Good things, late May

1. Some of you have already heard this on other social media, but this week I sold a short story, “The New Girl,” to Apex Magazine. Hurrah! Apex will be publishing another short story in the same universe (but not with any recognizably similar elements) next week, so stay tuned.

2. Marie Brennan is doing a Kickstarter for a novel. Chains and Memory will be the sequel to her previous novel, Lies and Prophecy, and you can get them both. Notice how I am saying “will be” and “can get”? That’s because the Kickstarter has already funded. But there are stretch goals, so go give it a look. (Even when there aren’t stretch goals, usually the funding goal for a Kickstarter is not the point at which the project creator starts swimming, Scrooge McDuck style, in vats of money and can make all the cool things in the world happen without anxiety, related to their project. Backers can always back out, expenses always exist. If you think a Kickstarter looks like a good idea from a trustworthy source, overfunding a bit it is nearly always a good idea.)

3. Hanne Blank is doing a new subscription project called 52 Weeks To Your Best Body Ever. Unlike most projects of this type, it will not be strictly gendered, focused on “bikini bodies,” or anything weird and icky like that. This is a “feel better in your skin” sort of project. (It’s Hanne, so there may also be a few “make your skin feel better” things, I don’t know.) I’ve enjoyed Hanne’s previous subscription project, which was recipe focused, and I think she’s got a lot to say here that will be of value to a wide variety of people.

The Severed Streets, by Paul Cornell

Review copy provided by Tor.

Last year when I read London Falling, I thought that it was clear that the beats fell where they would in a Doctor Who episode, and that’s still one of the places where Paul Cornell’s TV background is coming through in the sequel. Another place, though, is that I’m afraid he leans pretty heavily on the actors to carry the characterization and charisma of the characters. This…is not entirely ideal in a novel, where there are no actors.

Here, the most vivid character is Neil Gaiman. I don’t mean “someone who was made to startlingly resemble Neil Gaiman but was slyly named something like Bill Hayman so that only those in the know will recognize him.” No. It was actual Neil Gaiman as a major character–and yes, a major one; he seems early on to be making a minor cameo, and if you think, Lordy, this is about all the Neil Gaiman cameo I can take, there’s more. I hate Tuckerizations. This is a Tuckerization on steroids. This could have the alternate title All Tuckered Out. Best Bib and Tucker. Etc.

In a world where I don’t seem to be getting Mike Carey books any more, in a world where Ben Aaronovitch books don’t come out as often as they might, this is a London urban fantasy series, and it will do. But it’s pretty flat affect, and the Jack-the-Ripper inversions don’t ever get as vivid or as important as they might, and, well, it’s all right, if you’re up for that much Neil Gaiman as a fictional character, I guess. I’m a little worried about who will guest star in the next episode–er, novel–and what will be joyless about it. But I haven’t quit on the series yet.

Strange Country, by Deborah Coates

Review copy provided by Tor.

This is the third in its series, and I think that both the emotional resonances and the plot points will be strongest if you start with the first one, Deep Down. (Edit: Sorry, no, Wide Open is first.) Which is available, so lucky you! Both the marketing copy and the book itself indicate closure as a trilogy, if you’re concerned about never-ending series; on the other hand I feel that this setting/approach has a lot of juice in it still, so if Coates decides to do more related works now that this trilogy is over, I will still line up for them.

As of Strange Country, Hallie Michaels has been back from Afghanistan long enough that she’s had time to make new, South Dakota-based trauma memories. Yay! Um. Not-yay. She’s had a rough ride when the series begins, and things do not get easier for her in the third book: her neighbors in West Prairie City start getting picked off with a sniper rifle, and Hallie and boyfriend (-ish thing? boyfriend-like object?) Boyd Davies have to figure out who’s doing it and why. And why there’s a skeleton buried in the basement of one of the victims, and what the funny rocks with the skeleton are, and how they work, and…

Yeah. So it keeps getting good. But one of the things that makes this special, that makes this not just another urban fantasy, is that it’s not urban at all. It’s very rural. And it’s rural for my people, for the Upper Midwest, for South Dakotans. The sense of scale of the northern middle prairies is just beautifully done, the importance of meat and trucks and the industries that aren’t prioritized elsewhere, the primacy of cities that aren’t even recognizable in most of the rest of the world.

