my Boskone schedule

I am going to be at Boskone this weekend! Schedule is below; note that because Boskone is on the East Coast, I am giving all times in EST.

more on ACOUP

I know I’ve recommended A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry here before, but I wanted to remind people of its existence, because it continues to be an excellent source of military history of the sort that looks at how military matters interface with culture and society, with a non-trivial overlap into specifically SF/F matters. Most recently that’s shown up in a four-part series on the Dothraki (as depicted in both the books of A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series Game of Thrones), looking at Martin’s claim that he based them on the Mongols and the Plains Indians. Spoiler: whoa nelly is that not true. Devereaux isn’t an expert in either of those regions, but he’s done enough of his homework to show how they’re not like each other, and furthermore how in most places the only connection they have to the Dothraki is through the worst of racist stereotypes. You may well have already noticed how offensive the depiction of the Dothraki is, in both the books and the show, but . . . folks, it’s even worse than that. And it’s a salutary lesson in how not to do things, because as Devereaux points out, those stereotypes are still used today to justifice the oppression of real-world ethnic groups.

And speaking of real-world relevance . . . back in October, he posted about the Greek concept of stasis (which means not “everything staying the same,” as we use it now, but rather a recognizable cycle of instability). There are pretty clear parallels between the stasis ancient Greek democracies went through and what the U.S. is doing these days — and, though Devereaux doesn’t say it, I think it applies equally well to the Civil War. He followed that up more recently with a piece on insurrections, showing how strongly what happened at the Capitol on January 6th parallels history. The fact that so much of the invasion there looked stupid doesn’t change the fact that it was a real insurrection; some historical ones looked equally stupid, but they still could have overthrown their governments if they’d succeeded.

It’s good, chewy stuff. If you like history and looking at both the parallels and differences between cultures, you really ought to be reading that blog.

The Advent of Scent, Week 8

* Drops of Amontillado
I don’t have a description for this one, but that’s fine, because it is clearly GRAPE. Like, high-end grape gummy grape to start with. While it’s drying it gets less cloying — there’s a woody element that comes through, and some whiskey — but I swear it gets grapier again after that. I do not like grape well enough to want to reek of it, even if it’s generally a pleasant reek.

* Dirty
BPAL goes for irony with the name of this one, since its description is “a fresh, crisp white linen scent: perfectly clean, perfectly breezy.” In the bottle it’s green and slightly floral; wet, it takes on a quality I’ve encountered in one or two other scents, where it smells cold to me (and yes, I’m aware “cold” isn’t a smell). I have no idea what gives rise to that! Overall it’s slightly green and very pleasantly fresh. On me it fades fast, though, and even when it’s there, I’m not sure it’s my kind of thing.

* Squirting Cucumber
What an unfortunate name. Described as “wet, grassy greenness;” in the bottle and wet it is very clearly cucumber, and manages to be sweet without being sugary. As it dries, the grassiness comes through. It’s another fresh-smelling scent, and I think I like this one better than Dirty.

* Sanguinem Menstruum
Also an unfortunate name, heh. Described as “the copper tang of blood musk, swept by a cloud of dying bees and red poppies of madness.” It’s almost a buttery musk in the bottle, with maybe a honey note; once applied, that gets sharper and cleaner — maybe that’s the poppies cutting it. Dries down to musk and honey, which for me is a meh result.

* Velvet
Described as “gentle sandalwood warmed by cocoa vanilla and a veil of deep myrrh.” Like Bliss, this one launches itself at you as CHOCOLATE. Later on the sandalwood and myrrh are kind of there in the CHOCOLATE . . . but when all is said and done, I do not wish to smell like chocolate.

* The Red Queen
I purchased this one because the description sounded good: “Deep mahogany and rich, velvety woods lacquered with sweet, black-red cherries and currant.” As with Drops of Amontillado, this starts out extremely juicy and fruity — mostly cherry, maybe a little currant. But then the wood starts to come up, and it balances out really nicely with the two fruits, for a result I really really like!

