion of us and their determination to not do whatever it is we want. The words we use and the comparisons we make say as much about us as about those we are insulting. The same is true for characters in fiction.

Let’s accept as given that the purpose of insults is not reconciliation. If that were true, we’d have long since achieved peace in the Middle East, not to mention a few dozen other places around the globe. What are the other possibilities? 

  • Venting ill temper, including displaced aggression – that’s the man who kicks his dog instead of his boss, the real target of his anger.
  • Showing off for a third party.
  • Parroting what has been said by those the character respects.
  • Being out of control. If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, then surely hurling insults is an expression of frustration in a person who simply can’t come up with a constructive response.
  • Trying to provoke a reaction, whether it’s loss of control in the other character or an escalation of violence.
  • Justifying previous ill-treatment of the person being insulted.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Book Reviews: Superb Sea-Faring Fantasy

In this highly original, vividly depicted world, ships powered by magical flames sail across an ocean of exotic grasses. Crews harvest the lucrative psychoactive plants, although the area around the principal island has been growing increasingly barren of such prizes. A mob boss is gradually taking control of the free ships by rationing their access to drinking water, a vanishingly rare resource. The Forever Sea presents its own dangers. Pirates sail the grasses, of course. Exceptionally nasty ones, who slaughter vanquished captains for their bones to fuel the flames. Below the surface, dragons lurk, as well as even more fantastically gruesome, lethal creatures. For any ship that can reach it, the legendary Once City beckons.

Into this world comes Kindred, a young hearthfire keeper with a rare, intuitive gift for singing to the flames. Granddaughter to a legendary captain, Kindred struggles against both the ordinary dangers of the Forever Sea and the restrictions of the hearthfire keeper academy. To make matters worse, her grandmother has disappeared, leaving cryptic messages about the world beneath the surface of the sea. Kindred’s voyage will test her loyalty to her ship, captain, and crewmates, against the longing of her heart to follow in her grandmother’s path.

This is a huge, gorgeous story. The world-building is highly original and filled with brilliant details. The characters have depth and complexity, and most of all, heart. Their choices – loyalty to the ship, to each other, to themselves – their mistakes and losses and triumphs, their loves and grudges, all exemplify what it is to be human. At times the narrative read like prose poetry, and I had to slow down to savor it.

Superb storytelling in a brilliantly original world with memorable characters make The Forever Sea a stand-out.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

New Interview!

 I was interviewed by NF Reads. Here's a sample:

# How do you deal with creative block?

For a long time, I used to joke that I couldn’t afford writer’s block. I began writing professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved “pre-writing,” going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go; when I’d get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I’d write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them. Now I understand that it is indeed possible to run into a brick wall, creatively speaking. This usually means there is an issue in my set-up or I need more time to mull over a problem that just under the surface. In all of these cases, the best thing I can do is to write something else: a journal, poetry (I’m a terrible poet), blog posts, something hideously self-indulgent and unpublishable, letters, shopping lists…the point is to keep the words flowing while the “back” part of my mind sorts things out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

“I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

Monday, July 19, 2021

“Plain Speech” and Spiritual Intimacy in The Seven-Petaled Shield

One of the aspects of world-building that I most enjoy is creating religious and spiritual traditions. Each of the cultures in The  Seven-Petaled Shield conceptualizes the relationship between human and spirit in a different way. On the vast Azkhantian steppe, the nomads live in harmony with the seasons. They depend on their flocks and particularly their fast, agile horses not only for sustenance but defense. Their primary deity is, of course, Mother of Horses. By contrast, Meklavar is an city-state with an ancient tradition of written scripture; its religion is monotheistic and non-gendered (the Source of Blessings is never referred to as He or She); literacy is highly valued as a way of preserving the cultural and religious heritage. 

Gelon is a nation of scientists, empire-builders, and cultural magpies, freely appropriating what they deem worthy from the cultures they conquer. It seemed logical to me that their formal religion would include a pantheon of gods. People would worship different gods according to their status (King’s-god), occupation (One Who Blesses Commerce, Guardian of Flocks, Protector of Soldiers), personal concerns (Source of Fertility, Bringer of Sleep), idealism and aspiration (Essence of Beauty, Giver of Justice), or solace (God of Forgotten Hopes, Sower of Mischief, Kindler of Hearts). Many of these are embodiments or aspects of historical gods – Essence of Beauty is surely the Gelonian version of Venus or Aphrodite. 

