Book read, August 2020

Continuing the process of catching up . . .

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, ed. Nisi Shawl. A short story collection from last year that ranges all over the SF/F map, providing all kinds of tasty variety. I think my favorite was “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations,” by Minsoo Kang; it’s not a very conventional short story, being more of a fictional historical commentary, but it’s a great look at the role of translators in diplomacy and how they can influence politics — which then closes out with an appended note wherein someone else chides the historian for neglecting the the perspective of the female character in that history.

Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison. How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how overdosed you feel on Sherlock Holmes, because the author’s note at the end straight-up admits that the novel began as Sherlock wingfic — that is to say, fanfic where one of the characters has wings. But although the plot largely consists of bits of Holmes canon stapled together in sequence, there’s been real work done here on the worldbuilding, creating a nineteenth century with “angels” who are the spirits of public buildings. Crow, the Sherlock replacement, is an anomaly among his fellow angels: he has no habitation, yet he’s somehow avoided falling back into the ranks of the Nameless, the undifferentiated masses of angels with no home. There are other changes as well, some of them specifically doing what they can to file the racism off of the source material, but I found the most interesting part of it by far to be the new supernatural elements and the story built around those. I would happily have read a novel merely set in this alternate history with no Holmesiana to it at all.

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Curtis Craddock. Second of the Risen Kingdoms trilogy, which I posted about before. I continue to really enjoy multiple aspects of this: the highly quotable lines that crop up from time to time, the rich worldbuilding (which begins exploring some of the other sorceries in this world, and also addresses the issue of bloodshadows seeming to be the most horrible form of sorcery by showing they can be used for something other than evil — it’s just that most of the nobility don’t bother), and the real complexity of the intrigue. I particularly appreciate the Grand Leon as an example of realpolitik: he’s genuinely reform-minded in some good ways, but that doesn’t make him nice. You know how some middle books of a trilogy feel like they’re either treading water or rehashing the first plot in a new form? This is definitely not one of those.

The Unstrung Harp, Edward Gorey. The traditional re-read, performed upon completion of a novel draft.

Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.) Speaking of openly being inspired by something . . . what if you took Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and made it totally Indian? But while that may have been the starting point here, it isn’t where the story ends. Sheetal is the daughter of a star who lived with her family for many years before returning to the sky; since then Sheetal has been trying to hide her supernatural heritage. Of course that doesn’t work, and so much of the novel takes place in the realm of the stars, where she has to navigate the politics of the different astral houses and the question of how they should relate to the mortals they’re supposed to inspire. There’s one bit where a thing gets suggested which seems on the surface like it ought to be great . . . only when you look closer, it really isn’t. And I was very glad to see the story come back to that and say, “yeah, no, there are some serious problems with this.”

Scarlet Odyssey, C.T. Rwizi. African-derived fantasy that, unlike most such things I’ve read, very much draws its inspiration from South Africa. I enjoyed a lot about this, but found the pacing off: there’s a much bigger metaplot underlying the starting plot, and I either wanted that to come more meaningfully into play here, or to be held in reserve until much later. The cover copy focuses on how Salo’s queen sends him to a distant city to gather important information — but the book ends with him arriving in that city. In the meanwhile, you get a long segment of him before he leaves (which is fine, I enjoyed that part), a long journey to the city, and sections from other points of view, primarily a young woman in the city and one seemingly-disconnected thing whose connection I guessed at before it was revealed. Because of that, when I got to the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like anything in particular had been resolved or achieved; it had just been set up to do the real stuff later. So: not bad, and there was a lot I genuinely liked, but my feeling of momentum and anticipation faded as I got toward the end, rather than building.

Across the Burning Sands, Daniel Lovat Clark. One of the Legend of the Five Rings novellas, this one taking some Unicorn Clan characters out of their territory and into a neighboring land. Given how much Rokugan has usually been depicted as an ethnocentric and insular land, it’s honestly refreshing to see Rokugani characters in a place where everybody’s basically going, “Rokugan what? Yeah, not impressed.”

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, Melissa Bashardoust. This is probably one of the most engaging YA novels I’ve read in a while. It’s heavily inspired by Persian folklore, and it digs incredibly well into some difficult emotional issues. So many books shy back from letting there be serious bad consequences to their protagonists’ actions, or framing those actions as genuinely their fault; well, here the heroine knows she shouldn’t do a thing, and she does it anyway for bad reasons, and horrible shit happens as a result, and she has to figure out how to deal with that. (Also, if you’re looking for queer representation, this has that, too.)

Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection. A very brief catalogue from an exhibition at Cushing Library at Texas A&M, sent to me by my archivist there. This isn’t just the usual suspects for fantasy maps (e.g. Middle-Earth), and I really enjoyed seeing the broad variety of types represented.

Books read, July 2020

I am way behind on this, and yes, I know August and September are also over, but if I try to do everything at once it will be such a dauntingly huge post that I won’t write it. So let’s catch up on July first.

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Nature details: how do???

I have a confession to make: I grew up in suburban Dallas, and I simply Do Not Grok Nature.

