Fourth Street Fantasy schedule

You already know that I am one of the workshop leaders for this year, and if that is relevant to your life, you have signed up for it already!

In addition, I am on one panel this single-track convention, and that is:

Saturday 8:00 PM – The Role of Narratology in Adaptation

Casey Blair, Kent Davis, Seth Dickinson, Marissa Lingen, Arkady Martine (M)

All art is in conversation with other art, and nowhere is that more clear than in adaptation. Transforming works of art is a fundamentally creative process that, done well, keeps core pieces of the story familiar while also shifting the narrative focus to appeal and make sense to new audiences with different perspectives. Fanfiction and the act of retelling tales are as old as stories and equally worthy creative pursuits, giving us opportunities to center the experiences of other identities, to explore issues previous story iterations didn’t. Applying concepts of narratology as they pertain to how we transform stories so their meaning makes sense to a different audience, this panel will discuss the artistic challenges and pitfalls in adapting stories as well as why this kind of narrative iteration is culturally critical.

Looking forward to seeing so many people there!

A Sword Named Truth, by Sherwood Smith

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend of some years standing.

This book is just exactly what I needed right now, and also I will probably not be able to tell you at least half of what happened in it in a month. It is full of intrigue. It is intrigue start to finish with then more intrigue. It is probably 850 pages of intrigue in 650 pages of book. And right now that was grand, that could wash right over me like a veritable cornucopia of things that are not personal grief.

Look at all the moving parts! Planets and kingdoms! Humans and shapeshifters! Kids and people who have done the child spell! Whose brain is under which spell and who is thinking clearly? I for one am not, but watching the characters move toward this was just what I wanted in this frame of mind. Not as swashbuckly as Inda but just as political.

Books read, late May

Ben Aaronovitch, The October Man. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth Bear, The Red-Stained Wings. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School, Chapters 18-20. Kindle. This was feeling more episodic with its waltzing and ghost stories, but it may be building to something. Boarding school tales on Mars, continued!

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Prisoner of Limnos. Kindle. I enjoy watching Lois play with tropes she enjoys, in this case heists and disguises. It’s in the Chalion universe, in the Penric series, fairly far on in the series and probably don’t start here. Is it her most outstanding work? No, but that’s a very high bar to clear, and it was good fun.

Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings Vs. The Myconauts of Plutonium City, Scrolls 1-6. Kindle. This is a serialized sequel to an earlier Faust which I loved. It has the gonzo referential weirdness that I enjoyed, and it’s certainly moving along quickly enough. I will be glad to see the rest. You can tell I’m enthusiastic because I’m willing to support and read in serial form at all. (Serials are not my medium.)

Tim Flannery, Europe: A Natural History. This was light and funny and lovely, lots of weird animals of historical times, some bits of odd geology, good writing, plenty of things I wanted to read out in the long hours. Absolutely what I needed and recommended.

F.S. Flint et al, Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology. Kindle. Highly variable, and alas, the Imagists I hadn’t had much experience of were not ones I wanted to seek out later, but on a day when things were not going well in the ICU, it was something to read that did not make my life more difficult.

W.H. Hudson, A Shepherd’s Life: Impressions of the South Wiltshire Downs. Kindle. I had hoped that this would have more sheep stuff in it than it had, since I will at some point be revising a novella that is significantly ovine, but it was more an interesting study of a particular place and time, and worth having as such.

Rose MacAulay, What Not. Kindle. This is a comedic satire of the near-future, published in 1918–it’s about the world after the war. It actually still made me laugh in spots–this is the book that made me laugh in the ICU. It is cited as an influence on Brave New World and does all sorts of things with class and caste and intelligence and eugenics more and better and more sharply than BNW. Its ending is also more troubling and ambiguous, more troubled, in fact–similarly unable to see a good way out but in a way that I find more compelling and interesting than Huxley’s because it is so much more personal as well as political. I think MacAulay is joining Naomi Mitchison on the list of writers I expect to read a lot of and squirm and make faces and argue and keep reading. But the fact that most people who are taught Brave New World in school never know of this in the slightest–I feel entirely comfortable saying that’s sexism. That is sexism on a number of levels, and you can go ahead and look for yourself.