Some of these gods are lofty, looking down on the plight of their human devotees with indifference. But others are more friendly and accessible, attending to everyday domestic affairs and not the fate of the world. In designing the Gelonian pantheon, I wanted the qualities of nurture and compassion to be present in a variety of forms, but I also wanted a specific deity who embodied these characteristics. I took my inspiration from a variety of sources – the Buddhist Kwan Yin, Mary in the Christian tradition, and the Shechinah or feminine aspect of the Jewish god. It seemed logical that a system as varied as the Gelonian pantheon would include such a figure, so I called her the Lady of Mercy.

While most of the other Gelonian sects provide background (with the notable exception of that belonging the Scorpion god, Qr, which has been appropriated by the awakening Fire and Ice), the followers of the Lady of Mercy play an active role in the beginning of The Heir of Khored (the third book of The Seven-Petaled Shield). I wanted to also take this opportunity to show positive aspects of Gelon – the people of goodwill and kindness who are to be found in every society. One important aspect was the ability to treat every person compassionately. Not just sympathetically, but as one divine creation to another. In Hinduism, one might greet another by saying Namaste, "The divine (or light) within me salutes the divine within you.” In Western terms, Martin Buber described this relationship as “I-Thou.”

Friday, July 16, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Romantic Military Science Fiction

The Rush's Edge, by Ginger Smith (Angry Robot)

Is there such a thing as romantic military science fiction? If not, Ginger Smith is inventing the field. In this dystopic, far-flung star empire, human soldiers are too costly to waste in battle, so technologically enhanced vat-grown troops have become the era’s cannon fodder. With accelerated growth, limited life expectancy, and nearly unbreakable psychological conditioning, they’re considered expendable during their term of service and disposable afterward. One such retired vat soldier, Hal, has found sanctuary in a salvage ship captained by his former CO, Ty. Hal, like other vats, is addicted to the overwhelming adrenaline rush of combat, which will rapidly burn him out, but Ty has been able to talk him down from the worst episodes. Into this tight ship family comes Vivi, a young tech expert fleeing an abusive relationship. As her mind and body heal, she and Hal grow closer, although Hal is still subject to being triggered into the “rush,” and each bout shortens his already fast-shrinking span. Various adventures ensue, pitting this small crew against the Coalition Powers That Be (and their fear of the growing power of vat-grown soldiers). The gradually developing love story is interwoven throughout, neither hijacking the action nor feeling like a pasted-on element. It’s integral to how humans bond to another, how trust and devotion not only heal the past but form the foundation of hope. It’s a lovely tale, at times page-turning drama, at times heartfelt, always reflecting what makes a person and what are the limits of personal autonomy.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” 
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Monday, July 12, 2021

Career Chat: Writing Progress Goals

One of the most common questions I get asked is how I schedule my writing time. Non-writers often think we either write only when the muse strikes (and then, accompanied by quantities of alcohol, swathed in tobacco or other botanical smoke, and living in the most depressing garret imaginable, surrounded by the wreckage of countless relationships) – or we get up at 7, sit down at the computer/typewriter at 9, take a one-hour lunch break at noon, and work steadily  until 5. I am quite sure there are writers who do follow those schedules, but I’m not one of them.

 Some writers need long stretches of time to dig deep into their stories. I’m not one of them, either. I’m a slow-and-steady plodder. There’s nothing right or wrong about either way; each writer discovers what’s right for them. So the following comes from my own experience.

If I’m going to write a novel and a couple of short stories every year (or two novels in 18 months), I need to write consistently, especially when I’m in the early drafting stages. All bets are off when I’m writing proposals, rewriting, or revising to editorial order. Most of the time, I find daily goals helpful, so long as they are achievable. I don’t find it at all supportive to post my progress in terms of words of pages. One writer of my acquaintance used to post not only words written but anti-words; words the writer had deleted. I like that the writer acknowledged that not all progress can be measured by the total number of words.

A better goal for me is to write well.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Book Review: A YA School Story Mystery Falls Short

 The Temple House Vanishing, by Rachel Donohue (Algonquin Books)

I requested an ARC of this book based on the description: a mystery set in a Catholic boarding school. Twenty-five years before the opening, Louisa, a brilliant but lonely student, and Mr. Lavelle, a charismatic art teacher, have mysteriously disappeared. Victoria, who knew them both, has just committed suicide at the school itself. Why did she kill herself? What happened to Louisa and Mr. Lavelle? Did they elope together? Were they murdered or did they perish through an accident? Or were the disappearances unrelated? The atmosphere of an isolated Victorian mansion set on a cliff in Ireland added to the appeal.

