Books read, November-December 2018

The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon. Read for blurbing purposes, and my copy was provided by the editor; it’ll be out in February. This is epic fantasy; if I attempted to summarize its plot it would sound dreadfully cliche. (An ancient evil dragon called the Nameless One is breaking free after a thousand years of imprisonment, and people must band together to defeat it.) But when you look at the actual story, it doesn’t read like that at all — for reasons that have a great deal to do with the worldbuilding, which I adored. The two main locations are clearly based on England and Japan circa what in Europe was the Renaissance and in Japan was the Tokugawa Era (closed-country policy and all), but there’s more going on with Inys and Seiiki than a mere name swap; among other things, Shannon does a brilliant job of coming up with a religion for Inys and its neighbors that feels believably European without being any form of Christianity. She also does something I love, which is create a situation where lots of people think they have the truth of what happened in the past, and none of them are entirely right — or entirely wrong. I felt the second half rushed a bit, losing the fine attention to detail that I’d been admiring so much in the first half, but it’s still excellent reading. A review will be going up at the New York Journal of Books closer to the pub date.

The Queen of Swords, R.S. Belcher. Read for the NYJB; full review is here, since I was reviewing for the paperback publication date, and the hardcover came out a while ago. I didn’t actually realize, when I requested this one from the queue, that it was the third in a series; I haven’t read the first two, which almost certainly colored my reactions here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard. A very, very loose novella-length retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in a post-apocalyptic world where the Beast is a female dragon — of the Asian rather than European variety. The worldbuilding here is incredibly dense, enough so that I actually wound up disoriented from time to time; the Vanishers and their relationship to the world, and the nature of what they left behind when they vanished, is complicated enough that I could have used a lot more time to explore it.

The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit. I can’t remember anymore where this title came up, but it made me think “huh, I’ve never read that much Nesbit,” so I picked it up in Gutenberg ebook. Reasonably enjoyable, but I’m honestly a bad audience for a story in which kids screw things up constantly because they’re kids and don’t realize how terrible their ideas are; I wind up getting frustrated at them. Some amount of that, I can cope with, but this book is basically a series of that happening over and over again, which meant that I went “argh!” a lot. But Nesbit’s writing is charming nonetheless.

The Storm Runner, J. C. Cervantes. Second book from the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which is basically “Rick Riordan uses his name to help promote authors of color telling stories like the ones he tells, about their own mythologies.” I was very much looking forward to this one because Mesoamerica is one of my random nerderies, and I loved when it got past the kind of standard-issue Rick Riordan “kid finds out he’s half-divine” setup and into the guts of Maya myth. (White Sparkstriker: not high on the list of mythological figures you hear about if you haven’t gone diving into the Popol Vuh.) But overall, it’s a bit like the Nesbit above; I’m not the best audience for a middle-grade book, and occasionally found myself impatient with the middle-grade-ness of it. I had the same feeling about Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book from the imprint. On the other hand, the list of upcoming titles is essentially a giant pile of catnip for me, so middle-grade-ness notwithstanding, I’m likely to go on reading these.

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Even when half the book in question was written by Alyc.

The A.I. War, Daniel Keys Moran. I may very well write a whole blog post about these books later, because reading this reminded me how much I enjoy the series, despite its unfinished and pretty much guaranteed never to be finished state. This one came out in (I think) 2011, and I bought the ebook at the time, started reading it, and . . . I don’t know. Got interrupted somehow, and I’m not sure why it took me this many years to get back to it, because once I picked it up again I devoured it in a couple of days. Moran reminds me somewhat of Neal Stephenson in that I could not in good conscience recommend that any writing student of mine imitate some of his techniques, but they work, even though they shouldn’t. And I really appreciate that Trent goes out of his way to save the lives even of the people who are trying really hard to kill him, and that he keeps his sense of humor no matter what’s going on.

Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters, ed. N.X. Sharps and Alana Abbott. My own work doesn’t count, but that’s only one story in this volume. Kaiju! Smashing things! Or sometimes not! Unsurprisingly, my favorite stories in this one were the ones that got the furthest away from the mode of “giant monsters are destroying things and people must defeat them.” But all of them have giant monsters of one sort or another, because that’s the point.

