Letters from my absence

While I was out of town at ConFusion and surrounding fun, I had a story come out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies! Every Tiny Tooth and Claw (Or: Letters from the First Month of the New Directorate) is available for you to read. There’s also a podcast of it, and since it’s an epistolary story there’s not one but two readers.

I had so much fun writing this, and when I’ve read it at conventions it’s been very gratifying to hear people laugh and gasp and generally react, so I hope you enjoy it too.

A Queen in Hiding, by Sarah Kozloff

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Okay, so here is what you need to know about whether this book will drive you up a tree: the princess is for no reason explained in the book called a princella instead. Just to be more fantasy-y. And the princella and her mother the queen are the only two people in the world who grow naturally blue hair as a mark of their royalty.

Now, if you got through that and thought, what the hell, I grew up on Mercedes Lackey’s white horseys and I’ve been sick, yeah, pretty much, let’s go with it, this is that book, this is exactly the book to read when you want to curl up on the couch with a fantasy adventure where all the queens for hundreds of years have had the same first initial and there are loads of specially special signs and animals talk to young girls in their heads but never about anything really upsetting and uncouth.

I want a book like that sometimes. I don’t usually want it twice, and I never read through it telling myself it’s perfect. But there are sea battles, there are thrilling escapes, there are wicked schemes, there are loyal retainers, and if you want a one of those, it sure is a one of those. By cracky it sure is. (The duke and duchess’s kids are duchettes. I. I just. Duchettes, they are duchettes. Sure why not.) The ending has a twist that is not really supported by much of anything except the need to proceed into the next three books, all of which are coming out this year. And the more I thought about it after…well, don’t think about it after, is my advice.

Once I was away from the adventure of it, one of the fascinating things about this book is how its surface politics and its deep politics contradict each other. One of the things that the villains are angry with the good nice queen about is her support of equity, wanting workers to get paid well and not exploited! Buuuuut when you look at how the actual farmers are treated by the book, farming is treated as stupid and brainless at every turn, completely unskilled. Spending her entire childhood with farmers gives the princella zero insight into the skills necessary for farming even though she can speak to animals, because animal husbandry apparently takes no skill at all. (Spoiler alert: this is wrong.) The very spirits of the world are constantly demonstrating how special the royals are compared to the common folk, and given an entire childhood to learn about the ways of the common folk, mainly what the princella seems to learn is wow, these people sure are dumb and boring. So what we’re getting here is noblesse oblige, not equity.

It does not get better from there. Maybe the sequels will. Or not; they’re already in production, so there’s no chance for Kozloff to take a breath and learn. It’s all coming on very, very quickly for the princella and her…I can’t really say friends, because she spends her childhood with one best friend who never gets a personality. I can’t say allies. Subjects, though. It’s all coming on very, very quickly for the princella and her subjects, and if that’s the kind of fun you want, here it is.

Race to the Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Review copy provided by the publisher.

If you’ve been following the new releases from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint of kids’ fantasies, I think you’ll be pleased with Rebecca Roanhorse’s addition to the line, a tale of modern Navajo (DinĂ©) kids fighting exploitative monsters on behalf of the world. If you’ve been reading Rebecca Roanhorse’s science fiction fantasy thrillers set in a ravaged American Southwest, I think it’ll be exciting to see her do a kids’ take on the same region and legends. If you haven’t been reading either–welcome, you’ve got a lot of fun stuff ahead of you.

And this is one.

Nizhoni Begay has never quite figured out how she’s going to shine in the world, but she’s sure there’s going to be something. She’s in the midst of crossing basketball and internet stardom off her list, but surely something else will come along where she can dazzle. It turns out there is! And it is monsters! Or the hunting of monsters! So that’s…well, it’s a lot, honestly. It is a whole book worth and possibly then some. Nizhoni’s little brother and best friend have special gifts of their own, not just along for the ride, and so do some unexpected other cast members, sometimes in disguise.

So this is a heck of a quest. Trains and giant birds and personal growth and magical arrows and things that you would want on a quest! It is fun and it has brave kid protagonists and they eat Cheetos and fight baddies and basically I think you will like it and also some kids you know might like it! Okay? Okay!

Present Writers: Ellen Kushner

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, and Laurie Marks.

The first several times I mentioned a book by Ellen Kushner, my mother would ask, is it that Ellen Kushner? It is, it is that Ellen Kushner–because my mother listened to NPR’s Sound and Spirit, and that was how she knew Ellen’s name.