* Irish Buttercream
Described as “Irish whiskey, granulated sugar, brown sugar, whipped cream, buttercream and coffee.” This is exactly what it bills itself as: starts out smelling like Bailey’s, then develops a coffee note as it dries. I’m on the fence about this one, because I like those scents; I’m just not sure if I like to smell like them.

* A Whiff of Waffle Cone
Described as “vanilla, heavy cream, salted caramel, amyris, orgeat, Saigon cinnamon, ice cream shoppe.” It’s a sugary caramel at first, like you might expect from the name, but then . . . I’m going to assume it’s the amyris I wound up smelling, because when I looked that up online it got described as “balsamic, rich and warming.” And while I’m still not clear on what “balsamic” means in a fragrance, this definitely got rich and warming, with maybe just a hint of vanilla. Much, much later, it started to smell like cream. So, not much like the name, and not really my thing, either.

Novella thoughts

I’m noodling around with an idea that I think will be a novella, and part of that noodling involves thinking about novellas in general.

I don’t have the world’s best grasp on how to pace a story of this size. I’ve written five of them, but two weren’t planned that way — both Deeds of Men and Dancing the Warrior were me saying “well, let’s write this idea and see how many words I end up with” — and really, five isn’t all that many in general. Nor do I think I’m alone in being uncertain about how best to structure such things: a lot of the novellas I’ve read feel like they aren’t paced quite right, going too slow in some places, too fast in others. I speculated to a writer-friend on a forum that it’s because novellas were kind of a dead zone in SF/F for a long time (few good ways to publish them, so very few people writing them), and we can’t look to the novellas of the more distant past for much guidance, because our expectations of storytelling have changed. We’re sort of reinventing the wheel, now with suspension and treads and spinning rims.

Whether I’m right about that or not, the fact remains that novellas feel like terra barely cognita to me. Plus I’m not the kind of writer with much in the way of overt understanding of pacing anyway; what I do, I tend to do on instinct. I know plenty of writers who love making use of beat sheets and the like, which map out what kinds of events should happen when in a novel, but those are deadly to my process. So even if you had a beat sheet for a novella, I wouldn’t get much use out of it.

But the other day I realized that I do have one useful framework for thinking about this. I need to ask myself: is what I’m writing more like a short story, or more like a novel?

With a novel, I usually have a couple of set points I vaguely map out ahead of time, pegging them to what feels like the right moment in the story — most often either the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, or 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4. The Night Parade of 100 Demons is a thirds novel; The Mask of Mirrors is a quarters novel. Sometimes I can tell you why; In Ashes Lie is done in quarters because the Great Fire of London burned for four days, and I knew I wanted to interleave two timelines (the fire and what led up to it), so that meant breaking the preceding history into four chunks. Sometimes I have no idea. Any novel I break into an odd number of segments often winds up with a midpoint marker as well; that’s true of both Night Parade and Midnight Never Come (which is in five parts because I wanted to echo the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play). I don’t push too hard for them to wind up exactly on their marks, but since I have a general sense of how long I want the book to be, I use the set points to gauge how much complication and side plot should develop on the way to the next milestone.

That is not at all how I approach a short story. With those, it’s never a matter of me wanting to place narrative turning-points at certain percentages of the way through the total. My short stories are usually built as a sequence of scenes: whether they get scene breaks between them or not, I know we need X to set things up, Y to develop them, and Z to conclude them. For highly variable quantities of X, Y, and Z, of course, and sometimes the structure is non-linear or whatever — but it doesn’t change the essential point that I know what needs to happen, and the quantity of words needed to do that properly determines how long the story is. Which nearly the opposite of the novels, where I’ve got a ballpark target for length and a few key fragments of what’s going to happen, with the bricks being filled in as I feel my way through the story.

(Obligatory disclaimer: writing it out this way makes it all sound much tidier than it is in reality. For example, tons of my short stories start out with me having no idea where I’m going with my shiny new idea. Then they sit around until I’ve figured out enough of the remainder to write the rest. Sometimes this takes years.)