Very early in the book, however, I became increasingly disappointed and frustrated. By the end, I was ready to throw the book across the room in disgust, except that I was reading it on my Kindle and I don’t treat my electronic devices so cavalierly. Based on the description, The Temple House Vanishing promised me a genre novel – YA, school story, and mystery, all in one – and yet it consistently violated the conventions of all three.

The opening point of view, a journalist who happened to live on the same street as Louisa and who is investigating the disappearance, was hard to relate to and never made any sense to me. She isn’t involved in the events, and her own life, irrelevant to the rest of the story, seemed remote and uninteresting. Then we get into Louisa’s story, narrated by herself. Therein lies the second hurdle, because Louisa doesn’t sound or act like a teen, even one who’s stuck in her head. Almost all teens, whether intellectual “brains” or not, center their lives around the fundamental issues of those years: independence from parents, confusion about who they are and what they want to become, desperate need for approval from peers, and so forth. Hormones saturate their bloodstreams, and the parts of their brains associated with executive functions, delayed gratification, and long-term planning, won’t mature until their mid-20s. It doesn’t matter how bright or academically gifted they are, they are still at the mercy of these internal storms. Louisa’s first-person narrative reads like the overly elitist pontifications of a writer with a very poor memory of her own teenaged years, or perhaps one seen through extremely adult-colored lenses, and with no understanding of the conventions of the genre. I cannot imagine a teen reader finding Louisa believable or interesting.

Then we meet Victoria, who becomes the object of Louisa’s bloodless passion. Both girls exhibit a disconnection between their intellectual philosophizing and their relationships so extreme as to verge into psychotic dissociation. I never perceived, through their speech or behavior, or through the inner voice of the narrative, any shred of genuine emotion until very near the end, when it became clear that Louisa was just as infatuated with Victoria as Victoria was with Mr. Lavelle. But for the most part, each experiences a pale, distant imitation of obsession, not the visceral stuff of teen suicide pacts or Romeo and Juliet. Not a hint of lesbian romance, requited or not, could I discern.

Short Book Reviews: Another Slightly Wacky Space Opera from Tim Pratt

The Fractured Void, A Twilight Imperium Novel
, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Imagine my surprise when I learned the space opera. The Fractured Void, was based on a strategic board game, Twilight Imperium. Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).

Starship crews as family are a familiar, eternally attractive trope. Pratt brings his own slightly offbeat cast to the Temerarious: a human captain, his best friend, a ninja chameleon toad, and his leonine security officer. From the universe’s most boring patrol, they’re off to rescue the universe’s most obnoxious scientist, who just may have discovered a way to create worm holes and to control them. It turns out that the mysterious race known as the Ghosts has very strong opinions about why opening new worm holes is as Extremely Bad Idea, and are prepared to enforce or sabotage or otherwise nix the project. Throw in a ruthless but very sexy bounty hunter, a sentient squid who is the universe’s best engineer, a remarkably hidebound rival culture, and a host of plot twists, double-crosses, and one-step-ahead schemes, and the resulting adventure is nonstop entertainment.

My introduction to Pratt’s star-spanning bibliography was The Wrong Stars, and The Fractured Void features the same flowing prose, superb control over disparate story elements, wacky characters, plot tension, and supremely resourceful and competent characters. I look forward to gobbling up his next.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

It's StoryBundle Time!

 Collaborators is one of the fantastic novels in the newest StoryBundle, available now. This curated collection is a great way to discover new authors. 

What's a StoryBundle and how I can get this one? Read below!

The Starting Hurricanes Bundle - Curated by Athena Andreadis

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero." —Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo

"This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great." —Elrond of Rivendell, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Starting Hurricanes StoryBundle offers eleven fascinating speculative works that explore the concept of great changes wrought by people who are not Chosen Ones nor have god-like powers. Science fiction and fantasy (henceforth SFF) rely too heavily on these two modes; as a result, "mundanes" are often belittled, too frequently shown bereft of agency, imagination, courage or any ethical/moral compass beyond narrow self-interest.