But for me, Ellen Kushner meant Riverside, and still does. She’s written other things–Thomas the Rhymer, notably, although there have been others–but her masterwork in fantasy is the series of stories clustered around Riverside, starting with Swordspoint and blossoming into more, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings and eventually the Tremontaine serial.

Though these settings have been shared with other writers, starting with her wife, writer Delia Sherman and going on to a bevy of other talents through the serial, a reread of Swordspoint makes it clear how many of the ideas were layered in from the very beginning. Other talents have brought their own strengths and richness to the stories–but only because Kushner built the space for them into it in the first place. Some of the references are tiny, astonishing in retrospect. Some anticipate current trends by decades. It is a marvel of concise implication, and it isn’t even my favorite of her works. (That would be The Fall of the Kings.) I think this is actually a case where taking up any thread will give you an edge of the tapestry, and I definitely recommend that you do so.

Every time certain other Kushners are referred to by their last name alone, I think, “WHAT? She would neve–oh, that guy,” and remain staunch in my conviction that if they don’t mean Ellen Kushner, they really should specify. Because we all know which is the original.

This couch still open?

This morning you can read my latest essay in Uncanny, Save Me a Seat on the Couch: Spoiler Culture, Inclusion, and Disability. It’s about, among other things, not getting to see the new Star Wars movie yet.

I had to write it before other people could see The Rise of Skywalker, before I had any spoilers, and I knew it would look different once that was out in the world. It does. Welp.

Many of the earliest spoilers I heard were on the way to get my emergency appendectomy. I don’t remember those very well. I just asked Mark to talk to me about the movie he’d gone to see because it was better to have some kind of talk than no kind of talk, driving through the central Michigan night, and that was one where I could set him going and not be expected to have a lot of input, which is it turns out not my strong suit with appendicitis.

The world is full of all sorts of things we don’t expect, and less full of my appendix and Rose Tico than I would have wanted, is what I’m saying.

Favorite short fiction of 2019

These are not sorted by anything but authorial last name. There are novellas, there are flash pieces. If you’re wondering why there’s a slight difference in formatting, the answer is that the ones I read early last year got formatted slightly differently, and I am too exhausted in the aftermath of my appendectomy + shingles to reformat everything to match each other, so as long as the link works I figured we could cope. I did try to find the places where autodefect had changed people’s names to adjectives or other charming alterations. Onward! Enjoy short fiction! I have already started compiling my 2020 list….

Morgan Al-Moor, The Beast Weeps With One Eye (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Elizabeth Bear, Deriving Life (Tor.com)

Elizabeth Bear, Erase, Erase, Erase (F&SF)

Elizabeth Bear, A Time To Reap (Uncanny)

M. E. Bronstein, Elegy of a Lanthornist (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Octavia Cade, The Feather Wall (Reckoning)

Chen Qiufan, Coming of the Light (Broken Stars)

John Chu, Beyond the El (Tor.com)

John Chu, Probabilitea (Uncanny)

Deborah Coates, Girls Who Never Stood a Chance (F&SF)

Tina Connolly, A Sharp Breath of Birds (Uncanny)

Nicky Drayden, The Rat King of Spanish Harlem (Fiyah Issue 9)

Meg Elison, Hey Alexa (Do Not Go Quietly)

Ruthanna Emrys, Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups (Strange Horizons)

Theodora Goss, The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly (Uncanny)

A. T. Greenblatt, Give the Family my Love (Clarkesworld)

Gregory Neil Harris, “The Midnight Host” (Fiyah Issue #12)

Alix E. Harrow, Do Not Look Back, My Lion (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Amanda Hollander, Madness Afoot (F&SF)

Osahon Ize-Iyamu, More Sea Than Tar (Reckoning)

Rachael K. Jones, Oil Under Her Tongue (Do Not Go Quietly)

Cassandra Khaw, What We Have Chosen to Love (Do Not Go Quietly)

Jonathan Kincaid, The Ishologu (Fiyah Issue 9)

Carrie Laben, Postcards from Natalie (The Dark)

Jon Mayo, A House With a Home (Anathema)

Jo Miles, Your Guide to the Ever-Shrinking Solitude on Planet Earth (Nature)

Mimi Mondal, His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light (Tor.com)