On the metric of effort-to-result, putting details about nature into my stories is probably one of the most labor-intensive things I do. And I don’t even mean long, rapturous passages of lyrical description about fog creeping over a pond at dawn or something like that; I mean that unless I make a conscious decision to go do some research, my characters walk through forests of Generic Trees, listening to Generic Birds make Generic Noises. When I do the research, it winds up being half an hour of effort for half a sentence of result.

I’m making an effort to improve at this, and having discussed it with some writers, I think a large chunk of what I need is simply better resources for the information, or better ways of finding the resources. Field guides are helpful, but even more helpful are books or websites that talk holistically about a specific landscape, so that I get integrated information like “down by a watercourse you’ll see these trees and these birds and these flowers,” rather than separated lists of all the trees found in a region, and all the birds, and so forth. I feel like this is relatively findable for the United States, but much harder for other parts of the world, especially non-Anglophone parts. Any recs for such things? I mostly use this for secondary-world purposes rather than this world, but I’d love to be able to have characters ride across grasslands that look more like Mongolia than Nebraska, or cope with environments like tropical jungles that we mostly don’t have here. Could be formal field guide-type stuff, or just somebody writing with really evocative specificity about not just the mood of a place, but the specific flora and fauna to be found there and how they behave.

(I know one bit of advice is “get out there in the naturez yourself!,” but that would mostly only help me learn to write about the northern California landscape. I do get out in the naturez, but I can’t just go hang out in Mongolia whenever I want.)

A thing you can do to help

Doing something is a really, really good antidote for stress and worry. My chosen Thing to Do: write letters through Vote Forward, which sends personalized messages to voters, encouraging them to vote and providing them with information on how to do so. They specifically focus on young and/or minority voters, i.e. the kinds of people who have historically been underrepresented in our electorate, timing the mailing for maximum effect (this year letters will be going out on October 17th); they’ve got several years’ worth of data backing up the idea that this makes a measurable difference. This year they have blown past their initial goal of ten million letters prepped, so now it’s moving on to the stretch goal of 15 million. Each one takes about three minutes to prep and you can “adopt” voters in batches of five or twenty, so it’s easy to make this as small or large of an undertaking as you want — I’ve done sixty so far and want to do a minimum of a hundred, though once I hit that target I may add more. You can volunteer here.

This is how I celebrate

Last week some of you may have seen me losing my mind on Twitter, because after nineteen years of trying, I finally sold a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF).

I did not actually set out to buy myself a present to celebrate this. But quite separately, I had managed to irritate myself by flushing out the fountain pen I use most frequently and then re-filling it with ink before it had dried out, resulting in extremely watery ink for a while. I commented to my sister that I should get a second one, and then I could just swap to the other one while the first dried off.

Now, I already have more than one fountain pen. There’s a Waterman I think was a birthday present decades ago, and a Padrino I bought myself in Rome on my honeymoon. There are also two random cheapo things whose brand nor origin can be discerned, and one probably not at all cheapo Jinhao that likewise seems to have materialized out of nowhere — seriously, we don’t have the faintest clue where this one came from. It’s very pretty, and also quite heavy, which is why I don’t use it often; the Padrino has the problem of a screw-top cap and no grip, so I wind up holding it where the thread screws are, and naturally that’s uncomfortable. The Waterman is fine, but I’ve never liked it as much as the pen I use more often.

The selling point of that pen — a Platinum Plaisir — is that it doesn’t dry out nearly as fast as any of my other pens. Some of them, I swear you come back the next day and the ink is already a bit stuttery. This one? I haven’t tested the theory that I could leave it in a drawer for a month and it would still write just fine, but it certainly feels that way. So I thought, okay: I will get myself a second Plaisir.

But I don’t actually find the Plaisir all that attractive. It isn’t ugly, but I already got the color that appealed most to me (a satin-brushed metallic green); when I was browsing the other options, the only one that stood out at all, a gunmetal gray, was out of stock. But in looking to see if I could find it elsewhere, I wound up reading a review of the Plaisir that said something interesting:

Its style of cap, which does such a nice job of keeping the ink wet, is apparently common across all of Platinum’s pens.

This is how I wound up on the Goulet Pens website at two thirty in the morning, browsing fountain pens, and coming across something which I told myself I wasn’t allowed to buy until the following morning, because one should generally not make expensive impulse buys late at night:

a Platinum Kanazawa fountain pen

I . . . swear I’m not becoming one of those writers, the ones who obsess over fountain pens. But that one was still so damn pretty when I woke up the next morning, and I’d just sold a story to F&SF the other day, and I decided I deserved a present to myself. It is as pretty in person as it was online, and it’s remarkably lightweight, and the nib is finer than my Plaisir, which as someone with default tiny handwriting I appreciate. The ink I put in it apparently does not play well with the paper of my Rook and Rose notebook, because I am too much of a fountain pen noob to understand the subtle nuances of ink-paper interaction, but writing with it pleased me a great deal anyway. We’ll see if it fares as well in the drying-out department as the Plaisir, but even if it doesn’t, I am very glad to have it.