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas O. Höllmann, trans. Karen Margolis. File this one firmly under the header “very broad overview of the history of Chinese cuisine” — it’s only about a hundred and fifty pages long. But overviews have their place, and I found this one extremely useful for research purposes, as it covered everything from ingredients to implements to cooking techniques to restaurants. The one place where I felt like the overview-ness became a bug rather than a feature was when it came to the twentieth century; the upheavals from both technological and political change are huge enough that they really can’t be lumped in with the previous two thousand years, and trying to do so means the text skips like a rock off of some things that even I, with my extremely marginal knowledge of modern Chinese history, can tell needed way more unpacking than that. Everywhere else the summary nature felt like a good orientation, but not there.

It Happened at the Ball, ed. Sherwood Smith. Ditto above re: having story in here, except replace “kaiju” with “dancing.” (Er. Not that dancing is destroying things and people must defeat it. You know what I mean.) Lots of historical fiction in here, because the theme of the anthology is balls or other events that feature dancing, but not all of it is historical, and some of the dancing is more alluded to than shown. Which is good, because I tend to glaze over at anthologies where the theme is so narrow, and/or authors observe it so narrowly, that every story winds up feeling the same.


On the recommendation of several friends, I recently started using Duolingo to study Japanese. The tldr; of my reaction is that Duolingo seems like a great way to practice a language — I’ve been doing at least small amounts of Japanese daily for over two months now, which is more than I’ve managed for years — and an absolutely abysmal way to learn a language.

I don’t know if that’s just because I’m doing Japanese, which, as a non-Indo-European language with a super-complicated writing system, is especially heinous. But I doubt there’s any massive difference with, say, Spanish, unless the format of the lessons is totally different, because Duolingo makes precisely zero attempt to explain anything to the user. (Including how to use the program. Maybe that would be different if I were accessing it via a web browser, but the phone app doesn’t even have a “here’s how Duolingo works” how-to.)

And yes: immersion is a way to learn a language. But immersion requires substantial commitment; five minutes a day with a phone app ain’t gonna get you there. The Japanese lessons do not tell you that there are hiragana, katakana, and kanji, and that kanji can be pronounced multiple different ways. They don’t tell you about -te forms or the difference between polite and plain speech (and they just start randomly salting the latter in eventually, so that somebody not already familiar with that concept will be looking in vain for their です option). They tell you nothing: they just fling sentences at you and assume you’ll figure it out by trial and error.

[EDITED TO ADD: Okay, so it turns out there are profound differences between the mobile app and the website. As in, the website provides short lessons, which are entirely missing from the app. And the website also gives you a way to provide feedback on a sentence or its translation, if you think there’s an error. Which doesn’t remove the problems I discuss below; those things should have been caught before this ever went live. And I am utterly croggled that the app not only doesn’t include more functionality, but doesn’t make it clear to you that there is more functionality available, because in these days of “let’s make everything mobile,” in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume that what I’m getting on my phone is what I’d get in my browser. But my overall impression of Duolingo is improved somewhat by knowing that lessons are available if you look in the right place, and that they do have a method of letting you go “omgwtfbbq this is wrong.” Back to the post now.]

But that isn’t what really grates my cheese. No, I have massive issue with the fact that whoever coded this appears to have no fucking clue how Japanese works.

I don’t mean the sentences are ungrammatical — though there are places where I take issue with their translations, especially when they translate one Japanese word with variant English ones, or vice versa, in ways that muddy the distinctions between the words they’re teaching you. No, this has to do with the way the app works, and the way Japanese works, and the flat-out wrong way those two things interface sometimes.

Three pieces of context, for those who aren’t already familiar: first, many of the Duolingo questions operate by giving you a sentence in either English or Japanese, and then asking you to assemble the translation from a set of pre-determined blocks. For example, I might have to select [My] [older] [brother] [is] [tall] to translate the sentence 私の兄はせが高いです. Second, as you can see from my Japanese there, the language does not natively have spaces between words; in fact, determining where to put spaces is not simple, and people don’t agree on how best to do it. And third, for Reasons, the hiragana character は is normally pronounced “ha,” but when it’s being used as a particle — a piece of grammatical equipment — it’s “wa” instead.