This goes hand-in-hand with the predilection of the genre for autocratic authority structures, too frequently headed by charismatic psychopaths who are given huge dollops of leeway, to say nothing of boasting "optimal" genes (which demonstrates most SFF authors' fundamental misunderstanding of genetics and evolution). Almost always ignored are the loyalty networks and the sense of collective investment that actually make cultures and societies function—but also malfunction, when manipulated by grifters or thugs.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens"

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

Monday, July 5, 2021

Rejection, Discouragement, and How a Few Loyal Readers Can Save an Author

Being discouraged is part and parcel of a working writer's life. Negative reviews, ditto. Some of us are naturally more thick-skinned about them than others, and most of us develop coping strategies over the years. This is where networking with other writers can be very helpful.  We say things like:

  • If you're not accumulating rejection slips, you're not doing your job (taking risks, "pushing the envelope").
  • Just file the slip (or email) and send the story out 
  • Remember how many times A Wrinkle in Time was rejected.
  • Editors are human, too; they have bad days, and it's no one's fault if your hero has the same name as their ex.
  • Hey, I'm making progress from a form rejection to a personal note and invitation to submit again!

Even after many professional sales, a rejection can sting. The sting doesn't last as long as it might when we were first starting out, and we have tools (see above) and lots of writerly commiseration to help us. We know from experience that the sting will pass; we have acquired the habit of immediately diving back into the next project, so that we always have something fresh  and exciting in the pipeline.

Then there are the situations when a story or book is sold and the publisher goes out of business. The editor gets fired. I know authors this has happened to more than once. We find ourselves wondering if we killed the magazine. We didn't, but that laughter overlays the secret and utterly illogical fear that our writing careers are somehow jinxed. Then we sell something else and there are no thunderbolts from above. We carry on.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Two Book Reviews Demonstrate the Future is not What We Expect

The Apocalypse Seven
, by Gene Doucette (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My introduction to Gene Doucette’s witty style was his previous novel, The Spaceship Next Door, reviewed here. This newest adventure has all the charm, warmth, and thoughtfulness I’d come to expect.

One morning, a small and disparate group of people – college students, a hermit preacher, an astrophysicist, for example – wake up to find the world changed. Each seems to be utterly alone. Familiar buildings are more or less intact, but wildlife and vegetation has taken over the university town of Cambridge. There’s no electricity, and all the batteries are dead. The astrophysicist notices the stars are in subtly wrong positions. As the group makes contact with one another, gathering at the university, they support one another when they aren’t arguing, for each has a different understanding of what has happened. Touré, a twenty-ish Cambridge coder, calls it the whateverpocalypse. Just as they learn they are not the only humans alive and suspect around a century has elapsed while they were unconscious, they begin to suspect they are not the only intelligent species on the planet, but it’s anyone’s guess whether the ghosts or aliens or whatevertheyare mean the human survivors well or ill.

By far, the sneak star of the book is Norman, the coywolf (coyote-wolf hybrid) tamed by the blind character, Carol.


Tiny Time Machine, by John E Stith (Amazing Select from Amazing Stories)

I’ll read anything by John E. Stith, but somehow I missed this charming short novel. The description says it’s “for young adults,” but I disagree. While teens are going to love it, and it’s a novel featuring young characters, it’s so full of buoyancy and hope that adults will gobble it up, too. Meg describes herself as the daughter of an angry scientist dad, so angry that he in fact turns a smartphone into a time machine that not only peeks into a not-too-distant future but allows people to jump into it. Alas, it’s not a future anyone would want to live in. The planet is dying, and humanity along with it. The oceans have turned into a stiff jelly, reminiscent of ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Meg and her new friend Josh embark upon a quest to stop a billionaire technologist whose well-meaning attempts to clean up the ocean’s plastic garbage will lead to this bleak future. Soon they’re on the run from the police, as well.

One of the things I enjoy about Young Adult novels is how teens can have agency, not only in their own lives but in the world. Typically, parents are therefore absent or dead (in Meg’s case, both of them, her father recently so), and that frees the characters from supervision. In this story, not having a parent deprives Meg and Josh of the perspective and resources an adult ally could offer. They have internal challenges of growing up and learning to work together, deal with jealousy, and so forth, all within the limitations that minors face. This is while figuring out what happens in the future and how to stop it.

As a bonus, the book contains a piece of short fiction, “Redshift Runaway,” set in the same world as Redshift Rendezvous. When a sentient alien pet runs wild on a starship traveling a significant fraction of the speed of light, where the laws of ordinary physics no longer apply, chaos ensues, but also understanding. Nobody writes relativity-based science fiction better than Stith.