Whitehall, from Serial Box

Review copy provided by Serial Box

Each episode of this serial has its specific authors listed, but there are thirteen episodes, and I don’t think you care who wrote episode one and who wrote episode seven, so the six contributing hands are Liz Duffy Adams, Mary Robinette Kowal, Madeleine Robins, Barbara Samuel, Delia Sherman, and Sarah Smith.

For those unfamiliar with Serial Box, their very conscious model is a TV season, only with written fiction. You can subscribe to get the serial every week when the new episode comes out, catching up with a “season pass” if you find a serial you like that’s already out. You can also buy on an episode by episode basis, and all the serials have their “pilots” available to read for free.

For many people, the serialization is part of the fun, and reading a sample will help you decide what you like. For people like me…not so much. Right up front: I fundamentally dislike serialization. I am a really fast reader, and I never got into watching TV on a weekly basis before DVDs and Netflix were widely available, so I’m not at all accustomed to the idea of having to wait for the end of the story. For me, this is not a feature. But! There is a solution to all this, and I’m doing it with Chaz Brenchley’s Crater School serial, which is subscribe to support the project and let it pile up in my Kindle until there’s enough to make a satisfying amount of story. So when the publicist for this project asked if I wanted to review it and told me the pitch and who was writing for it, I said absolutely…if I could have the whole thing. If it had a definite ending. It does and I could! So here we are.

Whitehall is the story of the early days of Catherine of Braganza’s marriage to Charles II of England. I basically always want another historical novel that’s reasonably well-researched and grounded in its period, and the Restoration is a period I know enough about to be annoying, so I was on board in an “I will catch the two nits that got through your meticulous editing process” way. (But the fact that this book did not make me run screaming in the first episode is a very good sign, because I am easily to send screaming about this period.) Catherine herself is a major point of view character, but so is the king’s acknowledged mistress, one of the queen’s serving girls, the king himself, and a few others as the story demands. Whitehall traces Catherine from her earliest alienation from the English court as a new, foreign, Catholic princess to finding her place as a beloved and acclaimed queen.

Unlike some collaborative works, each writer writes all the characters–you can’t break it down and say, “Oh, Jenny is written by Delia” or “Barbara writes the stuff with Rochester,” even if you could recognize writing style. Instead there is continuity of characters for each episode. Further, I felt that there was some effort to create a consistency of voice throughout the project, as one would see in a TV show. This has its good and its bad points. The good: Whitehall read a lot more like a novel in parts than like a series of short stories written by various people around a common topic, each with a slightly different idea of what James II would have been like in the time before his reign, etc. The bad: if you are craving a Delia Sherman novelette, a Mary Robinette Kowal novelette, etc., this will probably not scratch that itch, as the voice is a lot more averaged-out, with a lot of the quirky individuality of prose and characterization lost. This happens at least a little bit in any collaboration process, the more so with each additional collaborator, but when you have collaborators who have vivid voices you love to read, having a smoothly written group voice can be a bit more of a letdown if you’re not expecting it.

I found that there was not a lot of the kind of reminder you would find if the writers did not trust the readers–at least not the obtrusive kind. So if you’re like me and want to read your serials all piled up into one longish novel, this will not be a repetitive novel that cycles back to “remember who Lady Buckingham is? she’s the one who…” over and over again. I think that the presence of a “who’s who in Whitehall” webpage link and other links to keep you grounded will help those who are reading on a more weekly basis if they get lost in the English court. I felt that there was also enough incluing of why these people are important to the plot and why they should have some of the political/emotional triggers they have so that if you don’t have a solid grounding in Restoration history, it should not be confusing to you–while still not going into pages of backstory that would bore the fetchingly fitted trousers off those of us who already know that Catherine of Braganza wore them.

So if you’re interested in historical drama, especially in serial format, Whitehall scratches that itch, and you can give the pilot a try without committing to more. If you’re like me and a pilot will frustrate you, I can promise that there’s a whole story coming in all the pieces if you’re just a tiny bit patient.

Interview with Max Gladstone: the Reinterviewenating

I interviewed Max last summer when he wrote a book for my birthday, and look! he’s been kind enough to do it again! So here’s another interview with everyone’s favorite Max Gladstone, better than all the other Max Gladstones on your block.