And the dialog–this should be mandatory reading for people thinking of moving to the Upper Midwest from Elsewhere. As Timprov noted, it has Closed Captioning for the Subtlety Impaired. There are all sorts of places where the dialog is absolutely spot on, where what the characters say out loud is, “Yeah,” or, “I guess,” or exactly the very few words they would actually say, and then the text incorporates what that actually means in the next few lines for the benefit of those who are not alive to the nuances of the Yeah. It’s well enough done that I didn’t even entirely notice Coates was doing it until I realized that a few places were feeling a bit redundant to me…and then I went, “Oh. Oh yeah.” Not everyone goes into European history books reading enough French not to need footnotes, and Upper Midwestern is also not a second language for most readers. Better to have the in-line translations. They are very smooth.

Also there are dogs, and the dogs are important. So yeah: I am a sucker for this book.

Edit: Tor is offering a giveaway of the whole trilogy to someone in the US or Canada. Comment on this post (either the marissalingen.com location or livejournal, doesn’t matter), and I will randomly select one of you for the free books. Hurrah free books! Edit again: Argh where is my brain. Comment eligibility for this will close Saturday.

Touchstone, Elsewhens, and Thornlost, by Melanie Rawn

Review copies provided by Tor Books.

These are the first three volumes of what I thought was a trilogy. It turns out no, not a trilogy at all, but a longer series, so the question, “how is she going to wrap this up by the end?” is answered with, “Oh. She’s not.” The series is called Glass Thorns, which in the context of this fantasy world translates basically as Syringe or possibly Bong or Crack Pipe: the Glass Thorns are the in-world drug delivery system. (Thornlost, the third title, is basically Stoned Out Of One’s Gourd, fantasy style. It is not going to be hard to find readers with more sympathy for this than I have.)

So the basic premise is that there are groups of four men (always four, always men) who perform magic theater, and it sort of gets a rock band dynamic going with the partying and the drugs and the women and like that. Except…I am kind of confused about why someone who wanted to do that scene would set it up to leave out the women who did that scene, and only have the groupies and outsiders–especially someone who was born in 1954 as Melanie Rawn’s bio says she was. Sure, the Beatles, the Stones, etc. were all dudes. But Janis, Aretha, Grace Slick, Mama Cass, Diana Ross…oh, never mind, you can make your own list. Point being, I honestly do not understand why you would set up a world to be ringing the changes on that subculture–which was, don’t get me wrong, plenty misogynist–and then say, “What we need here is way more misogyny.” Having the setup be that misogynist and then having one of the really unsympathetic characters be the Yoko Ono figure…from an entire race of Yoko Onos, basically the only “bad” race of the books passing magic through the female line…ick. And also ew.

(On this front, there is small social progress in Thornlost…tiny, tiny social progress…which is not particularly personally motivated by the stuff that’s been going on with these characters, so…yeah, good for the society I guess, kind of weird and random for these particular people.)

(Oh, and: I also really liked that there was approximately no racial purity in this world. Everybody was some kind of mix. That was good! Except…traits apparently breed true to blood lines in D&D/Batman villain style, with talents and appearance correlating strongly. That’s…less awesome.)

And then…the main character, Cade Silversun, sees visions of possible futures (the “elsewhens” of the second book title). And some of them are great and some are terrible, and pretty much all the really terrible ones involve the band–oh, excuse me, the troupe–doing massive quantities of drugs and drinking. And none of these jerks ever once says, “Huh, maybe we shouldn’t do that, then.” Don’t get me wrong: this is massively plausible if you’ve ever read anything about, say, John Belushi. I absolutely believe that if someone had visited John Belushi with knowledge of his future and said, “Dude, drugs are going to be really dangerous for you, they could end your career or even your life,” he’d have said, “Oh wow, so good to know, I’d better find exactly the right drugs so that that doesn’t happen!” So yes: plausible. Sympathetic and interesting? Not really. And Cade’s move to fatalism at the end of the third book would be a lot more interesting if he hadn’t been so completely fatalistic to begin with: “What can I do to avoid these horrible futures I see? aside, I mean, from actually doing anything significant, or telling my dearest friends about them. Even my dearest friend who knows I see the visions. And stuff. Um.”

