A Gathering of Shadows, by V. E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic. I think that reading the first book adds a lot to the reading experience of this one, and it’s definitely a classic middle book structure–there is plot that is resolved here, but there’s a pretty big cliffhanger at the ending. However, if you want to start here I think it actually would do a pretty good job of giving you the clues you need of who is who and what is what–not quite all the emotional depth/implication that you’d get if you read both, and the previous volume is readily available, but still. Should work.

There are four parallel Londons, with differing types and levels of magic, and a few lucky (har, har) people can cross between them. None of these is happy fun-fun land, but some of them are nastier than others. We spend most of A Gathering of Shadows in the most interesting, Red London, which is the least gratuitously vicious and the most magically endowed. If you’ve been missing formal elemental magic tournament battles since Avatar: Legend of Korra finished its run, wow, is this ever the book for you. There’s a lot of battling with earth, water, air, and fire here in formal tournament duel structure.

In addition to the fighting, there’s also torture, revenge, something that might be true love if you look at it funny, and definitely murdered by pirates. Murdered by pirates is good. There are some messed up nobles/royals–messed up multiple ways in multiple worlds–and a few fancy balls with fancy ball gowns, but not so much of it that I think it’ll bog you down if it’s not your thing. It is not really a kissing book, but there is a little kissing. Betrayal. More betrayal. Perceived betrayal. Serious loyalty. Pain shared that is not, in fact, pain halved. Some of you will be serious suckers for this book and find that it pushes your own personal buttons very, very hard. For the rest–if you’re feeling like a fun fantasy adventure, it can be that, as it was for me, even if the buttons it’s pushing aren’t quite yours. And there’s very clearly a big finish yet to come.

Please consider using our link to buy A Gathering of Shadows from Amazon.

Listen to Kenny Rogers, storytellers.

Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

I am a big fan of the TV show The Good Wife, and by “a big fan” I mean “a person who is behind by a full season at this point,” but that doesn’t make my enthusiasm less strong, it just means that I am physically incapable of watching broadcast and, eh, life. But I really do love this show. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. I’m looking forward to watching every episode, and when Alec visits, I am now watching every episode a second time so that I can enjoy them with him.

The network confirmed a few weeks ago what those of us who pay attention to title structure* already know: that this season, season seven, is the last season of The Good Wife. And I am glad. Because I used to be a fan of Criminal Minds, and I’m currently watching S10 of it with my workout. And uff da. Uff da. It is the shambling corpse of the show I used to love.

One of the episodes I watched yesterday tied up a plot thread that had been left from season two. And it did so in the most inane and simplistic way possible, taking all emotional complexity out of the equation, just: yep, this thing happened. We were sad. There was another person sad too. We tried to comfort him. People knew each other in the past. The end.

So it’s clearly not that people run out of plot, because there was some plot, just sitting around right there unused, and they used it. It’s something else that happens. The momentum runs out. The elastic wears out, the story needs a belt and suspenders to keep going. A lot of shows that get to be a train wreck as time goes on, it’s clear that there was plot yet to happen, they just…couldn’t wrangle it all as they tried to go and go and go.

So get in. Tell your story. And for the love of little green turtles get out again. And when a story you love ends–not when it’s cut off, but when it comes to an actual ending–be glad that it had the grace to do so, instead of becoming its own self-parody.

(I refer to the fourth Brunette Agent on Criminal Minds as O. If you name the first two Elle and Em, you cannot blame me for calling the next two N and O. Brunette women: not interchangeable! Come on, show! I hear tell that O is not long for this show. I do not look forward to P. Why am I still watching this show about how you are not safe in your home, or also if you leave your home you are not safe, and especially on the internet you are not safe? Because for as terrible as it is now, it’s still the right pace for my workouts. Sigh.)

What if people don’t like the next thing you do as well as this thing? Well. Then they don’t. That’s a risk. They also might not like this thing as well as this thing.

What if you can’t think of a next thing? Eat some strawberries (or an orange if you are allergic to strawberries; whatever). Take a walk where there are trees. Breathe.

