Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.

Books read, late January

Mishell Baker, Borderline. Do you ever do the thing where you get in your head that a book is something utterly different than what it was? For some reason I thought this was going to be near-future SF. There is no good reason for this; none of the jacket copy says so, because it isn’t. What it is, is urban fantasy, quite good urban fantasy in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t do the mushy thing that urban fantasy does where it’s “urban” but has no features of any actual city. This book is set in really for sure Los Angeles. It is very specifically LA, and a very specific part and experience of LA at that. Second, Baker uses borderline personality disorder to examine and refract some tropes of the genre in ways that delight me. The scene where the heroine has a big deal of telling everyone what she thinks of them: that has causes, and it has consequences, it is not the kind of wish fulfillment that that scene so often is. There is carefully followed worldbuilding here, there is a main character who is a person, not a diagnosis, but whose diagnosis informs her character intimately…there’s a lot to like, and I’m eager for the sequel. (What a relief, since I like Mishell, but that’s never a guarantee of anything.)

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Mission. Kindle. Pen and his demon continue to wander around the world of The Curse of Chalion, using lifetimes worth of knowledge to improve matters for the people around them–and sometimes, crucially, themself. Themselves. Whichever applies when one entity is entirely housed in another. These are fun, and this is a fun one of these. It’s not what I’d choose to introduce people to Lois’s work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets. I had just been reading about the Congress of Vienna, and up pops this fantasy novel set there. It is a fantasy that crosses over quite a lot with its romance genre–there are some misunderstandings and relationship developments that are squarely inspired by that genre–but for many of you that’s a happy thing. The Congress of Vienna is the sort of thing that takes a great deal of work to make sense of, so the addition of magic actually doesn’t make things any more confusing and possibly less so.

Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, Homeless Moon: Imaginary Places. A chapbook put out ages ago by five friends, of whom I now know three. Far-ranging weirdness. Good fun in different directions. Cool thing to do. (And available as a free PDF. -ed)

Anatole France, Bee: The Princess of the Dwarfs. Kindle. I have been thinking about how the late 19th century and early 20th century constructed their version of fantasy, and this was another data point for that. It feels to me like a lot of pre-Tolkien, pre-Mirrlees, pre-Dunsany writers were more interested in lush description of fantastical scenes than in characters that, well, did much of anything. Some of this is that many of them are consciously–self-consciously–telling a children’s story, but what that means for the era can get pretty precious. None of the characters who would seem to be primary characters learn or accomplish anything of note. But gosh, they were pretty. Okay then.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 1. Kindle. What a great way to start off a magazine. Malon Edwards’s story “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” in particular, as an opener: whew, wow. The insight of old ladies as a science fictional exposition device, with attention to the cultural norms between them and their individual personalities: yes please, more of this.

Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hungarian noble system, wow, here you go. Complicated, bizarre way of running a society, and Kiraly lays it out for you in detail, with charts: what percentage of people were this kind of aristocrat, what percent had that kind of education. It’s a solid place to put your feet when you’re looking at the Habsburgs and going, “What? What?”

Richard Manning, Grassland. Focused specifically on the grasslands of North America as natural habitats and human usage detracting from same. Manning has lots of interesting stuff to cover here but occasionally veers into habitat exceptionalism regarding grasslands as opposed to forests, deserts, etc. and overstates points that could have been made reasonably. Still, if you’re interested in wilderness environments, having a bit of analysis about grasslands and how great they are is no bad thing.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt. Discussed elsewhere.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Retold fairy tales are by now a genre standard, and this book is a clear indication of why. There’s a rich vein still to be mined here, and a fresh editorial team is sometimes a great way to get the best out of authors who have touched on this sort of thing before–or who haven’t and need a nudge in the right direction. My favorites were Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris,” Theodora Goss’s “The Other Thea,” Sofia Samatar’s “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” and Kat Howard’s “Reflected,” but really there’s quite a lot to dig into here.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Stone Forest. A book on the line between graphic novel and long picture book–or perhaps it’s just a graphic novel that’s aimed at a youngish audience. Hilda continues to have wild adventures with the secret magical creatures near her home. This time her mom gets involved–not entirely voluntarily–and their relationship is beautifully done. It would work as a starting point, but there are more before this, and they’re also lovely.

Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman, The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. This is about a very particular blue dye that is religiously significant to some groups of Jewish people. If you’re interested in history of dyes and pigments or history of religion, this is one of the places where they overlap. Human beings are pretty odd ducks. If you read this book and don’t say, “What? What?” at several points, you’re more jaded than I.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. This is wrenching and great. It follows the arc of a young woman’s life from slavery in the Deep South onward, and it does not romanticize social relationships in any particular. It’s beautifully written. I’m so glad I read it. I’m also so glad I’m not permanently reading it, because it’s a lot to take in.

Walter Jon Williams, Impersonations. The latest Praxis story, following the consequences of the earlier trilogy. I think you could pick up everything you need to know, but the emotional weight of why you should care feels like it’s dependent on Dread Empire’s Fall etc., so you might as well start there if you have the chance.

Out of the Woods, twice

Today you can read my latest story with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Woods. Or, and for once I am keeping track of this appropriately, you can listen to the podcast of the same story, narrated by Folly Blaine.

This is my post-Robin Hood story that is informed by growing up with Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Go, read, enjoy!

Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt, by George O’Connor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

In the afterword to this graphic novel, George O’Connor notes that Artemis is one of his favorites, that when he was planning the Olympians series, he deliberately saved some of the ones he likes best for later so he’d have something to look forward to. Artemis is one of my favorite Olympians, too, so I’m glad to see her treated reasonably well.

Reasonably well–within the bounds of what’s mythologically available. Because Artemis is not a nice goddess. She’s not a happy huggy goddess. (Unlike the rest of the Olympians, right? Um.) So if you’re thinking of giving these books to small people–to any size people really–make sure they’re okay with sudden death and being ripped apart and shot and generally slaughtered. Because that will show up a lot, what with Niobe and Actaeon and all the rest.

My one complaint in this is that I didn’t imagine Artemis in a silver minidress and ankle-strap heels. But the dogs are nice. I do like the dogs.

Please consider using our link to buy Olympians: Artemis from Amazon.

The Skill of Our Hands, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the authors are friends of mine.

This is the sequel to The Incrementalists. While it refreshes you a bit on who is who and what is what–enough that you don’t have to reread the first volume recently or have a crackerjack memory to get it, but in my estimation not enough to start here. The character relationships are key, and the character relationships have a lot of their resonance starting in the previous volume. What’s the deal with Ren and Phil? why does everybody keep trying to stifle Irina? It starts earlier than this volume to make a lot of emotional sense.

This is a series about a secret group of immortals changing things in small ways–incrementally–behind the scenes of history. And this book in particular focuses a lot on the concept of making things worse to make them better. When does that work? When is it a terrible idea? This book takes that on using various scales, personal, internationally ideological, state and national scales in between.

There are a few missteps (if no one in my house gets what you’re going for with a Negro Leagues [baseball] analogy, probably you can’t bet on that line working with a ton of other people), but they’re small caveats with a core of the book intact. One of the great reliefs of the Incrementalist series is that the characters all want to make the world better. They disagree on how, and there is no overarching authority to tell them how to use their subtle powers and version of immortality to make it all work out right. There is no one answer. But they keep working on it. Maybe you need something like that right now.

Please consider using our link to buy The Skill of Our Hands from Amazon.

What do I write next: the squishy side

I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.

And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.

What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.

Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.

Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.

Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.

Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.

Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.

Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.

Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.

I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.

Self-care and social media

Last weekend I was at ConFusion in Detroit, which I told you I would be. And it was lovely and I had a great time, hurrah. I will probably want to talk about some things inspired by the panels I was on or witnessed, but that’s in a little bit. Right now I wanted to say: I do not have the passwords to my social media accounts on my laptop, and on my phone I only have the password to my Twitter.

This is deliberate, and I wanted to talk about it this week especially. Not being on Facebook for the weekend of the inauguration was definitely what is known in technical terms as a really great thing. But even if it hadn’t been the inauguration specifically, I find that taking breaks from social media periodically is a good idea. It helps me to see what I might be taking for granted otherwise. It gives me mental space. When I’m traveling, I can’t default to doing the laundry/unloading the dishwasher/checking Slack/taking out the recycling/checking Facebook/etc. I have some separation from all of that. I try to be sparing in my use of Twitter at those times.