Charles Patrick Neimeyer, War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaign to Control the Bay, 1813-14. This is a war technicalities book. It is detailed about very specific bits of war. These are around my house because other people want them, and sometimes I find them very soothing. Here is who went where when. But also I find it solid on a topic that modern Americans do not understand enough, and that is: the dominant empire does not really always get that people who are not the dominant empire often have very different views of the world and of who is the greatest threat than they themselves do. “It’s the French! You should be upset by the French!” the British kept wailing, oblivious to the figure they themselves posed in the world at the time. Ponder this, hegemons.

Fitz James O’Brien, The Diamond Lens. Kindle. This is a 19th century American work of science fiction in which the main character murders a Jewish guy for his diamond to make a perfect lens so he can creep on the microscopic lady who lives in a drop of water. Which then dries up so he pines for her. There, now you don’t have to.

Carla Rahn Phillips, Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century. This is an extremely nerdy book about building and supplying galleons and the taxation and requirements for them, and generally if you are doing a project on early seventeenth century Spanish ships, this is a great resource. I’m not, but it was kind of fascinating anyway, in a soothing way, since it happened to cross my path.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Walking to Aldebaran. Discussed elsewhere.

Sara Teasdale, Flame and Shadow. Kindle. Dramatic and beautiful and somewhat overwrought. Teasdale always feels so young to me, but it was just what I needed in the ICU.

R.J. Theodore, Meran’s Cataclysm. Kindle. A free short to draw the reader into a larger universe, not structured as stand-alone shorts generally are but still interesting.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. Discussed elsewhere.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 28. Kindle. Favorites from this issue included John Chu’s “Probibilitea” and Theodora Goss’s “The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly.”

Jo Walton, Lent. Discussed elsewhere.

Walter Jon Williams, The Accidental War. Space opera, the sequel to the running Praxis books. Lots of aliens and ruling houses and starships going smash and economies going smash and all the sorts of things you would expect from this series. Don’t start here, but if you’ve been having fun, it’s more of that fun.

Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation. Discussed elsewhere.

My father

This blog has evolved with time, as you would expect something to do in 18 years. I used to post daily, little rambly posts, few of them particularly themed. Now it’s almost all book reviews and publication news, with the occasional theorizing about craft. But this personal thing is too monumental to leave out.

Two weeks ago yesterday my beloved father had a massive brain bleed from a med he was on. Before the bleed profused we had time to talk and laugh and say “I love you” so many times. At that time there was still a lot of hope that he might recover. There was then a second, ischemic stroke in the opposite side of his brain. The two weeks since have been a haze of brilliant care and uncomfortable facilities, of waiting and hoping and gradual realizations that the Dad I have adored was never coming back to us. He died gently yesterday morning before dawn. My mother was with him. I had been able to spend all day, every day at the hospital–always the three of us, as it’s always been, but other family and dear friends supporting us as well.

I will have so much more to say about Dad–for years, for the rest of my life. I am heartbroken, shattered, agonized. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. One step at a time, one day at a time, everyone keeps telling me. Yes. I don’t think there’s another choice. Those of you who have known me for years know that the phrases I keep handing people like “Dad and I were close” do not even begin to cover it. I never had a phase, not a year of my life, not a moment, when my dad was not one of my favorite people. He always called me Sunshine but we were each other’s sunshine. I don’t even know how to say all of what’s gone. I will have to keep trying.

