Friday, January 27, 2023

Short Book Reviews: A Complex, Brilliant Character-Driven Fantasy

The Bone Orchard
, by Sara A. Mueller (Tor)

With a style reminiscent of Tanith Lee and a world as complex and byzantine as M. A. Carrick’s, Sara A. Mueller spins a tale of magic, identity, politics, and hidden pain. The Bone Orchard is difficult to describe in terms of premise or plot because so much of the reading experience involves following the development of unreliable narrators who may or may not be the severed aspects of a single person. But who that person truly is and how much autonomy the other aspects possess pose questions that Mueller reveals gradually and with consummate skill.

We know that severe early trauma increases the risk of dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality. Suppose, then, that it were possible to create a synthetic version of yourself, using bones grown on trees, for example, a “you” that would bear that unbearable pain? Or take away your shame upon herself? At what point would you cease to be you? How many aspects of yourself must you lose to become someone else, and what would be left?

From the very first pages, I was enthralled by The Lady, Charm, Pain, Pride, Shame, and Justice, and how they each survived (or perished) in the game of ruthless, often lethal magical politics. I especially loved how each found a wellspring of compassion in her burden, especially Pain. The unexpected love story was like a chocolate left on a pillow.

Mueller writes that it took her many years to create this story, and the care she took shines through the depth and complexity of the world and its people. All too often, a debut novel that is the product of long development is followed by another that is comparatively rushed by early success. I hope Mueller is given the same scope for her next novel. If The Bone Orchard is any indication of what we can look forward to, it will be a treasure. She is definitely a talent to watch.


Friday, January 13, 2023

Short Book Reviews: A Woman Police Detective Across Dimensions

 Marked, by S. Andrew Swann (DAW)

Reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, this “portal to another world” fantasy begins as a police procedural with a twist. Detective Dana Rohan’s life is filled with secrets. One is the intricate, tattoo-like Mark across her back that has grown in complexity and extent since the time she was found as an orphaned child. The other is what the Mark does. By an act of will, she can travel across time and alternate worlds. She’s been using this ability to solve crimes, at the risk of attracting the suspicions of the police higher-ups, even the distrust of her partner when she almost gets caught hiding a revolver used in a crime in a parallel world when one exists in police custody in this reality. Her problems quickly fade to insignificance when a series of bizarre encounters, including near-fatal assaults by zombie-like, cannibal “Shadows,” propel her from her ordinary life into a multitude of different realities. From formless, roiling Chaos to a world in which Napoleon III rules the Western World, her only hope of survival is turning the tables on the culprit behind the assaults.

I’m a fan of stories that start in the everyday world, often with a character with a mysterious past, and end up in increasingly more fantastic settings. I mentioned Zelazny’s Amber series, also Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree, and let’s not forget all the magical-door stories like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. This one has the added features of a woman detective who is more than capable of defending herself, a slow-simmer romance, and the usual quirks of alternate histories. It’s fast-paced and full of plot twists and drama. All in all, a quick but satisfying read.


Monday, January 9, 2023

Auntie Deborah's New Writing Advice

 It's a new year, and aspiring writers have questions!

Q: Dear Auntie Deborah, I just got the rights for my novel back from my now-defunct publisher. Will I be able to sell it to another publisher?

A: It’s a wretched situation and I’m so sorry you find yourself in it. If it helps, you’re not alone. Not only are publishers going under but mergers are resulting in the cancellation of contracts for not-yet-delivered books, even for long-running series by established authors.

The short but brutal answer is, probably not. The exception might be if your book sold brilliantly, as in NYTimes Bestseller List, but even then it’s unlikely to attract interest because it’s “old news.” Publishers today are extremely conservative in the books they acquire; editors are reluctant to take chances; alas, your book now falls into the category of out-of-print/poor sales figures, regardless of whether it’s the fault of the book or not. The sales numbers might be low because the book was only available for two days, but that doesn’t matter. The other possibility is the few specialty small presses that occasionally acquire previously published books by authors with huge readerships, books that for one reason or another got dropped (as in your case, where the publisher ceased business). Your agent should be able to advise you whether this is a possibility for you.

Your best bet is to get a new, professionally designed cover and ISBN and self-publish the novel yourself. If you do this, I encourage you to go “wide,” that is, hit multiple vendors, not just Amazon Kindle. Draft 2 Digital will allow you to place a book in many markets, including those providing library loans, or you could do it individually. You could also put out an audio version of your book.

Q: Is it better to use names or numbers for chapter titles?

A: There is no “better.” There are conventions that change with time. Do what you love. Just as titles vs numbers cannot sell a book, neither will they sink a sale. If your editor or publisher has a house style, they’ll tell you and then you can argue with them.

That said, as a reader I love chapter titles. As an author, I sometimes come up with brilliant titles but I haven’t managed to do so for an entire novel, so I default to numbers. One of these years, I’ll ditch consistency and mix and match them. Won’t that be fun!

Q: Can I make changes to my self-published book once it's released?

A: Of course, you can. If they’re minor changes, like fixing typos, just upload the corrected file. If the changes are more substantial, like a revision, it’s best to indicate that so your readers don’t think it’s a different book. “Author’s Revised Edition” is one way of indicating this.

The same goes for changing cover art. Traditional publishers and indie authors do this all the time, as styles in cover art and design evolve. Just make it clear it’s a new cover, not a new book. Otoh, fanatical collectors of your work will grab the new-cover edition just to be complete.