What if people nag you and nag you and they spend the rest of your life nagging you about the thing you did that they liked so much? Remember that it is great when people like things you make, but it does not make them the boss of you, and it does not excuse them from polite behavior. And it is far better to be begged for more of your art than to be begged to stop.

Now go on. Know when to hold ’em, but err on the side of folding ’em.

*Season one of The Good Wife had one-word episode titles. Season two, two-word episode titles. And so on until season five, which had three-word episode title again, and Tim and I turned to each other and said, “Well, guess it’s a seven-season show, then. Cool.”

Brain eaten; normal service to resume.

Look, I do a lot less personal detail blogging than I used to back in the glory days of livejournal. I have the urge a lot less. And in general I think this is a good thing. In general I don’t want you to feel like you will know where I am at all times, and who with, and what we had for supper.

Occasionally, though, there’s something that makes a big brain-eating chunk. Like trying to figure out the details of a complicated multi-generational multi-leg trip to Sweden and surrounding areas for later this year. That is the sort of thing that can take up a great deal of a person’s mental energy.

Ideally this will be sorted soon with tickets and hotels and all, and I can go back to theorizing about this and ranting about that and reviewing the other thing. In the meantime if you have any can’t-miss items in Stockholm or Uppsala or even LuleĆ„, do say.

Books read, early February

John Bierhorst, The Mythology of South America. This is an anthropology-level overview, talking about common features of myths among different ethnic groups of South Americans. It starts out pretty dubiously, talking as though myth-formation is a thing done by Those Primitives, you see, and not by Us Civilized People, so you have to take it with a grain of salt–it’s mostly interesting as a source of avenues for further exploration–oh, this motif here, let’s explore what that really means in detail with people who know what they’re doing.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. A gentle mid-life romance among the Vorkosigans and the alien fauna of Sergyar. At 76 Cordelia is not yet even a little bit old by Betan standards, and for me this is a shame; I am looking for more books that are about protagonists who actually feel old. But “more time with these characters you like” worked just fine for me in general, even if I want even more time with them later–and it was definitely a book full of grown-ups, and there are not enough of those either.

Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey, The House of War and Witness. Intertemporal ghost stories weaving back to a crisis moment in the 18th century. I was disappointed in this–it was reasonably well done, but compared to their previous collaboration, The Steel Seraglio, it was not at all my thing. The different ghost stories through time were quite well done, as was the 18th century main protagonist whose life was pretty awful. It just was hitting various tropes that are not at all of interest to me fairly hard, and in a narrative featuring an abusive relationship that was sensitively handled but difficult to read.

Edwidge Danticat, Untwine. Heartfelt YA about a young woman learning to live without her twin–her entire family learning to live without, really. The Haitian political references Danticat is known for were around the edges–this is a Haitian-American family, its relatives multilingual and naming their cats after politicians, but the core of this book is where the personal does not much overlap with the political.

Albert Goldbarth, Across the Layers. Reread. Lots of prose poems and borderline-prose poems. Not much snagged me this time through, and I don’t know that I will give it a third go. The interesting things he was doing with his family immigrant voice were not immigrant things that really caught me much with individual moments or lines.

Rachel Hartman, Seraphina. Come for the early modern/premodern musical instruments, stay for the saint culture. What, shapeshifting dragons? Yes, all right, I suppose you can have some of those too. It adds up to familial relationships with alien psychologies in some ways, which I am much more interested in than “fire thing go swoop.” Although there is fire thing go swoop, if that’s what you’re here for.

David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Wow, what a book. Soil science. Politics of erosion and soil depletion laid out in multiple places worldwide, throughout time, with explicit parallels drawn. Fascinating, lovely, much recommended. It made me want to scream and swear and punch things sometimes, but not without hopeful spots also. And dirt! Dirt is great!

Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, eds., Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2014. I have a policy of not reviewing books I’m in. So much potential to be tacky. So: this exists, I’m in it, I read it. You can read it too.

