New Worlds: Just Add Water (and Year Three!)

This week, the New Worlds Patreon launches into Year Three! As part of the celebration, I’ve added a monthly poll where my patrons at the $5 level and above can vote on the topic for the upcoming month . . . and my wonderful, amazing, fantabulous patrons voted for the thing I thought nobody than other me wanted to hear about, which is sanitation. So this month we’re starting off with water supplies, and in upcoming weeks I’ll be talking about bathing, trash heaps, and whether premodern cities really were open sewers or not.

The ebook for Year Two will be out in early April, with copies going to patrons at the $3 level and above before that. If you’d like to become a patron, you can do that right over here — let’s start Year Three together!

NEVER AFTER is out now!

Get yer pipin’ hot flash-length fairy tales here!

. . . you guys? I have NO IDEA what has happened with this book. For some reason it blew all my previous stats for pre-orders completely out of the water, and it’s continued to do so after release. It has sold more copies in its first day (including pre-orders) than Monstrous Beauty did in its first six months — that being the most comparable title in terms of price ($0.99) and content (very brief fairy tale retellings). I can point to lots of other variables, of course: I published Monstrous Beauty in 2014; my audience has probably grown since then. That one is more directly horror; this one is lighter-hearted with its twists. Maybe this one has a better title. Maybe it has better cover art. Maybe maybe maybe. The truth is, I have no way of knowing. (And this is why the publishing industry has so much trouble predicting what will be a bestseller and what will sink.)

All I know is, this has completely warped the bar graph Amazon uses to show me my sales. There’s now this giant spike, next to which my normal daily sales have been compressed to itty-bitty nubbins. 😛

(I’m not complaining. I’m just astonished. And wishing this had happened on a book that earned me more than thirty-five cents for every copy I sell . . .)

Anyway, Never After: Thirteen Twists on Familiar Tales is out now! And making a far bigger splash than I ever anticipated when I first thought, “hey, I could bundle up my flash retellings and put them out as a silly little side project for National Tell a Fairy Tale Day.”

New Worlds: Honeymoons (and anniversary announcement!)

In the excitement of Book View Cafe’s new hosting provider being stable enough for the New Worlds Patreon to return to its usual home, I forgot to announce the latest essay here! Last Friday’s contribution was on honeymoons, and you can still head on over and add your thoughts.

I’m also pleased to announce a book giveaway to celebrate the second anniversary of the Patreon! Six lucky patrons will receive signed books from me. If you’d like to have a chance at a prize, just sign up before this Friday!

Get yer fairy tales on!

This missed posting for some reason, and I only just now noticed. But there is still time to pre-order!

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About a year ago, I discovered that February 26th is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day.

Now, like many authors with an interest in folklore, I’ve tackled fairy tales before. I have a whole collection of them, Monstrous Beauty. But that represents only one part of my fairy tale ouevre — the part that’s the most horror-tinged. I have others.

And I thought, why not do something with those?

This happened about a year ago, so it was far too late to do anything for that year’s National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. But I looked ahead to 2019, and discovered that this year, February 26th would be a Tuesday — which is, traditionally, the day of the week when new books get released.

NEVER AFTER: THIRTEEN TWISTS ON FAMILIAR TALES by Marie Brennan

Ladies, gentlemen, and other civilized people, I give you Never After: Thirteen Twists on Familiar Tales. Available for pre-order now; due to be released — of course — two weeks days from now. It’s a tiny little thing; every one of those thirteen stories is flash-length, under 500 words, and two of them are about 100 words apiece, which is why the collection is priced at a mere $0.99 (or whatever that turns into in your local currency). You can pick up both that and Monstrous Beauty for two bucks, and have twenty fairy tales of variously warped sorts — the ones in Never After are not as dark as the ones in Monstrous Beauty, but I wouldn’t call them sweet and innocent, either . . .

Forget perfect princesses, handsome princes, and “happily ever after.” In this collection of thirteen flash-length fairy tale retellings, award-winning author Marie Brennan introduces you to a world of manipulative mirrors, treacherous pigs, and candy houses that will eat you right up. Each one is a subversive little gem, guaranteed to shock the Brothers Grimm.

Pre-order now!

New World: Wedding Customs

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

A truly comprehensive survey of wedding customs around the world and throughout history would probably fill several volumes. I’m not going to attempt that; we’d get so far down into the weeds we’d never see the sun again. Instead I’m going to do a more top-level sweep of the steps involved in getting married, with some attention to the specifics of how those can manifest.

It starts with engagement, i.e. the promise to get married later on. This doesn’t have to last for a long time — it can be as short as the gap between “hey, want to get married?” and finding an Elvis impersonator at a drive-through Las Vegas chapel to hitch you two together — but the longer the gap is, the more preparation you can do. Today’s wedding-industrial complex pushes the ideal that you should do a lot of prep (and spend a lot of money on it), which echoes yesteryear’s necessity of assembling a wedding trousseau. (I’m reminded of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s line in The Lion in Winter, dismissing the likelihood that Richard and Alais will get married any time soon: “The needlework alone can last for years.”)