I kept reading these books partly because of my misperception that it was a trilogy and would therefore have closure but partly because I am interested in theatrical troupes in fantasy. The use of magic to create specific theatrical experiences, and what their focus was, started out pretty interesting to me. I didn’t feel it lived up to that promise. Rawn did develop some of what the troupes were doing, but their intergroup dynamic was pretty stagnant–the two secondary members stayed very much in the background, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself which was which–and what development was there was more told than shown. There was room for a lot here, and frankly it might still get developed in later books, but I can’t imagine having the patience to sit through hundreds more pages of these people being drunk and high and angsting about what horrible people they might become and not taking particularly many steps not to become them.

Do I sound slightly bitter? I thought it was awfully nice of the people at Tor who send me books to send the first two when they found I didn’t have them, since the third isn’t a stand-alone, but I think it really should have said more to me that the publicity copy was not saying “stunning conclusion” or “triumphant ending” or anything like that. That’s really not Melanie Rawn’s fault. On the other hand, be aware that you will be in it for the long haul with the stoned-out drunk frat-prank whiners if you sign on with this series. That’s what you’re getting here, not…self-contained stoned-out drunk frat-prank whiners.

I really liked Melanie Rawn books when I was a kid.

I’m going to go read something else now.

Books read, early May

Tanita S. Davis, A la Carte. Mainstream YA novel about a young woman who likes to cook and learns to make less crappy choices in friends. The cooking/baking stuff is all very vivid, but the (Wo)Man Who Learned Better plot is so very didactic that it’s not very much fun to read. It’s kind of like a Sarah Dessen novel that way, honestly. Not the greatest. A lot of people need to learn to make good choices as teenagers, but being yelled at by your books is…not awesome.

Alan Gratz, The League of Seven. Discussed elsewhere.

John Kessel, The Pure Product. Reread. A relief after the Dozois/Martin anthology that preceded it last fortnight. There was snap, there was forward motion, there was…oh, I don’t know what. Zany. There was a reason to show up and a reason to stick around. “Faustfeathers” was pure self-indulgence, but what are short stories for if not to have moments of wandering off into pure nerdy self-indulgence every once in awhile.

Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. Ox hoists! And other details of how they got it done in Renaissance Florence. What really startled me about this book is that they apparently had this dome, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, planned without knowing how they were going to actually make it happen. From a modern standpoint that seems, um, kind of important. It’s a crucial insight into the difference in priorities. The titular dome-builder was a goldsmith, not a mason, which is kind of awesome also. Short book, interesting, detailed and cool.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Valour and Vanity. Discussed elsewhere.

Blair MacGregor, Sword and Chant. Discussed elsewhere.

Michael Merriam, Whispers in Space. I’ve read mostly fantasy from Michael before, so it was fun to see how he played with SF genre furniture instead. This is a short volume with short stories, so it zipped right by before I could entirely catch my breath. Zoom! Slower readers than I am will still find it fast-paced, I think.

Margi Preus, West of the Moon. This is shelved in children’s…possibly because of its length and the age of its protag? But it’s full of rickets and cholera and abuse and abandonment, so…gruesome things a lot of kids like, I guess. None of the fairy tale references are ever concrete–they’re all things that the main character knows about, not things that happen to her in 19th century Norway and on the boat to America. Interesting work, but if you have a kid who’s going to get freaked out by the gruesome, choose carefully.

Melanie Rawn, Touchstone. To be discussed as part of a larger series review.