But a thing I am capable of fully articulating now is this: the ICU nurses at Fairview Southdale did such an astonishing, such a phenomenal job that I never had a moment of doubt that they and we were a team together, that he was getting the very best of care. And when the hospital transferred Dad up to the palliative care floor on the last day, I kept having the mad urge to run back to the ICU floor where I felt safe. Think on that: it was the place where I found out my dad was going to die. I had so many tears in that place, so many bodily indignities for the father I love. But their care for my dad and for our family still let it feel like a safe place to me. That standard of care is an amazing achievement. I have said over and over, “This is the worst week of my life,” and it is. It is. But it could have been so much worse without the ICU nurses we had.

We’re trying to put one foot in front of the other, we’re trying to figure out how this goes. We’re leaning into the care of our friends and family. But I feel like I fell into a parallel universe, and not one of the delightful ones. With the timing of the weather in our Minnesota spring, I feel like I was beaten and mugged and shoved out the door of the hospital into a world that was suddenly bafflingly warm and fully green and filled with heart-deep bruises, and I only wish that what had been taken from me was my wallet.

Oh, Dad.

Lent, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also I helped with an earlier draft of this book, because the author is a dear friend.

So this is a theologically focused historical fantasy about Savonarola. Bonfire of the Vanities, “purification” of Florence, hanged and burned by the Pope, that Savonarola. He is the protagonist, the close third person point of view is his. If you already know that you don’t want to spend a lot of time with Savonarola, get out while the getting’s good, because this is that book.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book except in the vaguest terms, because the plot twist in the middle was so thoroughly surprising to me–and I am rarely surprised by plot twists–that I feel rather firmly that as many people should encounter it unspoiled as possible. Suffice it to say: there is a large structural THING in the middle of the book, a shift that changes all that comes before and after it. This is a book that pivots and then makes a spiral. (Spiral structured books are rare. Greer Gilman has one in Cloud and Ashes, but I’m not readily coming up with a lot of others.)

…most other things I can say about this are major spoilers. I found it fascinating and not like anything else. I mean, it’s like several of Jo’s other books in that it has Florence in it, it has Pico della Mirandola in it, it has Ficino in it, okay. But is it like the other books of Jo’s that have those things, no, not really. I don’t believe in a late-Medieval/Renaissance Catholic worldview on a very fundamental level, and I don’t think the book is trying to convince you to, but if you aren’t willing to entertain that worldview as at least a speculative premise, this will not be the book for you. But if you like interrogating/extending the natural conclusions of worldviews quite unlike your own, oh yes, this can do that. Quite a lot.

Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is SF horror of a very popular kind. You know all the movies about someone who goes very far out into the solar system and finds something horrible and in fact partly it’s them that’s horrible? And there are incomprehensible alien things and lots of blood and sometimes blood spraying out into vacuum? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone made a movie of this novella, because it is exactly like that, and it is a quite well-done and nasty thing in that direction and they tend to want to look for things like that.

Me personally? I hated it. It is not at all the sort of thing I like, and if it had been longer than a novella I would have stopped reading because my sense of the sunk cost fallacy usually kicks in past novella length. But there’s a difference between hating something and thinking it’s badly done. This is not badly done. Nobody does multilimbed critters like Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s just…someone else’s cup of tea, I feel quite sure. It’s definitely tea and not sludge! It’s just not for me.

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a novella in the same universe as the Rivers of London series, but not with the same protagonist. The main character, narrator, supernatural police officer, and human being much put-upon by rivers in this go-round is Tobias Winter, not Peter Grant.

…frankly they are not very different. And Aaronovitch made some allusions that made me think he might be aiming at doing something thematically interesting with the not-very-different-ness? but this is not it. This is another of the same thing. If this is the sort of thing you like, gosh, you might well like this sort of thing. If you were thinking perhaps not having Peter Grant as a protag would mean Aaronovitch had branched out a bit…no. It does not mean that.

The wine of the Mosel Valley is nice to think about, though, and it rattles along entertainingly. It is very definitely a series installment that does what the series does, but removed from the need to handle the recurring issues of the recurring characters.

The Red-Stained Wings, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by the publisher. In addition, the author is a dear friend.

I love middle books.