So where do novellas fit into this? As soon as I asked myself “should I approach them like a short story or like a novel,” the answer was obvious. They’re ickle novels, not gigantor short fiction. I’m not going to be able to see the full sequence of scenes ahead of time, no matter how long I let it sit. Which means the thing to do is to find myself a couple of fixed points and then decide where they should go. This feels like a thirds story to me: at roughly the one-third mark, the protagonist will succeed in getting E and G out of the situation they’re in, and then at the two-thirds mark they’ll . . . either get to where she promised to take them (only to find more complications there), if I decide that’s the way the story is headed, or they’ll abandon that goal and do something else. I don’t know which, but I don’t have to. It’s enough for me to say, okay, something like 8-12K of “getting them out of their situation” plot, then another 8-12K of “difficulties and developments along the complete lack of road” plot. Writing the latter will tell me what’s going to happen at the two-thirds mark — or if it doesn’t, then I’ll let it sit for a while. (That happens sometimes with novels, too. A Natural History of Dragons stalled out one-third done for several years.)

I can’t swear this is going to produce good results, because I haven’t tried it yet. But it feels right, y’know? It feels like an approach that will help me thread the Goldilocks needle of too much or too little plot for the space available. I know when the narrative is going to change its trajectory, so now it’s just a matter of feeling my way through the smaller conflicts and alterations before then.

I will report back!

THE NIGHT PARADE OF 100 DEMONS is out . . . yesterday!

Yeesh! Having two novels out in two weeks is not good for my brain: yesterday I was running around announcing the publication of The Night Parade of 100 Demons everywhere but, apparently, here.

cover art for The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan

But the good news is, it is still out today! And for quite some time to come, but of course if you’re interested in it, I suggest buying it soon. (Er, if you’re in North America or reading it in ebook. Due to covid messing with distribution, the paperback won’t be available via UK channels until April 15th.) This is, as the cover shows, a Legend of the Five Rings novel, but if you’re not familiar with the game, don’t let that put you off: the novels Aconyte is publishing are very much designed to be read by anybody. If you would be interested in a book from me that’s set in Japanese history and chock full of folkloric creatures, characters protecting their secrets, an investigation into some mysterious disturbances, and a queer romance, then this will be up your alley; just swap in “country based on historical Japan” and you’re good to go.

And SEMI-RELATED — I will be appearing on The Story Hour tonight! My plan is to read “As Tight as Any Knot,” the Rook and Rose short story I had out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies last month.

Books read, January 2021

Transgressions of Power, Juliette Wade. Second in the Broken Trust series, and not that I expect anybody to notice this, but the first book (Mazes of Power) has not appeared in my logs. There’s a story there, heh.

Juliette is a friend, and the only reason I hadn’t read Mazes of Power immediately after acquiring it last year was that I had zero cope for a dystopian story like this one in 2020. But then I was asked to blurb the second book, so I thought, self, let’s just go ahead and read them both. Except I started running out of time, and I didn’t want to let that hurdle mean I let Juliette down, so . . . I just dove in and started reading Transgressions. Which I do not generally recommend! The setting is beautifully complex, and if you skip the introduction as I did, you will be madly dog-paddling in an attempt to stay afloat! But as I said to Juliet, the fact that the story sucked me right in even though I had no idea who any of these people were and was busy doing the aforementioned dog-paddling is a testament to how good it is. The plot is a slow build, but boy is it satisfying when it lands (and I have never seen the signing of a bureaucratic form look as heroic as it does in this book). The caste-structured society of this world has some impressively creepy aspects — the people who serve as bodyguards are always referred to as a possession of their masters, e.g. “Nekantor’s Dexelin” or “my Dexelin” — and also some very cool cultural differences in the various layers.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini. Paolini is, of course, the guy known for the Inheritance Cycle, beginning with Eragon. This? Is a very different type of book, being interstellar science fiction that starts out wearing its homage to Alien on its sleeve, then takes that opening in entirely new directions. Directions I liked quite a lot, once I got past the body horror of the beginning (a horror which includes being a woman dealing with a doctor who refuses to listen to anything you have to say or respect your bodily autonomy — that got me so much harder than the alien stuff because it happens all the time). I read it in ebook, so I can’t quite measure how massive of a brick the book is, but let’s just say it’s huge and that didn’t stop me from hoovering it up in the space of a few days. It’s also a stand-alone volume, though with a setting that’s open to telling lots of other stories.