This is hard for people in my life to remember. “Did you see the picture of–” No. I didn’t. Because I’m not on social media when I’m traveling. “I really loved X’s post about Y, did you–” No. Not on social media. It’s not up to other people to keep track of my computer quirks. But what their comments do is remind me of how submerged in social media I can be on a regular day. How obvious it is that someone will have seen the picture of and read the post about. Because that’s what we do.

It’s not wrong that that’s what we do. Social media is not bad. But taking it for granted, never taking a moment to asses its role in our lives–well, I can’t think of anything that’s a good plan for.

Maybe if I had kept reading social media all weekend, the sheer volume of political speech going on at the moment would have crept up on me. I’m part of that; I have been more overtly political in public social media in the last year than ever before. But suddenly the Twitter feed that used to be book release/politics/cute dogs/science news/personal yammering is politics/books maybe/politics/politics/politics/oh please give me some cute dogs/politics. Should I curate it differently? Spend less time on it? I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I should be aware of the shift in balance. I should arrive an answer that is conscious of where and how political energy/focus is expended and not confuse it for happy fluffy things or interactions with friends just because it’s coming through the same channel those used to (and may again).

Occasional breaks help me do that. And for me it helps that they are coincidental: not me sitting down with a schedule and saying, “This is the right time and the right duration,” but chance handing me the opportunity to reevaluate. Maybe it’ll work that way for you. Maybe it won’t. But I think we have a strong cultural bias at the moment that staying up to the minute on news is what smart, engaged people do, and I don’t think it has to be like that for every single minute. Sometimes rest, perspective, and a chance to look for depth are called for.

Books read, early January

Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. One of the things that’s interesting about this book is that it looks like Carpenter started writing it pretty much right away–so it was possible to interview almost everyone involved with the case at least once, directly and in person. So Carpenter could ask the police officers involved in the case specific questions about their attitudes toward gay men, toward queer people in general, toward various social institutions and ideas. And did. This was a good reminder that we sometimes want our landmark social cases to be “perfect” test cases, but sometimes the reality is much messier–and that’s okay.

D. G. Compton, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. A seventies science fiction novel about mortality (goes well with Marta Randall’s Islands!) and the surveillance society. The characters in it steadfastly refuse to be nice and calm and docile. They are prickly and angry and flailing. But not mean-spirited. They thrash around a lot trying to figure out how to have the lives they want–and in some cases the deaths they want–within what their culture has made available. Worth the time it takes to read (fairly short).

Frederic S. Durbin, A Green and Ancient Light. This feels like the sort of fantasy novel about a young boy and one summer that was his magical turning point that we don’t see as often as we used to. In this case his grandmother was a very strong presence and my favorite character. I wanted more sense of the woods–there was a lot of sense of human artifacts in the woods but not very much wildness of them–but village life was compelling and the magic plot was interesting, and I do in fact like this sort of fantasy novel.

Danielle Dutton, Margaret the First. A very short novel about Margaret Cavendish. Did not go as deep as I would like but was still a sympathetic portrait of a thoroughgoing outsider.

Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Thoroughly debunks the “spices were popular to cover the taste of spoiled meat” trope. The word “imagination” is key in the title: the author delves into how spices were presented, what they signified and how their signifiers changed, what people thought about what they were eating or just observing. Interesting stuff.

Barbara Hambly, Drinking Gourd. The latest Benjamin January murder mystery continues to explore how race, slavery, freedom, and violence affect relationships. Quite often I advise people not to start late in a series. This time I’d actually say, what the heck, go for it. You’ll figure it out, it’ll be human and compelling, you can go back and read the others and it’ll be fine.

Maria Dahvana Headley, Aerie. This is the sequel to Magonia, which I fell into one afternoon and did not come out until I was done. The same was true of Aerie. These books are some of the most page-turning books I have come across in a long time. I think it’s because I’m so invested in the central relationships. The worldbuilding is fun, the action plot is fun, but at the end of the day my heart is with the protag’s relationship with her best friend/boyfriend and with the protag’s relationship with her sister. Bird people in secret sky lairs? additional worldbuilding into other aspects of secret culture I will not spoiler here? sure yes why not just more of Aza’s interactions with the people she loves.

Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History. This is partly a history of paper and partly Kurlansky’s attempt to make a single point over and over and over again. That point is that technology does not drive social change, it follows it. Might it be more complex than that? Might one piece of technology follow some social change and drive others? Might something have more than one effect, not all of which are foreseeable at the time? APPARENTLY¬† NOT, Kurlansky wishes us to know. It is ALL ONE DIRECTION DAMMIT. So…yeah. That was a thing. It’s a lovely physical object with paper that’s nice to touch. There was interesting stuff about paper and papermaking, although there were also huge gaps on that topic–when did butcher paper start as a thing, for example? You’d never know from this book. Because Kurlansky is too busy telling us about THE NATURE OF ALL TECHNOLOGY ALWAYS. Thanks, Kurlansky! Sigh.

Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife. This book opens with a grandfather who keeps a volume of Kipling in his pocket. I am there for that. Basically any of the rest of you who want to write me books with Kipling-reading grandparents: you follow that urge, it will serve me well. This is also a book about war and recovery, violence and its aftermath, families, and all sorts of interesting things, done in a Balkan magical realist mode. But even without those things I’d have stayed on for the grandpa.

Malka Older, Infomocracy. This book opened feeling to me like the sort of thing Cory Doctorow or Neal Stephenson would have written if they’d started their careers in this decade instead of previous ones. It started out feeling rather standard post-cyberpunk–well-done standard post-cyberpunk, but still. Then we hit a disaster response and it was a different–and much better–book, vivid and engaging–and the world it’s engaging with is our actual complex world, not a cartoon of it. Yay. More.

Mary Rickert, You Have Never Been Here. A lot of dark fantasy is Halloween dark, moaning winds and the creak of newly bare branches, a bit self-conscious about how dark it is. This Mary Rickert collection is Midwinter dark. It is bleak and chilled. It is either the perfect thing to read in the dark of the year or something you should safe for July, depending on where you are in your life.

Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, eds., Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015. I make a policy of not reviewing books I’m in. So: this exists! I’m in it! I read it! There ya go.

Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. I loved this. It looked at the shapes of five very different sets of Victorians, all of them literary, and how they made their relationships work in the face of various challenges–or didn’t. I would love more of this sort of thing. Also I came out of it feeling like giving George Eliot a hug and inviting her to coffee.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter. Fast, fun, cute read about secret book protection agency. Not a lot of depth and did not take me long, but entertained me while I was there.

Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations. This is Solnit musing about her travels as an American of partially Irish ancestry in Ireland. She doesn’t stick to describing her travel experiences, roaming wherever she pleases in the history of Ireland or in fact the rest of the world. She has a modicum of self-awareness about Americans in Ireland and Irish-Americans, so I said to an Irish friend that it probably wouldn’t annoy them in the same way as standard American Irish tourism, but it might well annoy them in a refreshing and different way. I’m not Irish, I can’t tell for sure. It didn’t really annoy me, but it’s not the Solnit I’d recommend starting with, of what I’ve read so far.

The American Scandinavian Foundation, Scandia: Important Early Maps of the Northern Regions and Maps and Charts of Norway. What it says on the tin. Lots of neat misconceptions about what exactly was up there in all that snow anyway. Is it an archipelago of islands? is it basically a linear peninsula out from…somewhere? Much confusion in early mapmaking, many guesses, cool to see what they were.

Ka Vang, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon. While the beginning exposition is a little clunky here, the characterization and setting are worth it. It’s a middle-grade book about a young Hmong girl whose family traditions leave her out because she’s a girl–until she does some awesome magical stuff that explodes her elders’ assumptions. What I particularly liked about this book is that everyone was human even when they were wrong. Characters who could easily have been caricatures were full-fledged people, understandable even when flawed, which is a lot to ask of something as long as most adult books are, and this was not that length. So there’s a lot packed into a small number of pages here. Especially useful if you’re looking for books for Minnesota kids that actually reflect the Minnesota they live in, but worth the time otherwise too.