I know that there are people who complain about them, but I love them so much. I know what I’m getting into, there’s still room for new twists and surprises, and my standards for whether the author stuck the landing are different because it’s supposed to be an intermediate ending, not a final one. (When it’s not even an intermediate ending, then I get mad. This has an intermediate ending. This is a good place to pause and think about things before the last book in the trilogy.)

There’s a lot here. Animal familiars and predators, toxic dragons, draught and deserts, plotting and betrayal and trust. (I put them in that order for a reason.) There is a mechanical man, a bear-dog, complicated interactions with dolphins and a river goddess. There is despair and hope. There are so many reasons to continue with this book, and I’m so glad there’s more to come.

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a really interesting work of SF criticism focused on the Dark Other, specifically on Black girls/women on the peripheries of popular media properties. Thomas takes the lessons of the title works and others and uses them as exemplars of larger issues in the genre. She deliberately eschews the old-fashioned academic convention of obscuring/abstracting the critic’s voice: she is coming from a very specific place as a late Gen X Black woman from Detroit, and she explicitly (as well as implicitly with her prose choices) rejects the idea of some universal construct called “the reader” who can stand for every reader. This is extremely constructive.

In addition to the titular works, Thomas spends a fair amount of time on the TV show Merlin and also on both the TV show and the book series The Vampire Diaries, examining the ways visual adaptations of preexisting material interact with fan expectations. She has deep roots in fanfiction fandom and is not afraid to use that experience as a lens in this work.

Frankly I think a lot of white SFF writers could benefit from seeing Thomas’s perspective laid out in detail with examples. The power of “I didn’t realize I was doing that, and I’d prefer not to” is pretty strong, and it has to be in the face of “I don’t worry about that kind of thing.”

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is so timely that I can’t even predict how someone will read the phrase “this book is so timely” in the gap between writing this review and posting it. So timely. You might want to read it for that reason. You might want to avoid it for that reason, but if so, definitely read it later, because this is good stuff. Wineapple does not fall into common historian traps like referring to white Southerners as simply “Southerners”; she is willing to state flat out when one of her subjects is known to be lying and when they might or might not have been lying but definitely were wrong.

The first section, about the Reconstruction before impeachment proceedings, made me think a lot about the essential problems of forming a civil society with people who don’t think you’re human. I feel that most American schools under-teach the Reconstruction. The end of the Civil War is presented as a triumph; the path to the Civil Rights movement sort of a hand-waving muddle. Culturally there is a focus on a narrative of progress: no longer slaves! full civil rights! Yay! Wineapple goes into clear and succinct detail on the sorts of crimes that did not end with the Civil War–in fact in some directions intensified–and their impact on Black Americans for more than 150 years. Even if you have some background in this material, she handles it well. It’s very clarifying, too, how a person can consider themself to be on the right side–can even be, more or less, on what history will consider the right side–and still not have done the self-examination enough to grow in their treatment of other people, their perspective on others’ needs. This book is a thorough demonstration of how choosing the right side is not enough, dreaming of a just nation is not enough.

There are characters in this narrative, compelling, astonishing characters. Thaddeus Stevens and his family of choice, Frederick Douglass, Vinnie Ream, Ulysses S. Grant and his incredibly touching friendship with William Tecumseh Sherman. No perfect people, but fascinating ones, well-drawn.

The impeachment itself is a parade of dead ends, times when people were ready to give up, things not making a lot of sense. It ends abruptly. But it’s an incredibly useful perspective to have, in a century where Nixon and Clinton shape our view of censured presidents and what good censuring them does. You don’t have to trust the process. It doesn’t always result in the most justice for the most humans. But there are things that are worth doing even if they can’t be completed. Even if there’s still more to be done 150 years later. Having a torch to pass along is better than extinguishing it.

Also, Andrew Johnson: screw that guy, man. I have all sorts of more nuanced historical take here–and so does Brenda Wineapple, way more nuanced than mine–but really it’s probably never a bad moment to roll your eyes at that guy. Blech.