1. Are you going to keep writing books for my birthday? I think this is a pretty good tradition.
Let’s make it a tradition!  We can have cake and ice cream, maybe a sort of ritual where we dance around and buy books and give them to people!  Honestly, it wouldn’t be that different from my current, less formal, but none the less annual ritual of publishing books, then sprinting around and waving my hands over my head saying, “hey, everybody! I think this is really cool!”
2. Is every story about gods about families?
Every story about gods is a story about communities—we’re born into some families and we choose others.  Whatever else gods are, they’re at least things people do.  We tend to confuse faith with propositional belief, as if the important element of, say, a Roman Republican’s religious life was her belief that these specific gods had these specific histories.  For one thing, she had lots of blatantly contradictory stories to choose between!  But more important than those mythical propositions, I think, or at the very least *as* important, were the fears and desires she wanted to understand and control, which expressed themselves in myth and ritual she learned, or invented.  We all do this.  We build ourselves from rituals our parents and friends teach us.  We refine those rituals (which are stories, after all) as we pass them on.  That’s the work of a family.
3. Nightmare matrices: I think that every former physicist or physics major hears this phrase and goes OH YES. Did that spring into your head fully formed, and do you want to say more about the concept? And is there any more of my undergraduate trauma you’re planning to mine?
Hah! I’d have to engage in further research on your undergraduate trauma specifically, but I spend a lot of time mining *my* undergraduate trauma, and the undergraduate trauma of my friends, for story ideas.  That concept did spring into my mind full-formed, though it’s part of this long process of trying to work through how information technology works in the Craft Sequence.  We’re basically playing around with the computational power of shared dreams (and shared nightmares).  I’m really looking forward to getting into it much earlier.
4. So far you have not repeated any numbers. Do you have plans to do any books that are happening at roughly the same time but in different places/with different characters?
I am really interested in that!  A possibility for later in the series.  I’m torn at the moment—on the one hand I really want to expand the world, but on the other hand I’m trying to push into the future!
5. Let’s talk about your non-Craft projects. Do you have a different work process for serial and non-serial work, or are you writing your serialized things all at once and just releasing them serially?
I do have a different process for serial fiction!  Though the different process mostly traces back to the fact that, with my Serial Box work, I’m writing alongside many other writers at one time.  We write sets of episodes in parallel, and then we compare notes.  It’s a convoluted dance, but I love seeing how other writers run with the story material—even after we’ve all shared outlines, the writers’ execution differs in wild and really cool ways.
6. You’ve had a few more short pieces out recently. Are you planning to do more, or is this not a plan/lack of plan thing but something that just happens in 1-7K word chunks?
I naturally write longer pieces, but recently I’ve done more short fiction—in part because my writing schedule is tight!  If I have a burning idea that *can* be a short story, it’s much easier and more satisfying to get in and out in two or three thousand words than to spend nine months two years from now hammering it into shape.
(Thanks, Max!)

Four Roads Cross, by Max Gladstone

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also Max is one of my Fourth Street people, so yay for people who show up and talk theory with me.

The Craft Sequence is pretty carefully designed so that you can start it at any point, but the titles tell you what the chronology is: the number is right there in the name. This is the fifth one published but the fourth in chronology, hence the number FOUR right there conveniently in the name of the book. But you can read it first, no problem. All will be explained. Well, all will be inclued, hinted at, etc., which is better anyway.

So. Four Roads Cross. You’ve got a city with a resurgent moon goddess and a bunch of gargoyles, and how the population will take it depends on how it’s handled by…a lot of people. The news reporters and their choirs. The official law. Some people in personally difficult transitions, because hey, who do the gods use? Who have they always used, any gods, anywhere?

This is a book with stone poems and nightmare matrices and gods in very–very–unexpected places. It has mining consortiums and implicit and explicit contracts fighting it out in courts. And fallen empires echoing down through history to produce characters in the current world who are who they are because of who they were aeons ago–not just gods, but…other things.