Marcus Samuelsson, Yes, Chef. A memoir by the famous chef who is culturally Swedish, ethnically Ethiopian, and now by residence American. While Samuelsson is occasionally not as enlightened as he hopes (who among us is?), his observations about working in and eventually running kitchens around the world remain worth the price of admission.

Clete Barrett Smith, Alien on a Rampage. Second in its series about an intergalactic bed-and-breakfast in the Pacific Northwest. The plot runs on rails, and everything is pretty much as it seems. Very fast read, and I will still give the third one a chance because I liked the first well enough. Possibly will not be so obvious to its target age group–I can’t tell how much it’s because I’m a jaded reader?–but kids are smart, and there aren’t really blind alleys or red herrings in this one.

Daniel Tammet, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind. I think Tammet thinks that he is more unusual than I think he is, or maybe I am more unusual than I think I am, and so are all the people I know, or something. Also this is probably not aimed at me, because it all read like pretty basic neuropsych stuff to me. Anyway, mildly interesting if you don’t know much about memory, learning, and neuropsych, not that great if you’ve read much of anything in the field already. A fast read.

Jo Walton, My Real Children. Discussed elsewhere.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor. Further, not only is the author a personal friend, but I helped with this book in draft. You can go to the acknowledgments in the back and see where it says so, pretty specifically.

Various individuals and movements in SFF have talked about how they draw inspiration from whomever they please (I remember one China Mieville manifesto in the pages of Locus waxing poetic on this theme in particular), but I don’t recall seeing very many SF novels that were actually inspired by the sort of mid-century British women’s literary fiction that informs My Real Children, authors like AS Byatt and Rumer Godden–or even their cross-ocean counterparts, Gail Godwin and Margaret Atwood. This very much does. My Real Children is the story of a woman’s life and family, bifurcated. Patricia Cowan starts out singular, a seven-year-old on the beach in the UK of the 1930s, and for her early days as Patsy and Patty we see a unified storyline. Then there is the crucial moment, the split, and it is–as is appropriate for the style of book that this is–a marriage proposal.

Up until that point, Patricia’s world could be our world. After that she is both Pat and Trish, and neither of her worlds are ours. The divergence happens slowly and on human scale–there is no sudden alien landing, no moment where one of the versions of our heroine turns out to be a cyborg from the future–but the small changes are real and important, both to the world at large and to Patricia as a person. Some things that seem like her core self remain constant–when she is an old woman, she remembers two lives, so she conceives of herself as one, as herself. Others–everything from faith to food–diverge sharply enough to call core self into question.

Which makes it sound like an intellectual exercise, when it’s not that, or not just that, it’s deeply emotional. Each of the characters gets highly personal joys and sorrows, very sharp emotional relief but also bits of keenly observed mundane life that doesn’t quite line up with the way mundane reality worked out in our own timelines. All sorts of bits of women’s lives that get ignored or swept off to the sidelines in traditional science fiction are front and center here, and it is a richer book for them.

It’s a very strange feeling, trying to write an ordinary review post about a book that I already talked to the author about in this much detail while it was in draft. I’m all ready to talk about how it makes me hungry for gelato, how I thought of this book when people my age were moaning about how it didn’t feel like twenty years since Kurt Cobain died and I blurted out, “Come on, not only had I not had sex then, I hadn’t even had gelato,” and then I thought of My Real Children and whether there was a branched-off universe in which I never had gelato, not even once. I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like me. But then it wouldn’t have sounded like Pat, either, so there we are, not knowing which column it goes in, the unchanging fundamentals or the large looming things that get oddly swept aside as a result of small perturbations. And now it’s coming out soon and the rest of you can read it and see what I mean about the gelato and how Bee is the best but Bethany is pretty good too, how we make the best lives we can in the worlds we have to deal with and sometimes the best lives and the best worlds are not at all convergent.

