Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a very prickly book with a very prickly protagonist. Freddy (Frederica) starts out constantly angry at the world in general and her family in particular. Her main life strategy is to fly under the radar, to remain unnoticed. When new neighbors add a stream of confrontation and chaos to her sister and stepbrother’s unabashed differences, it infuriates her.

Bouncing through space and time with one of those neighbors in a series of uncontrolled time leaps brings her anger to a point where she has to deal with it, where she can deal with it–where, over the course of a deeply syncretist, confusing (to Freddy, but not particularly to this reader) journey she matures enough to deal with it. But bouncing around space and time is only the beginning–well, okay, the middle. There is still plenty of pointed plot after that, and it’s not just herself Freddy has to sort out.

There is a lot to like here. The fantasy part of the structure is entirely itself, the characters are stubborn and fierce and allowed to be flawed, and the resolution is resolute without being neatly tied.

This book does the opposite of most books that have any connection with role-playing games. Most RPG-related books have some connection to a campaign; this one blatantly could not be any kind of campaign. Instead, Maaren has thought about initiative and perspective from a role-playing perspective…and then done the work of putting those thoughts into the context of this medium. One of my major complaints about a lot of science fiction is that it appears to take place in a world with no science fiction; lately I have added to that complaint that it seems to take place in a world with no modern gaming. This book, thank heavens, has noticed that the last 30-40 years of gaming exist, in the same way that writers since time immemorial have noticed that card games exist: not everyone has the same relationship with it, not everyone gains the same insights from it, but people do gain insights from it without the poker game itself having to be the plot of the book. Instead of taking the shallow end of games, she’s taken the deep end; like most of the things I like about this book, more would be a spoiler.

There are also a few things that make me scrinch my nose up. Mel is charming and completely underused; Freddy herself is the type of teen protagonist whose flaws are spotted by the boys around her, a plot arc I am getting a little tired of (and barely redeemed here by the facts that 1. they are not romantic interest boys and 2. they are pretty flawed themselves). Also…this is a book where the protagonist has a growth arc that involves going from being a jerk to her stepbrother Roland about all sorts of things that include his disability (he is profoundly deaf, she refuses to acknowledge that she can communicate with him in ASL, making him read her lips instead and not doing a very good job of that either) to being less of a jerk to him about various things that include his disability. ASL plays some pivotal roles in the book and there are some bits that aren’t pivotal at all and still nicely done…but if you’re a reader who has already had it up to your eyebrows in your ordinary life with people being jerks about deafness, well, here it is again. And if you found yourself asking why exactly this book was about Freddy when Roland is pretty awesome and entirely plot crucial, well, sometimes books do a thing, and this is that thing, and there are lots of other things to like in the course of this book, but it might not be enough if that’s your thing. If you decide to skip it, you’d be missing out on Roland himself, who is pretty damn great, and on some very well-done supporting characters who are deaf (and not all to the same degree and not all with the same interfaces with the hearing world–variety of disability for the win). But for some people, sitting through the part where Freddy’s an ass to Roland may be more painful than having Roland as a really great character, and for others the opposite; judge for yourself which you are.

There’s a lot about initiative and choice and story here, a lot about growth and family. There are awkward bits. There are good bits. And in some ways I find the title particularly amusing, because it is very much not a circle, it is a very very spiky shape, and that’s what it needs to be.

Please consider using our link to buy Weave a Circle Round from Amazon.

Timing, consistency, control

I’ve read two blog posts by friends about exiting Campbell eligibility, about timing of publishing and keeping work in the public eye and feeling good about professional development personally even when it comes out in weird chunks. One is by Arkady Martine and the other by Jordan Kurella, and I am simultaneously happy and not at all surprised to see them focusing on the important parts, on where they are as writers and where their upcoming work will be, and not on specific awards eligibility.

Obviously I’m not in the same place; Campbell eligibility is more than a decade in the rearview for me. But the way that how work is going and what the public sees do not correlate is something that I’ve had to adjust to. Sometimes I can write up a storm and no one gets to read it for ages. Sometimes I’m struggling, flailing, thrashing around, and people keep smiling and telling me how great things are going for me right now, because what they’re seeing is the result of a really great time.