So that “there’s no clear system for where to break words” thing? There might not be a right way to do it . . . but boy fucking howdy are there wrong ways.

Early on in using the app, I hit an English sentence I think was something like “The book is here” — 本はここにあります, or in romaji, hon wa koko ni arimasu. Note the は there. So I start assembling the blocks of Japanese, only I can’t find ここ among my options.

Because the blocks it’s offering me are [本] [はこ] [こ] [に] [あり] [ます].

I can accept those last two, because there is (faint) merit in splitting a verb ending off from the verb stem, even if every romanization system I’ve ever seen would write that as “arimasu” rather than “ari masu.” But the beginning of that sentence is flat-out wrong. The app helpfully plays the sound for what you’re selecting, and it read out “hon” followed by “hako” followed by “ko.”

Hako means “box.”

They split the word for “here” in the middle and slapped the particle on the first half of it, turning what should have been “wa koko” into “hako ko.” And this is not the only time they’ve done crap like that. I hit one sentence in a later lesson that used the word 郵便局 (“post office”), only it was written in hiragana, ゆうびんきょく. All well and good — right up until the point where they offered me blocks saying [ゆうびんき] [ょくに行きました]. You can’t do that. Not only does it literally split the word for “post office” in half, it does so in a manner that amounts to [postof] [ficeIwentto]. That ょ can’t start a word, not when it’s shrunk down like that; the whole reason it’s shrunk down is to show that it modifies the preceding character, き. On its own, that one is “ki,” and the other is “yo.” Together, they’re not “kiyo,” they’re “kyo.” Which is a meaningfully different sound — as in you can literally change the meaning of a word by swapping one for the other.

There are lower-grade problems like this all over the Japanese lessons. Because kanji can have multiple pronunciations, 中 can be pronounced both “naka” and “chuu” (among other options) — but when the app asks you to match characters to their pronunciations, the one it provides you is “chuu,” while the voice cheerfully reads out “naka.” Yeah, ’cause that’s not going to confuse the hell out of someone who hasn’t already mastered hiragana and learned about the difference between kun’yomi and on’yomi. If I assemble the phrase for “man” in a sentence, the audio it gives me for 男の人 is “otoko no jin” instead of “otoko no hito” — the exact opposite of the 中 problem, because “naka” is the pronunciation you generally use when that character is on its own, but “jin” is the one you use in a compound word (like “gaijin”). When you put a number with a counter, you get audio like “ichi hon” instead of “ippon,” because that’s how those parts are pronounced separately, and the app doesn’t take into account the fact that together they undergo a sound change.

. . . except it does. That’s what’s so infuriating. Duolingo does a good job of hitting the same material from all the angles; it will give me English and ask me to assemble the Japanese, or the Japanese and ask me to assemble the English, or I’ll have to do listening comprehension and provide either the transcription or the translation. And when what it’s giving me is the Japanese sentence in full, it’s correct. It will say “otoko no hito” rather than “otoko no jin,” and “ippon” instead of “ichi hon.” So they have that audio. But whoever put the Japanese lessons together utterly failed to notice that, oh hey, they kept giving us wrong things whenever they break it up. (A fact that manifests in a small, mildly hilarious way any time you need to put together a negative polite verb, because the final -n is its own block, and the audio pronounces it with the kind of rising intonation you’d use when you’re asking a question — not the way you’d pronounce it as a normal verb ending.)

So basically, I find Duolingo pretty good for studying Japanese because I already know the language. I’m learning new vocabulary and getting lots of practice in things like word order, which is a thing I never really internalized very well — i.e. when you have a complex sentence, what bits of it should go before what other bits. But if you’re trying to learn from it, what it’s providing ranges from “unhelpful” to “straight-up wrong.”