Bogi Takacs, Changing Body Templates. Kindle. This short was a bonus from a charitable donation I made, and was interesting in its cultural reference points.

Chris West, A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps. Each year I buy myself a book for my grandpa’s birthday. I pick something I would have wanted to share with him, since I am not actually done sharing things with my grandpa yet despite the utter stupid inconvenience of death. As 300-page histories of the US go, this is not the worst you could do, particularly if you wanted something to hand to someone who is not from the US. It suffers from a few quite glaring flaws. Its sexism, racism, and classism are the benevolent sort, but still present. It has a strong and annoying present-day skew–three hundred pages of all of American history and culture and you can fit in Monica Lewinsky, really? Alice Paul is irrelevant, never mind Grace Hopper, but Monica Lewinsky must appear? And on the other hand I started to wonder whether its author was merely clueless or an extreme Tory in his own country and trying to shore up his own party’s allies, because while the aforementioned Affaire Lewinsky did appear, the election of President Geo. W. Bush came and went without the least hint that it was the tiniest bit controversial in its practicalities. So while he did a good job of explaining some of the American history things that Americans generally take for granted, there were also some tone-deaf notes.

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Generation Why. I enjoy Kamala Khan. I enjoy her even more with a very large teleporting doggie.

You oughta know (process, not Alanis)

One of the nice things about doing anything for long enough–writing fiction, baking bread, whatever–is that you start to get a feel for how it goes for you. What’s thrashing around and what’s process, what’s thrashing around that’s part of process.

Some of us have way more thrashing around in our process than others.

I think the trick is to become okay with that.

So for example: last month. I was writing a story I told someone I would write. Or rather–I was writing a category of story I told them I would write. It was a pretty loose category. And I had to write several thousand words on each of a couple stories to find out that, nope, no story here! Because sometimes the dead end is obvious, and sometimes the dead end takes awhile to find. In this case, the person I had told I would write this story was a professional editor, and I had given them the concept for one of the stories with a dead end. And they agreed that, golly gee, sure sounded like a story! But nearly 4K later, I knew that I could force it to be a clanking clattering story-like object. It would have a science fictional idea, characters, a plot, a beginning, a middle, an end, something you could point to and call setting, something else you could point to and call theme. But what I could not do was get a good story that I would be happy with.

So I tried another story, and then another, and then poof! There was the story. Hurrah! Happy ending! (It actually did happen to have a happy ending on the story I ended up writing. But I mean the meta-story I am telling you here. That has a happy ending.)

For some people, this would be completely unacceptable. Not part of the process. I am happy for them. I am so glad they have a process that works. That is their process. This is mine, where I fling myself cheerfully at things, quite often with some notion of how I think they will go but sometimes not, and sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m wrong. And sometimes the wrong wanders off into something better and more interesting. Yay! Process! But sometimes the wrong just dead-ends. And this too is process.

I think the key word here is “should,” as in: sorting out what I should and should not be able to tell in advance. Example: yesterday I wrote a complete short story from just a title. I knew that I did not have a story there until I sat down to write it. That is good. That is what I should know. If I thought that I did have a story there, that would be wrong. But if I thought that not having it was the same as there being no story there, that would also be wrong.

Some people can tell in advance whether there is enough for a story, before they have written nearly 4000 words. Bully for them! But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for me to get hung up on these people and say that I should be able to tell that. What I should be able to tell is some of the time when there isn’t. The file I have open now: it is not organized yet. It has the gestalt of a story–it has the mouth feel of a story–it has the weight of a story–it has the voice of a story. But it does not have the structure of a story yet. That is something that I should know, that I should be able to tell from here. And in getting the structure of a story I will probably write enough prose on it that I will be able to tell that it is the story I think it is. Knowing the difference between gestalt, weight, voice, mouth feel–and plot, structure–that’s important. That’s something I should know at this stage, and I do know it. But should I be able to swear that these things won’t run away with me? that the structure will not morph out from under me? Eh. Can’t get too attached.