If you’ve been missing Tara Abernathy, or Alt Coulumb itself, or watching pieces of the Craft universe unfold–if you’ve been waiting for this book–then yes. This is the book you’ve been waiting for. With all the shiny bits that implies, worldbuilding-wise, interpersonally, all of them. Go and get it.

Please consider using our link to buy Four Roads Cross from Amazon.

Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1950s and 1960s

It’s all over but the shouting from the RNC. Wait. It was all shouting all along, and we have three and a half months of shouting left before the general. And the DNC still to come. Well, luckily for everybody there are tons more great American poets to read? I guess?

In the meantime, the rest of Langston Hughes. He was a national figure by this time in his life–commenting occasionally in verse on his position, the difficulties of reputation and the particular type of fame that comes of being a political poet and writer and particularly a Black American political poet and writer.

This is where the big projects come in, Montage of a Dream Deferred and the jazz settings Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. The latter are so thoroughly performance pieces that while I understand why they were reprinted–this is attempting to be a comprehensive collection that I’ve read, after all–I feel that it’s almost impossible to assess them as written works. They’re an interesting thing for a poet to want to do, an interactive form. But as words on a page, they don’t work very well.

The former, though. You almost certainly know the one that gets called Dream Deferred, whose title is listed in this volume as “Harlem,” the one that starts, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s only one in a large sequence, one that talks about difficulty making rent, buying shoes, finding one’s way. Difficulty and triumph and…vivid small detail, is how I suppose I would put it. These are life poems, people poems, neighbor poems of Harlem. A lot of them are brief, like the straightforward Tell Me; others paint pictures of a rising 1950s urban black population, finding its way and its voice, like Theme for English B. I think my favorite out of the entire series is Deferred, which elegantly and simply encapsulates the concept. It’s very real, very human.

There’s a lot more straightforward religious poetry in this period of Hughes’ life–anyone who thought that the earlier “Goodbye Christ” meant that he was a raging atheist would have a hard time constructing the argument with the evidence provided. The politics of the time keep providing him with unfortunately ample material for commentary, as of course they would into the present if he’d lived that long, but after the war, into the ’50s, housing became increasingly important. Little Song on Housing showed with bitter good humor that integration was not immediate solution one might have hoped. And one of the poems that still could hold true for so many people, in so many situations, in today’s politics, is Impasse.

We’re still in that same impasse so much of the time. It’s a good one to end on. It’s a good one to try to get out of.

Flying, by Carrie Jones

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The tagline on this book is “Cheerleader Vs. Alien. Who will win?” And that’s pretty accurate. If you think, “I don’t want to read a fun book about a high school junior and her friends running around trying to figure out what’s going on with unexpected aliens and Men In Black-type agencies in their New England town!”, then this is probably not the book for you.

If that sounds like fun, though, well, it is. Mana–and this is important to me–genuinely likes her mom. She likes her friends. She doesn’t have random drama just to have random drama. Carrie Jones trusts her plot–she doesn’t introduce sniping or ill-treatment between Mana and her friends or family in order to “heighten tension.” Some books are about people from abusive families, and those books should take that seriously. But some books can be about people from loving families whose moms bake them cookies and still are managing to get up to alien-hunting shenanigans. This is one of the latter.

This actually may be the only one of the latter. But there should be more.

There is quite a lot of action, and Mana gets to rely on her strengths as a tiny acrobatic cheerleader–a flyer, the one who does the high-flying stunts–and on talents she never knew she had, when her family and friends are in unexpected danger. She is realistically sometimes confused, sometimes a little whiny, sometimes a little frustrated with herself for getting whiny, sometimes not entirely sure how to handle new situations…none of this bogging down a book that moves quite quickly. Light and, as I said, fun.

Please consider using our link to buy Flying from Amazon.

Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1940s

The 1940s! Surely there’s nothing to be said about combating overly simplified political narratives, propaganda, infighting, and or demagoguery in that decade, right?

…um.