Ada Nnadi, Tiny Bravery (Omenana)

Karen Osborne, The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power (Uncanny)

Charles Payseur, Undercurrents (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Aimee Picchi, Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11 (Daily Science Fiction)

Rivqa Rafael, Whom My Soul Loves (Strange Horizons)

Jenn Reese, A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy (Uncanny)

Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, This Is Not My Adventure (Uncanny)

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor writing as A. Merc Rustad, With Teeth Unmake the Sun (Lightspeed)

Nibedita Sen, Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island (Nightmare)

D. A. Xiaolin Spires, Nutrition Facts (Uncanny)

Rachel Swirsky & P.H. Lee, Compassionate Simulation (Uncanny)

Lavie Tidhar, Venus in Bloom (Clarkesworld)

Eugenia Triantafyllou, We Are Here to Be Held (Strange Horizons)

Greg van Eekhout, Big Box (Uncanny)

Nghi Vo, Boiled Bones and Black Eggs (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Ginger Weil, The Day Our Ships Came In (Daily SF)

David Wellington, “Mummy Fever” (Spirits Unwrapped)

Kathryn Weaver, Darling (Metaphorosis)

John Wiswell, The Lie Misses You (Cast of Wonders)

John Wiswell, The Tentacle and You (Nature Futures)

Fran Wilde, A Catalog of Storms (Uncanny)

Fran Wilde, The Unseen (Fireside)

Xia Jia, Goodnight Melancholy (Broken Stars)

Caroline Yoachim, Just Coffee, Every Morning (Daily Science Fiction)

Caroline Yoachim, A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves (Daily Science Fiction)

City of Stone and Silence, by Django Wexler

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also Django and I have taught workshops together and generally hung out at cons etc. I have his and his wife’s Christmas card right here.

This is the sequel to Ship of Smoke and Steel, and while I think it would stand alone fairly well practically, a lot of what’s missing here that was there in the previous volume is…the monsters and the magic. A lot of those things are in this book by implication, brought in by their more extensive presence in the previous book, so this one can focus more on character relationships and further development of the worldbuilding.

I would hope it would go without saying that this is no bad thing? But what it is, to my way of thinking, is a reason to read the first book first, to not attempt to pick up mid-series and hope to have the relationships and stakes handed to you on the fly, when the first book actually takes the time to lay them out for you and give you that arc.

Some of the late-book twist is…a known trope, which is not inappropriately deployed here, which remains nevertheless not my favorite trope, but I know some people love it. It’s a genre-crossing fave for a great many people, and I don’t want to be too spoilerific about it, but if there’s a particular SF/fantasy bender that bugs you more than spoilers bug you, message me and I’ll talk about it. I don’t think Django does it badly, I hasten to add, it’s just a thing that doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the character relationships do. I’m really glad that this is a book with the strong motivations it has, the focus on how and why these people care about each other turned up to basically eleven on every page. That’s worth far more to me than more giant crab fights. Even if I missed the giant crab fights a little.

Books read, late December

Eleanor Arnason, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. Kindle. The artist aliens worked better for me than some of the others. This feels to me like the sort of science fiction about gender that works better as a stepping stone than as an edifice–but I’d rather that we think of a lot more things that way, that we value where it gets us than try to treat it as eternal. And I do like the ongoing attempt at alien perspective here.

Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. This is an ongoing anthropological study of the social forms and services of possession in a particular Sudanese village. The author goes into some detail on genital mutilation practice and how it relates, so that’s a hard chapter to read, but necessary for context, and the rest of how religion interrelates with both local and nonlocal culture is fascinating here.

Stephanie Burgis, The Princess Who Flew With Dragons. The last in its trilogy, young philosophers of multiple species arguing about power in ways that should be accessible to 10-year-olds, while running around caverns and soaring through the skies. Great fun, just what I needed, hurrah.

Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, eds., Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries. This is a very unwieldy physical object, because its conceit is that it has the original poem, then three translations, all side by side, so it is basically double-wide, one two spine three four. And then there is commentary after. The editors have gone to some trouble to get three different translations, rather than just three translators of similar ideas, demographics, time frames; the poems are from all different languages, so the commentary is from different people, and if one set of commentary makes you hrmmm skeptically (probably at least one will), there will be another set for the next poem. I love this sort of thing, and I love this thing, but you definitely want to read it at home on a dry surface, not on the bus or in the bath or on a boat or with a goat or…yeah. It’s a very cool weird thing to do.