Novels are different. You have to figure out how to tell that there really is a novel there before you have half a novel and find out that there’s no novel. Because I am totally happy writing 4K words of a 6K story and throwing it away, but 60K words of a 90K novel…less happy. I mean, if you gotta, you gotta. But I think usually you don’t have to throw away more than 20K of something that might have been a novel but wasn’t. 30K at the outside. So that’s comforting really.

On the giving of advice

Last week I had a post about panels at conventions, and I got interested in how to talk about doing panels better. I’d like to see more people talk about that–especially in the contexts of different kinds of panels. Getting slightly more specific seems like it might be a fertile source of good advice, because I think one of the places people hesitate is that panels vary so much. Does it really make sense to tell people to reread a few of their favorite short stories on the topic so that their minds are fresh without a huge time commitment, if “the topic” is long series, or TV shows, or if they can’t readily think of what short stories would be applicable because it’s something like grimdark or paranormal romance that has had its main flowering in novel form? Answer: no, but anyone who has any chance of being a good panelist has the sense to filter out what advice doesn’t apply to their specific panel, I would think.

But I started thinking about the more general problem of giving advice, which is audience and characteristic error. Even in the standard panel advice that is focused on etiquette, I see this problem. For example! One of the most common pieces of advice I see is, “Don’t monopolize the panel. Let the other panelists have an equal amount of time to talk.” Except…what if you’re on a panel on Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy with four middle-aged white men, two of whom think that Lord of Light is the last word on the subject but are maaaaybe willing to allow for Bridge of Birds if you stretch a bit? Do you sit back and let them go on and on about those and then squeeze in your long contemporary list (complete with non-Western writers GO FIGURE) on your “fair share” of the panel? HELL NO YOU DO NOT. At least–I didn’t. And I am not sorry I didn’t. But that is not my characteristic error. My characteristic error is not to sit down at the end of the panel and stare at my hands and say, “very true, Socrates.”

But for some people it is. So when you give the “don’t monopolize the panel, don’t run your mouth” advice, the odds that you will make a dent in the people who monologue about their own brilliance for twenty minutes: fairly low. The odds that Sherwood or Caroline* will hear this and nod and say, “Oh, very true, it’s so important not to rattle on,” and will shut their mouths even further? Unfortunately high. So trying to dodge the pitfalls of advice-giving in that regard gets difficult, and the question becomes: who is your actual audience for advice in the first place?

For me, talking about panels, it’s mostly new people. Because new people do not have a shtick already. New people know that they don’t know things. They are looking to know more things. (Ideally so are experienced people, but we know that doesn’t always work out.) So you might be able to catch J. New Shyauthor and say, hey, you’re on the panel for a reason, here’s how to prepare for it so that you can feel more confident. And you also might grab L. New Blabbermouth early enough that they at least have moments of self-awareness when they remember to turn to Pamela** and ask what she thinks while the panel is still going on and not just out for supper later.

This is true of writing advice, too. The people who were likely to get down on themselves for not writing ten million words every day are the ones who will pick up on the “writers write every day” quote from whoever they’ve picked now to be the person to use to beat yourself up over it. The people who were likely to be flaky butterfly writers are going to choose the “art finds YOU” quotes instead. People gravitate to their own characteristic errors. Yes, even me. Especially me. So: balance, balance, balance. And seeking out advice from people not like oneself. And asking oneself who the audience is for advice in the first place and whether it’s even worth the time, because if you’re not going to be able to get past characteristic errors so that the person who needs it can hear it, better to write about how to make a macrame owl.

Nobody makes macrame owls anymore. I am from the tail-end of a generation consumed with kitsch and retro, and yet are there macrame owls everywhere? There are not. It seems that everybody’s characteristic error is not making macrame owls. You folks might really want to get on that. I’m telling you for your own good.

…eh, who am I kidding, nobody listens to unsolicited advice.

*Randomly selected names for hypothetical panelists. Resemblance to actual insightful fantasy writers entirely coincidental.