I’ve sent in feedback (once I figured out how to do that; see above re: the app isn’t even helpful in telling you how to use the app), so maybe it’ll be fixed. Right now there’s only one basic Japanese course, and I’ve gone through the first level of all the lessons, so now it’s just rinse and repeat until I internalize some of this stuff. But dear god: if they want to continue with this language, they need to get their grammatical and phonetic house in order, because otherwise it’s going to be a trash fire.

Star Trek: Discovery (no spoilers)

My husband and sister and I watched the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery when it aired, but declined to subscribe to CBS’s streaming service to get the rest of it. I was uncertain whether I wanted to watch the rest anyway, because on the basis of that first ep, I had a bad feeling the show was basically Star Trek: Grimdark. But my husband went ahead and bought the discs when they became available, and I figured, fine, I’ll give it more of a chance.

It is not Star Trek: Grimdark. It is, in fact, an active and wholehearted rejection of that concept.

Now, it would be fair to say that it’s Star Trek: Gritty. There is a lot more blood and gore and sex here than I expected, a lot more characters making morally questionable choices or getting into conflicts that cut all the way to the bone instead of being resolved in a scene. There is a war on, and it feels a lot more like a real war than anything else I’ve seen in Star Trek (full disclosure: I haven’t seen a lot of it, precisely because the surface-y nature of a lot of its conflicts has left me unengaged). But in the long term, the first season is about being put in situations where it feels like you’ve got to compromise your principles in order to achieve your goal, and saying: No. I will find a better way.

Which I really, really appreciate.

The show also has much better long-term plotting than I expected out of a Star Trek offering — most of their previous shows being heavily episodic in their structure. This one is Arc-Plot Ahoy!, which lets it pull off some narrative stunts toward the end of the season that genuinely impressed me. Mind you, that’s coupled with a number of premises that are pure grade-A Science Cheese, to an extent that made me roll my eyes even though I knew coming in that Star Trek is not the place to look for anything resembling actual science . . . but I can forgive that for conflicts and characters I’m invested in.

Its other flaw is that I just really don’t care about the Klingons. Which is a problem when they’re a goodly chunk of the plot. But every time the scene cut to their internal politicking, I felt myself tuning out. I don’t find their society interesting, and I think the extensive use of the Klingon language contributed to the problem; because it was designed to sound weird, it contains a high density of difficult-to-pronounce sounds, which means that every single Klingon actor delivered their lines in essentially the same ponderous tone. Combine that with massive prosthetics, and you have a recipe for flattening their ability to act into a pancake of boredom.

But whenever it got back to the Federation characters or the people around them, I checked right back in. And I especially liked the sheer number of women and people of color — many of them human women and people of color, rather than using aliens as proxies for real-world diversity. I loved the fact that Admiral Cornwell is a woman over the age of thirty who actually looks like she’s over the age of thirty: she’s not cover-model beautiful and botoxed to hell and gone, she’s an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman just like all the ordinary-looking middle-aged men who manage to get jobs on shows like this. I loved Tilly being socially awkward and fantastic. I loved that when we get to the Orions, there are scantily clad male dancers as well as female.

I have no idea what they’re doing with the plot of the second season, but I am definitely interested in watching it.

New Worlds: Tattoos

I have hopes that Book View Cafe’s hosting woes will soon be solved, but until that happens, the New Worlds Patreon will continue to run here! (And y’know, 2019 is a splendid time to support your local worldbuilding blogger. I’ll soon be putting out the second collection, and all patrons at the $3 level and above will receive an electronic copy!)


At the beginning of the second year of this Patreon, I did two posts on body modification. Despite devoting so much time to the topic, I only touched on tattoos in passing — because they’re a complex enough topic that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them while also talking about piercings, stretching, bone reshaping, and so forth. Now, as we approach the end of that second year, let’s loop back around and give tattoos their due.

We don’t know for sure how old tattoos are because soft tissue doesn’t preserve well, and the tools of the trade (needles and pigment) aren’t readily distinguishable from the needles and pigment used for other purposes. But we know that Ötzi, the ice-mummified man found in the Alps, had sixty-one tattoos on his body; that rather suggests a well-established tradition, not something he’d made up himself the previous week. Since he died over five thousand years ago, we can safely say the practice is quite ancient.