I love this book because it’s doing more than one thing I like at once in ways that nobody else is doing, and even if other people start doing more of it, it’s full of concrete specifics, so I will still love this one, the way the children are in passport control and the way one experience in college informs two evolutions of viewpoint in entirely different ways. I love the bits of this book that don’t go the obvious places they might have. It has wrenching horrible pieces and is not always easy to read, but it would not have the impact that it does on me if it didn’t. Most of all, though, the overlap of influences gives it such rich context that I really enjoy, and I will be interested to see how people who come to it from only one part of that context or another find and enjoy it.

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor.

This is the fourth in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series of Regency fantasies. Two of the things that I like about it may seem contradictory, but I don’t think that they are. I think that it stands alone better than the previous two volumes–that it is a better jumping-in point than any other volume since the first, basically, and that’s valuable in an ongoing series. And I also think that it follows up on a character/emotional situation from the end of the third volume that I felt ended abruptly. I don’t think these two things are at all contradictory: the particular situation is one that can be introduced very smoothly into the text at the beginning of this volume and ramify throughout, but it had nagged at me since the end of volume three, and I was very glad to see it addressed here.

Jane and Vincent remain the main characters, and in fact one of the things that makes this volume stand alone fairly well is that they are traveling to Venice, leaving their friends and relations behind as they develop ideas for linking their new glamour (magic) skills and the Venetian glass industry. Venice, however, does not welcome them with open arms. Venice, in fact, is full of swindlers and con artists, though there are also some decent people they can trust–the trick, of course, is sorting out who. There are police and noblemen, nuns and puppeteers, glassblowers and glamour pupils, and which of them are out to steal the obscuring glamours–and with what allies and for what purposes.

I love glassblowing, and I love consequences, and this has both. There are even non-metaphorical fires: the cover is not misleading as so many fantasy novels with fiery covers are. If you’ve been keeping up with the series, this is a worthy entry; if you haven’t, go ahead and start here if you like.

two additions

1. With the Reader: War for the Oaks Kickstarter closing at 4 Central Time, I hear that it now has a Pamela Dean essay included in the photo book. Very, very cool. Go, little Kickstarter, go!

2. You can add to the pool of dragons in my friend Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series if you want to design your own. Write up a description of no more than two hundred words of your new dragon or draconic cousin sub-species, send it to dragons.of.trent@gmail.com with the subject line “DRAGON: [your dragon name here],” and if your dragon is among the chosen ones, you’ll get an ARC of the new book, which is full of sea serpents. I should totally do this, because I can easily be bought with sea serpents, but since I often get ARCs as a reviewer, I’m going to leave it to those of you who imagine draconic species but don’t usually get sent free sea-serpenty books. But think of your 12-year-old self (or if you are 12, think of yourself): “you just write a short description of a new kind of dragon, and if they like it, they send you a free fantasy novel.” That’s a pretty good deal.

(If you start noodling with dragons and writing it up and think, “Wait, this new kind of dragon is too awesome to give to Marie Brennan, I will go write my own dragon story,” I bet she would consider that a pretty nifty outcome too. More dragons for everybody! But no free book in that case.)

The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz

Review copy provided by Starscape.

I feel a little conflicted about this book.

On the one hand, it’s a reasonably fun children’s book, with First Nations cultures all over North America, multicultural alliances, clockwork toys that are trained to do amazing things, and all sorts of rushing about in trains and airships.

On the other hand, the prose is pretty jerky in parts, and what the titular League of Seven is protecting the world from, explicitly right there on the page…

…is science.

Every age, seven heroes arise to protect the world from the forces of lektricity, including a leader and a strong man and…yeah. They protect the world from the swarming evils of science, represented by the Hive Queen.

So despite Hachi, who is a pretty cool First Nations girl character who “kicks brass” (sigh, kids’ books) and has these little clockwork toys that help her and is fierce and fun, I…well, I am the swarming evils of science, folks. That’d be me. (Bzzz.) So I read this book all the way through, going, “But he’s going to notice that Fergus the tinkerer is actually a proto-scientist, right? We’re going to undermine this ‘protected from science’ and have Mr. Rivets the clockwork man notice that he runs on science?” Except that we don’t know that he does. He might well run on magic. And while Tesla appears on the good side, sort of, he’s, well, about as sane as you’d expect Tesla to be, and Edison is far less sane than you’d expect Edison to be (even if you’d just read a bio of Edison), cacklingly hand-rubbingly cat-strokingly evil.