**See previous footnote.

Books read, late January

Diane Ackerman, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter. Reread. The colonialism fairy has visited the early poems in this volume, and there is more self-directed sexism than I could see when I first read Ackerman nearly twenty years ago. But I could also–easily–find in this volume the poems that are the reason I came to like her, the reason I bought so many of her works in the first place–“When You Take Me From This Good Rich Soil,” of course, and “Nuclear Winter” and “At Belingshausen, the Russian Base, Antarctica.” Poems that stick around doing the things they meant to do after nearly twenty years, so that I’m glad I returned looking for them.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades. Sequels are hard. This one feels like a particularly difficult tonal shift, from the shattered mirror dead god experience of City of Stairs to a very human set of consequences. It’s an interesting book, an engrossing book, but not ultimately one that succeeds as well for me as its predecessor. I think it depends on the reader which will be more favored. I think it relies on knowledge of the previous volume for impact, but I can’t swear to it.

John Bowker, ed., Orthogonal SF: The War at Home. Kindle. A quirky and fascinating new entry on the SF magazine scene. I felt that the positive standout stories were “#Anon and the Antlers” by Michael J. DeLuca and “A Citizen’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven” by Josh Pearce, and Alana I. Capria’s “Gelatin Molds” was really really not my thing…but it was not my thing in a way that committed whole-heartedly to what it was doing. It was not trying half-assedly to be something else. None of the stories were mealy-mouthed. Two stories out of five that make me go “oh hell yeah”–and zero stories that I can’t remember, zero stories that make me go “wait, which one was that?”–not at all bad for a start.

Chaz Brenchley, Sister Anthony Comes Down. Kindle. Short piece in the same universe as the Crater School and bearing immediately upon it but not, for the most part, sharing its style. However, it’s the kind of bonus you get with the Patreon, and it is not in serial form, so I took advantage of its self-contained nature to jump in and be able to jump out again.

Marie Brennan, Chains and Memory. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint. A murder mystery very much in the puzzle novel style: practically entirely composed of “how will they prove it.” Translated from the Japanese, with cultural assumptions intact. So okay then.

Gwyneth Jones, Midnight Lamp. Reread. There is no point to even trying with this series without starting at the beginning, with Bold As Love. By now they are deep into the weeds, far far into consequences and follow-on effects. Fiorinda is putting herself back together after having saved the world once. So are Ax and Sage. California Adventures! And so on. I like how this book doesn’t escalate directly. Sequels that manage not to do that and still find interesting things to say are better.

L.M. Montgomery, Rainbow Valley. Kindle. Reread. When I was sick in ’15 I read the first six Green Gables books. When faced with a fairly loud setting and a need to read on my Kindle, I reached for this familiar volume, which has a balance of kids’ antics and adults’ love lives as most Montgomery does. It was one of my favorites when I was little, and I still like it reasonably well. Note that there will be moments of unthinking racism against persons not present, as part of the fabric of the culture depicted, and some of the parenting practices from the kinder and more progressive parents are still pretty barbaric.

Emma Newman, Planetfall. A fascinating science fiction psychological study of an individual and a community dealing with colonization and background aliens while completely failing to cope with a mental health issue that is central to the book. I found the ending not at all satisfying. “Wow!” I kept saying to myself. “This is really compassionate and understanding, I wonder how she’s going to stick the landing?” Uh…better luck next time? Seriously, the rest of the reading experience is worth following Newman’s career and trying again, but the ending…did not quite make it, for me, and I will be happy to talk on email with those who either have already read it or find the details important enough that they want spoilers.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Apollo, The Brilliant One. Discussed elsewhere.

Benjamin Parzybok, Sherwood Nation. Drought and crisis and how people come to the end of their rope, what they do when they get there. Particularly interesting to read fairly close to Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which are very different water/drought books set in the Pacific coast states. Parzybok’s scenes of family life in externally imposed crisis are particularly poignant and believable, and having “Maid Marian” and her crew to cheer for keeps it from getting to be too grindingly much. Also the very last page works in so very many ways that I am kind of fidgety to talk to people who have read the whole thing about what I like about it.