That’s how it goes. And I get grateful that I got exposed to Bull Durham early, because I get Annie Savoy’s voice in my head saying, “It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.” Well. Well, yeah. This is what I do. I was raised in the church of baseball, but I’m not its acolyte. I’m a writer. When I keep having story after story coming out, or when nothing comes out for ages but I’m writing like gangbusters–it’s hard to smooth it out perfectly, it’s hard to make it all perfectly even. A year is not the right scale for that, a year is too short. And that’s okay.

So when the end of the year rolls around, I’ll have some stories to link to, and I’ll be able to talk about what I did, and the two won’t really be the same. And again next year, the two won’t really be the same. That’s the nature of the beast. Being able to point to something and say, look, that’s what I did, that, yes, isn’t it shiny, I did something, me, and that’s what it is: that’s satisfying. But it’s even more satisfying to know that it’s the right something, long-term.

It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. Yep.

Tremontaine Season 3, Episodes 5&6, by Paul Witcover and Tessa Gratton

Review access provided by Serial Box.

Now that I am caught up, I am considering the episodes more as individual episodes. Which is not my best mode of interacting with serials–it’s me, not them–and yet it does expose interesting things about the construction of serial narrative as a unique form. No installation is trying to tell a complete story, but each is trying to be satisfying in its own right, thematically, individually.

These two have a paired focus that I think works as the heart of this season of Tremontaine: the holes left by losses from the previous seasons. Consequence and ramification is the hallmark of good series storytelling for me–not just doing the same thing over again but letting it go on to become more and different than it was.

With chocolate, and the organizing of a new school. The new school in particular is something that seems to be finally finding its logistical feet in these episodes. I hope so. The university is my jam, was some of why I loved The Fall of the Kings so much. I pin some hopes on this new school as a plot element.

And around again

One of the things about writing is that the same pieces of wisdom keep being re-applicable–not even just to the writing itself but to how I handle it. How I handle it. Maybe you have the same thing, but if you do, I bet it’s not all the same pieces of wisdom. We keep trying to reach out with the things that work for us, hoping that we can save other people time and trouble and heartache–or sometimes hoping that we will look wise and strong–but there’s only some overlap. A lot of this, I keep finding out over and over again, is finding out which mistakes we each make, which ways we each go to extremes, and countering those. And so my own advice to myself is most useful when it’s clear that it’s not universal, when I know that it might apply to you, or it might not, or it might apply to you sometimes and not other times.

For all that people talk about Twitter being a trashfire, it has been a social outlet for me. I wasn’t around for the glory days of usenet. I hit the peak of livejournal, when writers were exchanging comment threads, 20, 30, 50 comments a post. And I see some dreamwidth posts like that nowadays, but…not many, not routinely, usually when someone is having a crisis. And that’s fine. For me, right now, the social internet is Slack and Twitter. It won’t be like that forever, I’m sure, because the internet is impermanent. It’s like that now.

But one of the things the brevity of Twitter means is that if I express having circled back to one of the same places, even with a new 280-character limit, I’m going to run into helpful n00bs who feel that they can give me good advice. I thought of that last night. I sold a story this week–Uncanny bought “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage,” which is exciting and awesome, and I am very happy about it. But I have been focused on longer works this year, and some of those longer works have been recalcitrant, and so the number of short fiction works I have in submission has been creeping down as I sell things. I am adjusting to this new normal, to not having large numbers of works in submission at a given time as a security blanket. I have talked about this before.

This is not the sort of thing that works well on Twitter. Because the one-size-fits-all circle-around-to-it advice is “keep trying!” and “you can do it!” Well…yes. I can. That’s why I sold a story this week. The second level is well-meant chiding: you don’t have a problem, you’re selling things! Well…yes and no. When you have a coping mechanism and it slips out from under you, you may not have a crisis, but you do have a problem. It’s not the same problem. It is a problem. I’m not looking for a buzzword quick fix, I am looking to process an emotion about a thing I know how to fix. Or if not fix, at least what to do. What to do next.

There’s a lot that’s like this, unfortunately. Where you know what you need to do, and you just need to do it, and it’s bumpy along the way. And there is good stuff, stuff to celebrate, yay! Really genuinely good stuff. But also: oh look, it’s time for that emotion. And for that thing to process that emotion. Again. Well. Okay. It does get different with repetition. I do find my way to another place in some ways. And in other ways: fewer things in circulation, funny feeling, check. Okay.