The poems Langston Hughes wrote in the 1940s did not stop calling American domestic politics to account. The Bitter River was a cry of anguish and anger after two more very young Black Americans were lynched. But the thing most of us think of when we think of the 1940s, WWII, gave Hughes a very sharp focus as he called his country to account. I think a lot of American historical accounts act as though the rise in attention to Black civil rights was something that came with the Second World War, but leaders like Hughes were seeing the parallels in prejudice and ill-treatment all along, and calling them out in poems like Beaumont to Detroit: 1943. There was no dawning “wait a minute” afterwards for thinkers, activists, and artists like Hughes: all along, he was saying that Hitler and Jim Crow had the same goals of prejudice, cruelty, inequality.

Still, the poems of the 1940s took a turn for the more lyrical and upbeat than the poems of the 1930s–not all of them, but there was a lot more fun interspersed, and a lot more poking affectionate fun at himself and those near him. Poems like “It Gives Me Pause” and Morning After are in most ways lighter than the entire section from the 1930s. Hughes also introduces the series of poems about Madam Alberta K. Johnson, an opinionated woman full of character and spark. My favorite, not immediately showing up online, is “Madam and the Wrong Visitor,” but I also like Madam and the Minister; I like all of them really, at least from the 1940s. I’d have Madam Johnson (Alberta K) over for coffee any day of the week.

And one of the poems that I would have thought any American could agree was openly positive, sentimental patriotism–until I heard some of the things said about immigrants lately–is Second Generation: New York. That a Black American of that generation reached inside himself to find that beauty in empathy for New Yorkers of mixed white ethnicities is the best of America, the best of urban living in urbane cities everywhere. And anyone who thinks that that kind of intergenerational empathy only works if it’s specifically about Ireland or Poland needs to sit down and have a good hard look at what Hughes was really talking about and why.

Tomorrow the RNC is over, but I haven’t gotten through all the poems–a decade at a time was about all that I could take on–so I’m going to take the rest of the week to finish this off. I don’t see any good reason not to.

Langston Hughes and RNC: the 1930s

It’s a relief when people get in trouble for what they actually said. It makes things easier, more straightforward. What does that have to do with the RNC going on? Well, you decide, that’s up to you. But Langston Hughes, well. Most of the stuff that people try to call him out for, oh yes, he said that stuff. He did that stuff.

The context of him saying it, now. That’s a little trickier.

Take Goodbye Christ, possibly Hughes’ most controversial poem. It was hard to find a link that didn’t go into explanation, exegesis, excuses for that one. It’s not a poem that goes well with the Gospel sentiments of some of Hughes’ poetry of the 1920s–or perhaps it could be. It might not be so hard, after all, to see how the same poet who was inspired by the message of Jesus and his ministry could be pretty turned off by the modern followers who claim to speak in His name. But he did not pull any punches in saying so; he did not hedge it around or pull his punches, and if you want to view it as an angry rejection of actual Jesus, that’s there to be had, go ahead.

The 1930s saw, in addition to the poem that kicked off this blog series, overtly political poem after overtly political poem from Hughes. He was paying attention to labor conditions–it was the 1930s, who could ignore them?–the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (mostly ignored or unknown by modern white readers). By the time he got to Song for Ourselves, with “Czechoslovakia lynched on a swastika cross,” the litany of “oh crap what now” looks simultaneously historically familiar and…contemporary. Highly contemporary. Relevant.

This is where the people who are sure that Hughes was a Communist start to have their fodder. There are poems to Lenin, and Good Morning Revolution and its ilk are not exactly subtle. They aren’t trying to be. As another American three decades later would tell us, you gotta sing loud if you want to end war and stuff.

Not everyone likes this approach. Not everyone liked it then. Nor did Hughes like everyone else’s approach, as the poem To Certain Negro Leaders makes pithily clear. There’s a lot of variety in this decade of Hughes poems–short, long, rhyming, non-rhyming, ranging the world over–but by the beginning of the 1930s Hughes had won himself a place, a soapbox, a voice, and it looks like he wasn’t about to give it up for anything.

I’m not sure we’d have heard of him if he had.

Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1920s

I turned on my Twitter feed long enough to see that Donald Trump is the official nominee, as we have known he would be for weeks now. They have various people doing the sorts of things a convention does. So here’s your reminder from Langston Hughes that I, Too.