Terrell F. Dixon, ed., City Wilds: Essays and Stories About Urban Nature. This is an extremely mixed bag, not just in format but in content. I sometimes marvel at what kind of editor wants bell hooks and someone incredibly sexist in the same volume. Why? But editors are mysterious, and there were some lovely passages about different kinds of small nature particularly, tiny animals neatly observed, very personal.

Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint. Reread. I think the thing that hit me very hard on this reread was Alec as stifled scientist. How that is very clearly in the text and almost all of it offstage–and the entire Mad Duke persona proceeds thereby. He has been thwarted in his pursuit of knowledge, all his misbehavior, everything, the entire Tremontaine saga comes from the powers that be taking scientists and grinding them under their heels–almost completely offstage. This was not the first I read of its series, so I didn’t come to it with that perspective initially, and it hit me like a ton of bricks this time. Dramatic and picturesque sad boys are much more effective on me when they’re for science.

Rose Macaulay, The Making of a Bigot. Kindle. Yet another example of Rose Macaulay not doing the same thing everyone else is doing. This is a book about an earnest young man who can honestly see the good points in everyone’s point of view and how he is closed into not doing that. It is, like many of her other works, a quite funny tragedy. Like several others, it makes me want to introduce her to my friends and protect her rather fiercely from the world she lived in. (We’re just over the ridge, Rose, you can almost make it….) Her mimetic universe is like watching someone die of an infected cut knowing that there’s a usefully moldy sandwich in the next room. Lordy. I will flag that I am removed enough from her context that I cannot entirely tell what is meant by the very brief sections of interracial relation, whether the characters are meant to be satirized for being patronizing or for trying to have friends of different races at all; if the latter, ew, Rose, cut it out, and this ambiguity may not be worth sitting through for you depending on your own context.

Laurie Marks, Water Logic. The elements flow on, and I have gotten as far as water, which is as nonlinear as one might expect. I knew that I didn’t know where this one was going, and I was satisfied with that. I feel very restrained that I didn’t dive on air the minute this one was done. Soon.

Hilary McKay, The Time of Green Magic. I am startled to say that I really like Hilary McKay’s mimetic work better. This was fine, even moderately entertaining, but the fantastical element took a very clear backseat to the mimetic elements and yet stood in for a lot of the McKay wry humor, in my estimation. And I would like both please. Or if not both, I would keep the humor; I can write fantasy myself, and read it lots of places. Ah well.

Lydia Millet, The Fires Beneath the Sea. I am not entirely convinced that Millet has read any middle-grade other than Madeleine L’Engle before she wrote this. No, that’s not fair, there’s probably Susan Cooper or somebody for the bad prophetic poem element. I hasten to add that this did not make for a bad reading experience in the slightest, that “it is 2010 and I want another Madeleine L’Engle novel, this time with environmental themes, so I guess I’ll have to write one myself” worked out reasonably well for me in this case. Better, in fact, than you’d predict. Even with the extremely jarring otter in the first chapter (look, otters were my dad’s thing, it was…a lot for me). It’s just…mostly you expect a professionally published novel not to be quite so much I Read Madeleine And Here’s What I Learned, and yet here we are, and I’m good with it.

Lina Rather, Sisters of the Vast Black. Nuns in a living spaceship–the spaceship reminded me a bit of Nicky Drayden’s in Escaping Exodus but had to have been a matter of convergent ideas–and dealing with personal faith, imperialism, and science. This was right up my alley. Novella, so it won’t take you too long.

Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice. This is a lovely historical Turkish novel about architecture and elephants and love and politics. I will be interested in reading more by Shafak, who’s new to me but not to the literary world–I love having back catalog to explore. Caveat: while the Romany people are treated generally positively, I don’t know how culturally accurate the portrayal is of Turkish Romany of the period, honestly do not know as this is not my field of expertise. But they’re not the main focus of the book, and in the rest there is some interesting borderline fabulism and a lot of historical flutter, which I enjoy.

Present Writers: Laurie Marks

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, and Robin McKinley.

One of the great things about doing this series is that it encourages me to research the authors I’m writing about. I was fully prepared to write about how Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series, by itself, is worthy and awesome and I am so glad to be reading it, I am so excited to have more of it ahead. Because it is about how different people think logically and how we need each other, how different modes of thought fit together and how people with similar modes of thought often come to quite different conclusions, and all these lovely things fit into a fantasy model incredibly well–fantasy is an utterly great way to illuminate these things.