Books read, early November

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Americanah. This is a really beautifully done book about immigration and alienation and belonging, about Nigeria and the US and a little bit the UK, about race and nationality and culture and love. And hair. There is a lot of stuff about hair in here, all interesting and good. There is complexity and challenge and acceptance and its opposite. Recommended.

Marie Brennan, Ars Historica. Discussed elsewhere.

Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones. This is about a massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, a novel, a novel about surviving it and about those who don’t, and about the relationship between Dominicans and Haitians in the DR at the time and after. It is sparely done, it goes quickly if you don’t let yourself look away, which you possibly should. The relationships are allowed to be complicated. It is not a long book but still a grueling one.

Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Karen Lord, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Witcover. Tremontaine, Season 2, Season 3 Episodes 1-4. Discussed elsewhere.

Cory Doctorow, A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Reread. I have been seeing what I connect with on the short fiction shelves upon reread, and the answer here is: these are modern stories, well-constructed and well-written, and they are not hitting me in deeply emotional places, but they are still worth my time to read again, and probably will be again in another decade. So it went back on the shelf. None of the stories made me gasp and say, oh, that one, have to talk about that one. But I kept the book. Okay.

Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. This is one of the places where a subtitle contradicts the book it’s appended to. This is not actually about Machiavelli and The Prince, mostly; it’s about Machiavelli the dude, wandering around Florence and around Italy at large, writing plays and other things, arranging for people to preach sermons that were not in the least of interest to himself, surrounded by syphilis at every turn or so it seemed. So much syphilis, so much strappado. Fascinating, short, not at all a nice book really.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. This is a young adult novel that’s hard to describe without making it sound like less than what it is. It’s about a young woman who is in the car when her childhood friend is killed by a police officer, and all the life complications that ensue thereby–and that makes it sound like a “problem novel,” like an “issue book,” when instead it is a deep exploration of character, relationship, culture, family, history, and more. Thomas is not out to make a quick buck on current events, she is writing a deeply personal exploration of historical trends she places in much broader perspective for her characters while still giving them the kind of individual story that makes a novel really work. Highly recommended. One of the cases where widespread buzz is wholly, wholly justified.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. When it says personal, it basically means that Simon Winder is going to intrude his stories of his kid’s school program or whatever in the middle of his stories of sixteenth century monarchs. Not because he has enough for a memoir, because he doesn’t, but because he feels that you need your hand held through the Habsburgs, that if you don’t have your hand held through the Habsburgs you will be very frightened. Sometimes he is wry and funny, though not usually when talking about himself, and there were enough ways in which he was insightful about other historians’ failings early on that I did not immediately flee, which I should have. Look, here is the thing about family trees: they are there to make things easier, not harder. If someone tries to tell you that a family tree is confusing, it’s almost certainly because the family is confusing. LIKE THE HABSBURGS. There is a certain category of person who is convinced that maps and diagrams of any kind are Technical and therefore Difficult and therefore Intimidating, but these things are tools for visualization and clarification, it’s worth learning to use them rather than running away and hiding, unless you have a genuine learning disability. And if you do, just ignore those bits. Turn the page and move on. Because Winder’s attempts to do without are kind of emblematic of what he means to simplify and does not manage, that didn’t really need to be simplified anyway.

(Disclosure: I feel this way about equations also, so you may want to discount what I say based on that. If you have both equations and text, and you didn’t screw it up, things should be clearer, not less clear, than if you’re trying to express something that has an equation without saying the equation. Equations are a really bad thing to play charades with.)

2018 convention schedule as I know it

I posted this on Twitter, but Twitter is a less durable medium. Here is what I know of my 2018 convention plans.

January: Detroit: ConFusion. I have already gotten my flights for this. I am going in on Thursday afternoon and leaving Monday late morning, to maximize shenanigan potential. If other people are not around for shenanigans at a particular time, I will cocoon in my hotel room and write. Win/win.

June: Minneapolis: Fourth Street Fantasy

July: Boston: Readercon

October: Montreal: Scintillation. So let’s talk about this one a minute. It’s why I’m making this post right now instead of a different time. I’ve talked about Farthing Party; this is the new and improved Farthing II: Farthing Harder, more or less. Why is it a Kickstarter right now? Because there is not a large organization bearing the burden of cost. It is being run by Jo Walton personally, and in years past Jo had to ask herself, gosh, will we have enough people to make it financially viable, will I lose my own personal money that I use for eating in doing this, etc. And it was not–what’s the word–oh yes: fun. It was not fun to wonder that. So! There is now a Kickstarter model for people to say, yes, actually I would like to commit in advance so that you do not have to have that nonfun in the process of making this fun thing, please and thank you.