Mary Rickert, The Memory Garden. Beautiful domestic fantasy with lots of old women as protagonists and supporting characters. I have no idea why this book hasn’t come up when we were discussing Lifelode and The Dubious Hills as domestic fantasy, even though the setting is this world instead of secondary world. Full of garden life and ad hoc families and the way that people cope and then shape their lives around their coping.

Ysabeau S. Wilce, Prophecies, Libels, and Dreams: Stories of Califa. These are in the Flora Segunda universe but not nearly as middle-grade-skewed as the Flora books, which is an interesting balance. The prose voice also varies in how much it’s off into the twee land of Flora–for all that it took me a couple of tries to really get into the voice of those books, I found I missed it a bit in the more restrained stories, even though I saw why Wilce made the choices she did for each. Writing adult stories in the world of your children’s books is just the sort of fun interesting totally non-commercial thing I think more people should do, so I want to call this particularly to the attention of Flora’s fans.

Kai Ashante Wilson, The Devil in America. Reread. I remembered liking something by the author, so I picked up this beautiful little bound version from the free table at ConFusion. Turns out that what I remember liking is this. Well, still, now I have a beautiful little bound version, and that’s no bad thing. Racism, bargains, cost.

A good example for this panel…

One of the things Alec and I talk about a lot is how to make panels at conventions better. Because he did the programming for Fourth Street for four years, naturally some of that conversation has been from the programming side: how do you choose panelists, how do you choose a moderator, how do you write the panel description so that the panelists don’t stare blankly at each other wondering what on earth you were thinking or wander off into the weeds. But he hasn’t been doing programming, and we’ve been talking about it from the other angle a lot more lately: as panelists, how do you do panels well.

I think one of the most interesting questions is how to get depth for those who are ready without making the new people feel completely lost at sea. And one theory I have right now that I would like to propose and see what other people think of it is what sorts of things are most useful for squee and what things are more useful for analysis. Specifically: I think that if you have a clear choice, if you have a ton of examples to choose from, the most commonly known things are best for analysis, and the least commonly known things are the best for squee. With a spectrum between, and with the possibility of giving more than one example or speaking comparatively, obviously.

Of course depending on the convention there are entire panels based on squee. These are usually clearly labeled: “Professor Whom Fans Latest Season Recap: what’s awesome, what are we looking for next season?”, that sort of thing–very different from the panel where the Professor Whom fans are analyzing the Sniffling Cherub episodes in detail and what particular motifs recur in them. But I mean in general, on a panel that invites analysis, the more commonly known a work, the more people will have access to the analytical point you try to make. Or alternately, providing triangulation–if you can think of two or three lesser known examples, you increase the odds that your listener will know one of them. So that will help with what you’re saying about how to build complex character relationships, or how to do exposition, or whatever it is that you’re analyzing.

And of course squee about lesser known things gives people more of a chance to find out about something they might not have heard about. We all get overcome by exuberance for things we love, and I don’t want to stifle that if it happens that the thing you love is loved by other people. But squee after squee can make a panel shallow. I once went to a panel that was literally only a list of anime the panelists liked. Not even descriptions. Just titles. So that’s one end of a spectrum from squee to analysis that was…I think suboptimal. I think that while there was a bonding experience to be had from the people who were saying, “And I watch this!” “Yeah!”, it was perhaps not the best panel to be had. Obviously a certain amount of spontaneity is part of the point of doing panels at all, rather than inviting individuals to give prepared speeches. But if you’re one of the panelists, you know the topic in advance, so you have a chance to think through: what am I enthusiastic about that is less known. What examples can I use that might be accessible to the listeners I have in this particular audience. Am I missing a way anything about that approach, do you think? Do you have other ideas about squee, analysis, and other panel behavior that isn’t the standard etiquette advice?