And then the revelations about Our Hero’s True Nature and his family…were not what I would call deftly handled. So as much as I want to like Hachi…as much as I want Gratz to overcome a lot of the stuff he’s dipped this book in…kind of ew, honestly. Ew. The swarming evils of science are going to swarm somewhere else now. Bzz. Ew.

Robert Heinlein today and reaching for the world

On this day in 1988, Robert Heinlein died. I was ten; I hadn’t yet read any of his books or realized that the label “science fiction” was going to sort out a lot of the books I wanted to read. I’ve run into blog posts lately either claiming that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today (apparently because of the bad bad liberal politics of the field?) or refuting that claim pretty effectively (either on the grounds of non-uniformity of politics of the field or on the idea that Heinlein would not have stood still as a writer or both).

But I was thinking about Heinlein’s life influences, and look. If Heinlein was of an age to still be reasonably alive and writing today–say, if he was my age, even–he would have gone to an integrated Annapolis. His Navy would have been racially integrated, and it would have been gender integrated, not as an event, but for his entire life. As something he would have taken for granted. And for all the back and forth about how enlightened he was for his time, or was not, depending on which side you take, it changes a person to have their formative educational/professional experience segregated that way. He managed to fight against those assumptions some, as good people of his generation did. But the formative experience was like that.

I just keep thinking about this stuff as a young friend of mine approaches her physics undergrad degree, nearly twenty years after I started mine. At the good liberal arts colleges around here, the places where she applied, physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now. A third! Can you imagine? I can’t. I honestly can’t. I get a lump in my throat thinking about all the other varied young people she’ll have around her while she learns. Why, it’ll be like…it’ll be like….

Shit, it’ll be like being a science fiction writer.

That’s amazing.

I look back at my early writing, when I was coming out of that life, and how natural Smurfette casting still felt. I look at how often I wrote just one significant female character not just in short stories with small casts but in longer works–not all the time, but often. Because that was my life. Not all the time. But often. And I was the girl. Smurfette was me. Princess Leia was me. Think how much easier it would have been not to bounce back from it, not to reach for the women influences from the rest of my life, the entire tapestry of influences from the rest of my life, if I had been in that environment as a guy. If I’d lived that life and come out of that life and when there was only one girl in my class it was someone outside my own skin. And then think if there were no girls at all, inside my own skin or not. I think people often misread this as “I want to have a message to have X women in things as a quota,” when in fact I mean: it was really broken to have things draw from that lopsided a pool, and the rest of life is not that broken, and I don’t want my stories to feel that broken. I want to be able to reach for the world and have the whole world there to reach for. And when you’ve been in that segregated an environment, you’re reaching for the world with only one arm, and that arm’s got a pulled muscle in the shoulder and a broken wrist.

The Naval Academy is still 4:1, male:female. But when there was no ratio, it had to have affected him. Had to. The idea that “if Robert Heinlein was writing today” would result in anything even remotely like what we saw–I mean, even aside from the Great Depression, World War II, the existence of SF as a maturing field, anything like that. Just thinking about where and how he did his education. Guys, you can’t change just one thing. You can’t pick people up and put them down in history. “If your grandfather was alive to see this,” we say, and with our grandfathers, with the artists who are the ages of our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers, we have the delusion that we could just keep them going as they were, without having them change with the triumphs and the setbacks and all the things that happen in a life, because their lives were somewhat close to ours. We don’t bother to say, “If Rembrandt was alive today, could he win a Chesley Award?”, because we’re more aware of the remove. But the remove is still there. It doesn’t make excuses. It does make changes. It does make differences.

It’s up to us to make them good ones. It’s up to us to build on those differences. My God, a third of her classmates women! I think that’s an expanded universe we can all believe in, regardless of what we think of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo chances.