And then I went and looked, and she’s done other books I haven’t even heard of.

What an opportunity I have in front of me! In addition to enjoying this series–in addition to hoping that I can encourage you to be, as we say on the internet, one of today’s lucky 10,000–I am myself one of today’s lucky 10,000.

I love doing this project.

Anyway! So! Diversity of human brain types! In a fantasy matrix! In the context of colonialism and governance and cultures finding ways to live together! And with magic! This is a “yes she can sing, yes she can dance, but can she juggle” author, all in just one series, and apparently there’s more. I can’t wait for more.

Books read, early December

Yves-Marie Berce, History of Peasant Revolts. This is actually not what it says on the tin, it’s a history only of the peasant revolts in France in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and actually mostly in Acquitaine, with only a few notes about other regions and their similarities and differences. I still find that interesting, but the narrower focus is definitely worth noting. Berce seemed to have the firm conviction that he would never be considered a peasant, which is not a conviction I share, so that grated in some places as well. Worth having but also worth supplanting and/or supplementing.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapter 24. Kindle. The final chapter of this serial, bringing the threads of this book together for a conclusion that happened to be quite appropriate to the season in which I’m reading it, in its own Martian way.

Stephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible, and Olivia, Invisible. (The latter on Kindle.) This is a charming and magical middle grade novel and the tie-in short story about the daughter of the protagonist of the novel. There are fancy dress balls, house parties, sibling fights, and bits of magic gone completely wrong. They’re rollicking good fun, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Mary Cagle, Sleepless Domain Volume 1. This is the beginning of a comic that’s very heavily influenced by anime. It’s full of magical girls with a diverse set of powers, attending school together to better facilitate their schedule in protecting their city. This plot arc is just getting started.

Aliette de Bodard, The House of Sundering Flames. The last in a trilogy, with lots about parenthood and protection, decay and hope. Definitely don’t start here, but I’m so glad to have gotten here in the end.

Nancy Goldstone, Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots. Oh seventeenth century Germany. Oh Stuart England. OH JAMES I AND VI NO. No matter what you think you know about what a jerk James I and VI was, there is always more jerk for that man to be. Always. But there were loads of interesting and (at least somewhat) competent Stuarts running around not being monarchs of England and Scotland, and this is good stuff about them. If you’ve looked at The Triumph of the Winter Queen in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, this is them. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson, this is them. Descartes shows up, Liebniz shows up, Northern Europe was very small at the time. There’s room for the Defenestration of Prague in here and still time to stop off to paint self-portraits. Good fun.

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago. Do you like Guy Kay books? This is one. I wouldn’t rank it among the most brilliant of his offerings unless you are passionately in love with Florence and possibly not then (I am not, so I can’t judge), but there are lovely moments in it, and I do, in fact, like Guy Kay books, and so look, here’s one, I read it, I’m not at all sorry. I love what he does with thinking about what it would be like to be at various moments in history, but sideways enough that he can do his own things with them.

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House. This was extremely compelling and horrifying, the memoir of an abusive relationship in very short chapters, vividly written, self-aware, self-contained, alarming. I was glad to read it and glad to be done reading it.

Judith Merril, Homecalling: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril. I’d read a lot of this already, but I’m really glad to revisit it and have it all in one cover. It has all the flaws it always had but also all the virtues. I love her so much. I want to go back in time and fetch her and show her what we’ve done.

Daniel Jose Older, Dactyl Hill Squad: Freedom Fire. Second in its series of middle grade books about children of color fighting the US Civil War for the Union, using their telepathic connection to pterodactyls, in an alternate universe full of dinosaurs. Full of fun but also full of serious stuff, as Older has no intention of treating the Civil War as apolitical as well he should not.

Joy Lisi Rankin, A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Short, pithy, focuses on who used computers at various stages and how that use shaped their further development, what barriers and assumptions that use and development encountered. An interesting counterweight to more common narratives where single individuals developed vacuum tubes in, er, vacuums.

Troy L. Wiggins, DaVaun Sanders, and Brandon O’Brien, eds., Fiyah Issue 12. Kindle. Another strong and interesting issue, this one themed around Chains. My favorite story was “The Midnight Host,” by Gregory Neil Harris.