“I, Too” (also often called “I, Too, Sing America”) is both prophetic in an era when our current President is Black, and not prophetic enough. All sorts of Americans are still being sent to eat in the kitchen. It’s also one of the most openly political poems Hughes published in the 1920s. Not that he was apolitical at the time, but he had not come into his full fierceness until the end of that decade–the section I read today was the section of his poems from the 1920s, and they had a lot of jazz lyrics, a lot of blues lyrics, a lot of things that were cultural references, whose political stance was inherent by what they considered important enough to write a poem about, who they considered important enough to write a poem for, rather than overt.

One of the clearest things going on in American history of the time that’s showing up in Hughes’ poems was the Great Migration. Poems like The South and “Migration” are chronicling one of the greatest and most influential movements of people inside the US, ever, and one that was not taught in American history when I was in school. (I hope it is now.) Even some poems that have the form of nature poems are implicitly from the perspective of someone for whom nature has changed, grown chillier and more seasonally sharpened–someone who has gone north.

One of the poems I liked best from this era is one that I can’t find easily online because it’s also the title of a Hughes biography, “Dreamer.” It’s short, and I think some of you will need it, so I’m going to put it here, with more tomorrow. It’s a very young man’s poem. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes there is a great deal right with that.

Dreamer

I take my dreams

And make of them a bronze vase

And a wide round fountain

With a beautiful statue in its center,

And a song with a broken heart,

And I ask you:

Do you understand my dreams?

Sometimes you say you do

And sometimes you say you don’t.

Either way

It doesn’t matter.

I continue to dream.

Books read, early July

Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. This is a giant tome on the institutions and background of slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere and how it is seriously distinct from, say, the Roman Empire’s slaves, or serfdom. This is mostly institutional and focused on the slaveholders, which is useful in its own way, but if you want focus on the slave narratives–which of course you do, because balance–there will need to be additional books. There was also a lot more direct contrast in the early years. Less of how things had diverged in different parts of the slaveholding New World in 1800, which I would really like, since I know that even within the US or within the Caribbean institutions and customs varied considerably in how people’s lived experience played out. So: good start, more needed.

Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity. Reread. Strange how differently things read with different experiences. The very ending got…hmm, I don’t know, practically realistic but emotionally…I am not sure what I think of it any more. The person I am talking to about this is almost done, and I’m glad, so I can have a good spoilery chew over it. Possibly because of reading AS Byatt.

Sean B. Carroll, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution. This is basically a love song to evolution written for the popular science audience. It’s got all sorts of juicy tidbits, weird things animals have evolved to do. Which monkeys have ruminant stomachs for leaf-eating, which fish have no hemoglobin and why not, how rhodopsins are tuned differently in aquatic animals depending on the depths at which they live. Very cool stuff even if you’ve already got the main thrust of his audience. Highly recommended for a broad audience.

Benedict Jacka, Hidden. The latest in its series, which is fun urban fantasy, like Mike Carey or Ben Aaronovich methadone. This time around he is tackling a bit more of pacifism and urban fantasy head on. I’m afraid I’m losing my taste for this type of series, but I don’t think it’s any fault of the author’s.

Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. This is…basically Swedish Forrest Gump. In the present-day thread of the book the titular character Has Wacky Adventures; in the flashbacks, same, but with Famous World Figures. Our Swedish relations wanted to share this with us, so I was the fourth person in the American branch of the family to read this copy. Because the Swedes are less obsessed with the Baby Boom than we are, it’s less the voice of a generation than of a century. Still, Swedish Forrest Gump is not far enough off that your reaction to that phrase will probably pretty accurately determine how you’ll feel about the actual book.

David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars. Discussed elsewhere.

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max. This is gleeful and full-tilt and exactly like my experience of being a Girl Scout. Including the appearance of one unnamed goddess? Yeah, sure, it’s pretty much like Tam Lin was like my experience of college, my brain is flexible that way. Looking forward to more of this.