So! Montreal in October, lovely time for chocolat chaud. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to be inner circle to Jo to make it to this con! (Or me, or Fran or Ruthanna or Sherwood or Ada or Greer or Alison or Alter. Or anyone else who is coming but has not officially committed to coming in a public sort of way.) It is for persons of goodwill who want to go to a small, intimate conventiony thing in Montreal in October. So you can think about that. Sometimes you can even think with your Kickstarter support.

Ars Historica, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is also a personal friend.

This is another collection of Brennan’s short fiction. All of this one is historical fiction, skewing in the historical fantasy direction. If you’ve enjoyed her Onyx Court series (the one that starts with Midnight Never Come), there are several stories here that are either explicitly in that continuity or clearly came from the same set of research. The settings of these stories range from the ancient world to the nineteenth century, but there’s a strong focus here in Brennan’s wheelhouse, early modern England.

Fans of Beneath Ceaseless Skies may recognize that some of these stories appeared there originally–but some time ago, so more recent fans of BCS should use that more as a cue for what kind of adventure-historical aesthetic to expect. It’s not all fairies–it’s not all fitting magic around highly specific historical events–it’s not all dueling–it’s not all any one thing, so if you don’t like one story, another will come along very soon. And yet there is a much clearer unifying feel to this collection than to the previous one, and I’m hard pressed to think of any of Brennan’s books that aren’t a good fit in the “if you liked x, you’ll also like Ars Historica” equation. No dragons, but some very well-considered humans.

Please consider using out link to buy Ars Historica on Amazon.

I Won at NaSuHeMo!

I have a new story up at Daily Science Fiction today: I Won at NaSuHeMo! So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo and want a quick break from it–or if you just like short superhero stories–go on over and give it a read.

Seriously, whatever goals you’re pursuing this month, all the best to you and please be kind to yourself in the pursuit.

And go read my story.

Tremontaine Season 2, Season 3 episodes 1-4

Review access provided by Serial Box. Written by Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Karen Lord, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Witcover.

A sharp eye will notice that this is a substantially overlapping but not identical writing staff to Tremontaine Season 1. An even sharper eye will start to discern the difference in episode writers in very much the same way as a long-term viewer of a TV show can–especially if they’ve read some of the above authors before. Alaya Dawn Johnson remains my favorite, but if you’ve read Mary Anne Mohanraj before, a blind taste test will show you which episodes are hers, no problem. And–this is not a criticism. This is a serial. It’s not supposed to be a seamlessly edited novel where there is no extraneous reminder of what has gone before. It’s supposed to be a serial. Divers hands recruited specifically.

A friend of mine commented on my review of season 1, that a lot of it felt like retcons to her. And I’ve been thinking about why it didn’t feel that way to me, because season 2 and the beginning of season 3 go even deeper into making this a world that has borders beyond Riverside, beyond the City, beyond its country. I think the reason this is working particularly well for me as an expansion is that the original protagonists of Swordspoint are focused to the point of being self-centered, and while some of the protagonists of this serial are also focused/self-centered (heh, oh my yes), their focus is not all in the same place. So: would the originals have known where chocolate came from in any detail? Not if it bit them rather than them biting it. Is Ixkaab similarly self-centered, but with a different focus? Definitely. And therefore her knowledge of the world is quite different, while retaining many of the features of the original.

There is so much scheming here. So much scheming. I think that while season one had scheming, the thing that makes seasons two and three work better for me is that they have follow-through. They have consequences to the scheming. Does anyone learn their lesson? They learn many lessons, but their lesson, ahaha no. So–many relationships are reconfigured, this is not a series that has set pieces that are repeating over and over again, but things ramify. I do love ramifications.

And the mathematician gets to do math that is not just navigation calculations, which I like, because navigation is mostly interesting to non-mathematicians. Some people will be in this for the sex, of which there is a considerable and varied amount. Okay. For me, the mathematician gets to do more geometric stuff, hurrah. One of the benefits of a varied ensemble cast that keeps getting more varied is that it increases the odds that you will find a favorite somewhere: the duchess, the forger, the ambassador, the merchant? The mathematician. Who also knows a lot about cows and turnips and does not like yelling.