Tangleroot Palace, Marjorie Liu. Read for blurbing purposes (this has been a lot of my reading lately, you might notice). A small short story collection from Tachyon, ranging through fairy tales to superheroes to a post-apocalyptic setting, often with queer content. I saw the twist coming a mile off in the title story, but not in a way that wrecked its appeal; I think most kinds of story can survive that, as long as they’re well-written.

Wench, Maxine Kaplan. MG or YA book (I’m not quite sure of its categorization), read for review. Full reaction here; short form is that I found it disappointing. Its tone never quite settled, and the most interesting bits got tossed in at the end, when there was no time left to develop them.

Witherward, Hannah Mathewson. Also read for blurbing purposes. The obvious comparison here is to V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, with an alternate London existing alongside the real (Victorian-era) one. That London, the Witherward, is divided up among factions of magical people all existing in a peace so tenuous it barely deserves the name. The main character, Ilsa, has been living in Victorian London using her magic to get by, without realizing she’s originally from the Witherward; when she gets pulled across the boundary, she finds herself eyeball-deep in the politics there, with a great many people around her having secrets and conflicting agendas.

The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg. Another Tachyon publication, but one that came out a while ago. This is either a novella or a short novel (not sure which) set in Lemberg’s Birdverse. It is intensely queer — both protagonists are trans, one from a culture where it’s entirely normal to use magic to adjust your body to fit your identity, one from a culture where that is not the case — and it’s very poetically written. There’s a lot of suffering here, a lot of loving people who maybe don’t love you back the way they should, because they’re afraid of change (a recurrent theme) or focused on the wrong things, but ultimately it’s a hopeful story, not a bleak one.

Three Twins at the Crater School, Chaz Brenchley. Also read for blurbing purposes! Chaz is also a friend, and he’s been writing the Crater School stories through his Patreon for a while now, but they’re going to be coming out from Wizard’s Tower, hence looking for blurbs. I have never read the Chalet School series this is openly inspired by (classic British girls’ boarding school stories); what I know of that genre comes via the descriptions of the Lowood House novels Millie reads in The Lives of Christopher Chant. I am given to understand they do not usually take place on Mars? 🙂 This is a delightful little book, and very unlike most of what I read these days. Although there are a couple of plots centering on the new arrivals to the school, they aren’t the kind of plots that drive the whole book. Nor are there any real villains apart from some offstage parents — no cruel teachers that make the students’ lives a misery. Mostly you’re spending time with the girls of the Crater School as they deal with each other and their prefects and the teachers and the weird aliens in the lake, and then every so often there’s a problem with the Russian spies up on Phobos or whatever. If you need a story where generally people are good-hearted despite their flaws, where strictness from authority is happening for understandable reasons even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that fact, where somebody can invoke the importance of upholding the image of “a Crater School girl” and that’s a meaningful force on the characters, this is a very good place to find that.

Machinehood, S.B. Divya. Outside my usual reading, being near-future SF focused on AI and body modification and so forth, but Divya is a friend from the Codex Writers’ Group, and I’m making a significant effort to focus on new and upcoming releases right now (this one’s hitting the shelves March 2nd) due to concerns about books being lost in the pandemic chaos. And like Paolini’s book, this made for a diverting change of pace! It is definitely hella dystopian, with weak AI and bots having supplanted enough of the human workforce that the latter subsists on a lot of meaningless crappy gig jobs, constantly scrabbling for enough work to stay afloat — and downing all manner of pills to help them do those jobs, which in some cases has some pretty bad effects — though the most dystopian part of it for me might have been the sort of influencer/up-vote side of things, where even being a bodyguard is a performance art for the ubiquitous cameras, and at one point a woman about to have sex with her partner thinks about how they didn’t put on makeup or dress up for foreplay and so they won’t get a lot of tips. But what I really liked here is that most chapters begin with a quote from the manifesto of the Machinehood, the group attacking everybody . . . and that manifesto makes a lot of good points. Divya does a very good job of counterpoising their ideology against their actions, so that it doesn’t sort into a clear-cut situation of “these people are bad, the end.”