New Worlds: How to Fight a Duel

Due to Book View Cafe’s ongoing problems with Hostgator (soon to be solved by leaving Hostgator for a company we can actually rely on . . .), this week’s New Worlds Patreon post is here at Swan Tower again!


I couldn’t resist giving this essay that title, but the truth is that I can’t give exact instructions on how to fight a duel, because — like pretty much everything discussed in this Patreon — there’s a lot of variation both geographically and historically. A gun duel on the western frontier of the United States in the nineteenth century was not the same as a sword duel in eighteenth-century London, and neither of them is like an Indonesian knife duel.

But I said in the last essay that for my purposes, a duel is distinguished from any other one-on-one fight by the existence of certain formalities marking it out from normal combat. Those formalities have some common threads, and if we approach a duel sequentially, we can tease those out.


No Yuletide guessing game this year

For the first time since I began doing Yuletide in 2010, I wound up defaulting. In hindsight, I could have avoided that; if I’d gotten my fic written in early November, I would have been fine. But I didn’t, and enough work came dumping down on me in late November/early December that I just couldn’t squeeze it in. (Much less write a minimum of four fics, which is what I’ve done for the last eight years.) If I’d tried, I would have delivered something half-assed, and I didn’t want to do that to my recipient. So: default it was, and hopefully their pinch-hitter gave them something wonderful.

But defaulting doesn’t mean you are out of Yuletide entirely. My assigned writer came through, and so did someone else with a treat! I don’t know which is which, but both stories are for the Mummy series (the ones with Rachel Weisz and Brendan Frazer, not the newer Tom Cruise one). I don’t know which is which, but the first one posted is “In the Night” (and involves no mummies, for which the writer apologized, but I happily accept other kinds of folklore, too!), and the second one is “Perks of Being a Bembridge Scholar” (which has bog bodies!).

Because I defaulted before the default deadline, I’m not on the hook to write any kind of story as penance to the Yulegoat. I still feel guilty, though, and so after New Year’s I’m going to peruse the list of prompts and find two people to treat — one for each fic I received.

New Worlds: Codes of Honor

Hello, everyone! You may notice that your regularly scheduled New Worlds Patreon essay is in a different place this week. That’s because Book View Cafe, its usual home, has been having massive and ongoing problems with Hostgator, which as of me posting this are not resolved. (And even when it seems like they’re resolved, the site keeps going down again.) So this week I’m posting here on my own blog, and will continue to do so until I’m sure things are stable again over at BVC. (If you’re a regular reader of Swan Tower who doesn’t normally click through to BVC for my Patreon essays, welcome, and I hope you enjoy!)

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business!


Chivalry. Bushidō. Omertà.

Sometimes when we talk about a code of honor, we mean an amorphous thing, a vaguely agreed-upon set of standards that have never been formally defined. Other times, we mean a very well-defined thing, with a name and specific tenets known to all.

. . . or do we?


Calling all poetical/artistical types

I have a favor to ask!

For Sekrit Projekt R&R, Alyc and I have some divinatory cards we need to name. The catch is that we want their names to more on the metaphorical side, rather than directly literal, and neither of us is exceptionally good at thinking in those terms. Example: one of the cards represents travel and journeys. The obvious thing would be some kind of name involving roads or paths or whatever. But our placeholder name for it was “Horizon,” and now it’s “Dawn and Dusk,” because the city where the story takes place sits in the middle of a major trade network that extends east and west. That’s one we’re very pleased with . . . but we need a bunch more.

If you would be willing to help brainstorm card names, drop me a line. We’re especially interested in suggestions from people with a poetical bent, or people with a visual bent who might think in terms of what the image on the card would be, and then come up with a name to describe that image. I’ll send you a rundown of what the cards are that need naming, and also a little information about the setting to riff off in terms of knowing what details might be appropriate. There are thirty-four that need names; you’re welcome to suggest more than one for any given card, and you don’t need to suggest things for all of them if you don’t have ideas that seem fitting.

We’d like all suggestions to be in by the end of the month.

So if that’s something you can help out with, let me know. We’d be very grateful for the assistance!