We have gotten to a place, by the end of the fourth episode of season three, where plot has reached social proportions. Where it is not just one person’s schemes or another but the movement of people, sieges and…well, one might call it barricades. One just might. I was interested in what happened to the mathematician, but I am captivated by what happens with the aftermath of the social unrest. And there are new installments coming along weekly. Yay.

Books read, late October

Patty Bryant, Joel Derfner, Tessa Gratton, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Racheline Maltese, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Paul Whitcover. Tremontaine, a serial: all of season 1 and season 2 through episode 8. Season 1 is discussed elsewhere and I will review seasons 2 and 3 entire rather than piecemeal here.

A.S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories. Reread. I have been collecting the works of Byatt used when I am trading in books I don’t want, and I don’t always have a clear memory of which stories are in which volumes. Therefore I could be blindsided by the last work in this volume, in which an older woman is considering a sexual harassment complaint lodged by a younger woman against an older man. And…oh Antonia. Oh my dear Antonia no. She replicates…oh, it’s awful. She replicates all the ways that young women get dismissed when they’ve been assaulted, and she does dismiss her, she’s mentally ill, she doesn’t really get art, her clothes are unattractive, the man she’s accusing must have been very attractive in his younger days, oh God, it’s nauseating, it’s everything we hear every day and I kept looking for some shred of evidence that it was meant to be scathing irony, that she had done it on purpose. But no, the protagonist and the accused kept having their damned lunch. Antonia. Dammit. I should mark it with a PostIt, because I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist, I don’t need to pretend she’s perfect just because I love her, but I will forget what’s in which volume, I always do. There, I’ve done that. But hell, what a week, what a year, what a lifetime to stumble on that story again.

Charles de Lint, Moonlight and Vines. Reread. This is a Newford collection that is not where my heart is any more, but also is fairly readable, a parade of characters each doing their thing, only occasionally visiting Jilly and Geordie, not yet full-on formula ensemble cast. I hadn’t read it since 1999. I think I loved it in 1999, and yet…I never reread it. It was not my formative Newford collection. I’m glad contemporary fantasy has moved on from here, and I winced at some of de Lint’s attempts to be inclusive, but I also am glad that he made the attempts, glad that we kept going from there.

Nicky Drayden, The Prey of Gods. This was a very fast-paced, exciting read. I’ve seen lots of people describing it as fun, and I did have fun with it, but I want to flag that while there is a lot of cool futuristic and magical South African content in this book that is like nothing else I have ever read before so lots of you are already buying it or adding it to your library list…it also has some fairly upsetting sexually violent content. And I am trying to be cautious about flagging that. It is…I don’t know, science fantasy always feels like it means something specific and not-this. It is futuristic fantasy. It is a weird ride. You shouldn’t get too hung up on genre boundaries when describing this book. But…maybe not if you’re feeling fragile about sexual violence, please. Time it carefully, take care of yourselves.

Todd Fahnestock, The Wishing World. Discussed elsewhere.

William N. Fenton, The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a gigantic tome with lots of consultations with modern Iroquoian peoples even though its focus was pre-Columbian and the first few centuries after contact. It went into a great deal of ritual detail. It also discussed lots of fascinating aspects of how different family structures shaped relationships and communications with other ethnic groups. I’m very glad I read this book, but even more glad that I am done reading it because oh my goodness it is very very large.

Thor Hanson, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. I found this very soothing, a discussion of all sorts of different ways plants have evolved shapes and sizes and types of seeds. Yay seeds. When the world is complicated and upsetting, botany is VERY NICE. This may explain much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. MY SYMPATHIES, THOSE CENTURIES.

Carrie Jones, Enhanced. Discussed elsewhere.

John Julius Norwich, ed., Cities That Shaped the Ancient World. I was expecting Norwich’s own work–library thumbnails are sometimes misleading–and this was essays by divers hands, with lots of lavish pictures: ancient cities, photos, layouts, ideas about what was cool about them. It was, as I expected of Norwich, heavily focused on the Mediterranean region, but there were sections on southern Africa, east Asia, the Americas. It was not deep. It was a reasonably fun thing to get from the library and look at the pictures.