Books read, December 2020

I am behind again! But at least I’m posting about December before January is over.

Kingdom of Copper, S.A. Chakraborty. Second of the Daevabad trilogy. I’m enjoying these well enough, but there was a moment in here that made me realize what’s generally lacking: a sense of humor. It’s got a scene where some characters wind up shoved together with all the awful conflicts between them coming out with teeth bared, and then in the middle of that one of them says they need to get out of there before somebody realizes they’re plotting conspiracy in a janitorial closet, and I thought, yes. I want more of that. It doesn’t negate the pain they’re all feeling and inflicting; in fact, that kind of thing usually makes the dramatic stuff hit harder for me. When it’s nothing but tension and bleakness and bad things happening without anybody managing to find a note of levity, I just don’t engage as deeply.

RWBY: Fairy Tales of Remnant, E.C. Myers, illus. Violet Tobacco. I know nothing about RWBY, but I saw this mentioned and the folklorist in me was intrigued. It’s a pretty little book, and the material in it ranges across a couple of folkloric genres, some more successfully than others; it can actually be very hard to write realistic folklore, because that stuff just doesn’t operate like modern fiction. (It’s entirely possible that “realistic folklore” is neither the target Myers was trying to hit, nor a desirable target to aim for in the first place.) It didn’t quite scratch that itch for me, though, and since I know nothing about RWBY, I’m not inclined to hold onto this.

These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong. This reminds me of Angel of the Crows in one specific respect: I think I would have liked it even better if it had let go of its source material and just focused on the original stuff it was doing. In this case the source material is Romeo and Juliet, but only very distantly; Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai met years ago, had a relationship and fell out and now consider themselves bitter enemies, and so their names and Benedikt and Marshall Seo and Rosalind Lang and Juliette having a nurse who died years ago were mostly just distractions in a story about a weird monster and a war between Chinese and Russian gangs in 1920s Shanghai. The one place where it felt like the Shakespeare plot really played a role, I got pulled out of the story by thinking “ah, here we have a piece of actual Shakespeare plot!” Without that . . . I liked the historical setting, the complex politics of a city being carved up by various European interests and the rise of Chinese Communism and the ambiguous role of gangs, and I cared a lot more about that than I did about the minor Shakespearean elements. I could have done with more meaningful progress on the plot, which involves a strange magical effect causing people to tear their own throats out, as that felt like it was treading water for long stretches of the book. And Juliette was a little too persistently angry at everybody around her and determined to prove she was hard and heartless; more dynamics there would have been welcome. So overall, a mixed bag.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden). This was a Christmas present that’s been on my list for years, and having finally received it, I found myself apprehensive to open it. This movie was so formative for me and I love it so much, any “behind the scenes” account risked poking my heart in some very vulnerable spots. But the book is an utter delight, y’all. For starters, the people involved genuinely loved what they were doing and got along amazingly well: although the bulk of this is written from Elwes’ perspective (who knows how much of it is his words, vs. being ghostwritten by Layden), there are sidebars from a bunch of other people, and they consistently praise each other and talk about what a great experience filming this movie was. Not that nothing ever went wrong — Wallace Shawn was so convinced that Rob Reiner regretted casting him and was about to fire him that he apparently fretted himself into hives, and Elwes is 100% frank about how he was a twenty-three-year-old idiot who broke his toe goofing around on set and nearly screwed over the entire production — but the love truly shines through. And my household can attest that various bits had me cracking up throughout.

The Light of the Midnight Stars, Rena Rossner. Sent to me for blurbing purposes. Gorgeous and melancholy historical fantasy about three Jewish sisters in fourteenth-century Eastern Europe, blending some historical personages with folktales. This is not a cheerful story in any respect, but it’s beautifully written and notably queer, both of which I know are aspects that would be of interest to several people who read my blog.