Gerald Vizenor, Treaty Shirts: October 2034–a Familiar Treatise on the White Earth Nation. This is. People. People. You would not believe the excited noises I made when I saw this in the dealer’s room at Readercon. It is! It is the thing it says it is! It is a science fiction novella that is completely focused on the concerns of the White Earth Nation at the time. The author, Gerald Vizenor, is himself White Earth Anishinaabe (which many of you might better recognize as Ojibwe, okay, that’s a word that’s used too, but that’s not the word he chooses and let’s be respectful). And there are all sorts of concerns with casinos, with treaties with the federal government, with what kinds of totem animal are permissible, whether hybridization is okay or not okay on what levels. The language. If you have read Anishinaabe/Ojibwe poetry, if you have been to a reading/performance/sing of poetry, the prose rhythms feel like that. The way they circle around, the type of deliberate artful repetition. The pace of exposition, the way you can tell things are important by what position they take up within the repetitive structure. This book completely–I can’t even say rejects, because when you reject things you are concerned with them. This book is just not doing what most of science fiction is doing. It’s not sitting around having an argument about whether telling a story of a particular Native group’s future is worth doing, because there is no argument. Of course it’s worth doing. The worth is embedded in the prose, the structure, every line. He just goes on and does it and thank God he does. I am so excited about this book. I am so excited to find more of Vizenor’s stuff, because there’s a bunch more out there. It’s not all SF. I just want to find out what other stories he wants to tell.

Jo Walton, Necessity. Discussed elsewhere.

Making America: Langston Hughes and the RNC

Back when Donald Trump was not even the certain nominee, I heard the slogan “Make America great again.” And a voice whispered in my head, “America was never America to me.”

Such are the perils of an education: put in demagoguery and get out Langston Hughes. Let America Be America Again is the poem I mean, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Please do. And at the time I thought: we’re going to need something to get us through this RNC. We’re going to need Langston Hughes.

Friends, I had no idea.

I had no idea that we were going to see so many more shot in the streets this summer even before the protests during the convention start. (I hope for peace and free speech this week. I hope. The rest of this year–and some of our country’s history with political conventions–makes me very nervous.) But there’s Langston Hughes, with his stanzas reminding us that it’s like this, we’ve been here before. The Thirties were like this, the Sixties. We’re like this. America is this. We can’t say we didn’t see it coming. If we didn’t see it coming, it’s because we didn’t look.

And–one of the reasons I love this poem. One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this poem, about all of his poems. Is that it is so much more passionately patriotic than the slogan. “Make America great again” is beaten any day by “The land that never has been yet–and yet must be.” Who loves you more? The person who wants to restore you to your high school glory, or the person who thinks you can be better than you’ve ever been? Who believes in you more? The person who thinks you’ve peaked or the person who thinks you have far to go?

I know two women who had strokes in middle age. For a lot of people, that would be it, a clear sign that whatever they did next would be lesser-than, a decline. One has gone on to change how she does her visual and tactile art form for the better. The other has built on a career of being a great storyteller to find ways to be a great wordsmith as well–to find ways to make lightning bugs into lightning. Neither one did it by pretending that bad things never happened, that her health was perfect. As an individual, as a people–you can’t. You make a better way forward–you approach a dream–by acknowledging that the bad things have happened. That they have happened to you. That they are a part of you. Langston Hughes has to acknowledge enslavement of Black Americans and dispossession of the Native Americans from the land. He has to acknowledge class inequality and gangsterism and greed as part of American history. Because if he doesn’t, he can’t see his way around them to the bigger dream past them, without them. There is no Golden Age for Langston Hughes to hearken back to because he’s willing to work to build one that’s never existed before. And when he describes the dream as almost dead today, he’s willing to tell you who’s almost killed it and how.

There’s going to be a lot more about that as I read and blog about his collected poems this week. Langston Hughes has a lot of punches not to pull and a lot of beliefs he will come right out and tell you in words, not sideways or sneakily. Like: “LIBERTY!
FREEDOM!
DEMOCRACY!
True anyhow no matter how many
Liars use those words.” (That’s from In Explanation of Our Times, which talks about people with no titles in front of their names getting to talk. Which is going on now too I think. And how they–and Langston Hughes–would not shut up.)

And that’s worth talking about this week. Every week. But this week in particular. So come on ahead and join me, blog about it, tweet about it, whatever you like. That’s the only way we get there from here.