Q: What's the best way to collaborate on a novel?

A: There is no best way, there’s only what works for you and your partner. One can draft and the other revise; you can alternate scenes or even chapters; one can dictate and the other edit while transcribing. Or whatever.

The hard and fast rule is: GET YOUR AGREEMENT IN WRITING, including how you will handle a break-up. Consider it an ironclad literary pre-nup. You will save yourselves a world of hurt if you rely on your memory of an oral agreement once money is involved.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Short Book Reviews: Tippecanoe and Murder, Too

 Death and Hard Cider, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

When I open a Barbara Hambly novel, whether a 1920s Hollywood mystery, a fantasy-with-dragons, or a disturbingly dark vampire tale, I’m in for a treat. Hambly’s touch is deft, never overwrought, her knowledge of history and human nature unerring, and her characters, memorable. One of my favorites is Benjamin January, born a slave in early 19th Century Louisiana, freed and then educated as a surgeon (and musician) in Paris, now back in New Orleans. Over the course of the preceding volumes, he’s cobbled together a living as a musician playing at parties and other events by the rich whites of the city, while solving more mysteries than a raft of Sherlock Holmses, despite the intricate mores of the old French culture and the encroaching danger of the American way of slavery. He’s in constant danger of being kidnapped, his freedom papers destroyed, and being sold to a plantation and a short, brutal life in the sugar cane fields. Despite all this, he has married an extraordinary Black woman and made more than a few friends, some of them white. The one thing he’s never wanted to get involved with is American politics.

But it’s 1840 and William Henry Harrison is running for president. The campaign involves a monumental rally with speeches, fireworks, balls, and dinner parties, and Ben badly needs the meager pay in an otherwise dead season. In the midst of the campaign, a privileged young white woman, a determined flirt notorious for setting her suitors against each other, is found murdered. Suspicion lands, quite illogically, on a Black woman, Catherine, Ben’s dear friend and first, unrequited love.

As with previous Ben January mysteries, the fascinating historical detail, plot twists, engaging characters, and deeply felt but restrained emotion kept me turning the pages. This book continues the earlier focus on the precarious condition of Black people in pre-Civil War New Orleans. It seemed to me, however, that the contradictions, turmoil, and simmering anger of Ben and his community came to the fore more powerfully. Perhaps that is due to the countdown to the Civil War or the grinding decades of oppression and fear, the perpetual risk of enslavement and necessity of humbling himself before men who cannot compare with his education, culture, and achievements, let alone his intelligence and innate decency. These feelings are among the things Ben dares not share with his few white friends (the unwashed but shrewd sheriff, the ex-addict Latin-quoting violinist), yet are instantly understood by the entire Black community.

Like all of Hambly’s work, highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Deborah's Winter Storm Check-In

Asphalt berm. Rain runoff is right to left. 

Thank you, to all who reached out to me in the recent storm. My family and I are hunkered down, as usual for heavy winter rainfall. Neighbors keep us informed about local road closures.

Yesterday and this morning were brief breaks in the atmospheric river. so mine beloved spouse and I checked out the state of debris from uphill and the various water diversion measures. We had worked with our neighbor (on the above-mentioned "uphill") on a culvert that runs under our tiny-but-paved street, then debouches (isn't that a wonderful word?) beside our carport and eventually the water runs along our property line and spreads out. The idea is that by this time, it's lost its momentum and can percolate into the ground, replenishing the water table. We also placed an asphalt berm to direct rain toward the stream instead of our garage and house.

Our biggest concern has been debris flows because this area, including "uphill," was burned during the 2020 wildfires. The burned areas are all nicely green, and the redwood trees have stabilized the slopes better than we hoped for. This is the third winter since the fires, so the increased risk (over normal conditions) is very small.

Every winter, slides close roads and downed trees knock out power lines. That's life in the mountains. We have a backup generator and I work at home, so we're relatively lightly impacted. The larder is full, we have plenty of books to read, and oh yes -- I have several to get back to writing!

Again, thanks for your caring, and may we all have a safe and happy coming year!

Monday, January 2, 2023

Revisiting Nightmares: Fantasy/Horror Crossovers and Trauma Recovery

Nightmare by Abildgaard

Fantasy and horror have a natural affinity, one that goes back to the pre-literate times when people sat around the campfire, terrifying each other with stories of ghosts and skin-walkers and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night or that-are-not-quite-dead. Supernatural elements infused these tales with delightful spine-tingling shivers. One might speculate that way back then, the entire world must have seemed a perilous place, filled with phenomena beyond human understanding. I think that does a discredit to peoples who might have a much lower level of technology than we do but were nonetheless extremely sophisticated in their conceptualization and emotional understanding of the world around them. For all our computers and skyscrapers, we are just as enthralled by the uncanny and that jolt of adrenaline.
Nightmare by Gauguin
Of course, as individuals we vary in what is pleasurable to us. One person’s fun may be the trigger that causes months of terrifying nightmares for another person. This is especially true for people who have themselves been the victims of trauma, whether the assault has come in the form of physical violence or from psychological or emotional abuse. Reading horror or dark fantasy is not an approved method of psychotherapy, but encountering these stories mindfully can shift our perspective. Good fiction of any kind does not “stay on the page” but has the power to change the way we see ourselves and our lives. Horror, by its focus on frightening elements, carries a particular emotional punch.