But even engagement can involve more than mere agreement. There may be a prenuptial contract to negotiate, or permission to secure: from parents, a master, a liege lord, or anyone else with the authority to gainsay a match. Posting the banns is or was required in a number of Christian countries, giving the general public a chance to raise objections — though usually only within set limits, e.g. “he’s got a wife in another town.” This also creates a mandatory waiting period, helping to stave off the buyer’s remorse that often afflicts the clients of those drive-through Vegas chapels.

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New Worlds: Courtship

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The counterpart to arranged marriages are ones where the spouses choose each other, often referred to as a “love match.” When there’s no matchmaker involved (be it a family member or trained professional), it’s up to interested parties to find and woo their own future husband or wife . . . which can be a very fraught process.

Before we dive too far into that, I should say that there’s often courtship involved in arranged marriages, too. The Japanese matchmaking process is called miai and means “looking at one another;” nowadays it begins with looking at a photograph, but in the past it might instead be kagemi, a “hidden look,” arranging for the man to secretly glimpse the woman without her knowing. If that goes well, the families proceed to their children meeting face-to-face, usually in a series of three dates before a decision is made. European nobility sent portraits as advertisements for their kids, and the prospective pair might exchange letters to get to know one another if they couldn’t meet in person.

But with love matches/autonomous marriage, courtship plays a much larger role, because it’s the means by which people even find possible spouses, conduct their evaluations, and seal the deal. So let’s dig into that.

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Mains and sides

It’s the return of the Tin Chef!

As some of you know, I’ve finally started actually cooking, after thirty-some-odd-years of basically never doing it. I now have a nice array of recipes I like and can do, and enough confidence now that I’ll happily browse a magazine or cookbook and go “oooh, that sounds tasty, maybe I should try it,” as long as the recipe isn’t too daunting.

But almost everything I make is a single-dish meal, or if it isn’t, then we just throw some spinach on the plate as a salad. I’m still not much good at making a main dish and a side dish to go with it. Partly because that type of multitasking is still a little difficult for me — making sure things are ready around the same time, but don’t demand my attention at the same instant such that something winds up burning — but also just because . . . I have a hard time judging what things will go well together.

I know that to some extent the answers to this are a) it doesn’t matter that much and b) I can experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. But I’ve got a whole list of side dishes I’d like to try someday, and every time I look at them and go “I dunno, would that pair well with this main item?” I wind up going back to the single-dish things I’m comfortable with. So I put it to you, the cooks of my readership: how can I get better at this? I have two different “meat with balsamic + fruit sauce” main dishes I like — one chicken with balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice, one pork chop with balsamic vinegar and dried cherries — and the fruitiness keeps making me second-guess whether a given side dish would make a good complement. And there are a lot of main dishes I haven’t even really taken a crack at yet. If I had some guiding principles for figuring out what combinations are good, I might experiment more.

New Worlds: Matchmaking

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Last year I spent the month of February discussing marriage-related topics. This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I’d like to return to that subject — because as I noted at the time, there’s more to talk about than can fit into a mere four essays.

(Spoiler: it won’t fit into eight, either. Though the next time I loop around to this, we’ll be looking more at things on the periphery of marriage, rather than marriage itself.)

I said in those previous essays that historically speaking, marriage tended to be seen less as an alliance between two individuals, and more as an alliance between their families or nations or whatever. Because of this, it isn’t surprising that autonomous marriage — where individuals choose their own spouses, with nobody else getting a say in the matter — was far less common than arranged marriage. Even today, something like half of all marriages worldwide are arranged marriages.

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Books read, January 2019

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Not even when it’s my second read-through in as many months.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Re-read, if I can call it that when I don’t think I’ve read this since I was twelve. I was trying to remember Scrooge’s dismissive description of Marley’s ghost, and wound up deciding to read the whole thing — starting before Christmas, but I got interrupted and didn’t finish until early January. I’m struck, as a recent article which I have now lost pointed out, by how non-religious the book is: yes, Christmas, and there are some passing references, but this is very much the Victorian “social gospel” rather than anything overtly Christian.

Deep Wizardry, Diane Duane. Second book in the Young Wizards series, and it’s been fun to see people’s expressions when I tell them the protagonists spend most of the book as whales. 😀 Beautifully-done observations of different whale types; I can’t judge the accuracy, because I don’t know enough to do so, but they stood out as very vivid. And oh, the shark. I told my sister, who adores sharks, that it’s the best shark character I’ve ever seen — not in the “cute and cuddly cartoon animal” way, but the cold and yet necessary killer.

By Fire Above, Robyn Bennis. Sequel to The Guns Above. Her airships continue to be flying deathtraps, and I wanted to rip my hair out when the characters have to follow absolutely moronic orders because that’s the way the military works. But after a slow-ish start involving social politics, we get insurrections in an occupied city, and clever aerial maneuvering winning the day, both of which are fabulous. This book gets pretty dark — some characters make horrifying yet necessary decisions, and some turn out to be kind of awful people — but not unrelentingly so; the plot drags you down and down but then back up again at the end. And there is also still quite a bit of humor.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North. The conceit of this book is that it purports to be a repair manual for a time travel machine, only the manual says “sorry, you can’t actually repair this, so instead we’ll tell you how to re-invent a lot of basic technologies so life can at least suck less in whatever time period you’ve been stranded in.” The tone is overall hilarious, in a voice that reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s blogging, though the puns that subtitle nearly every chapter started to wear thin after a while. It’s chock-full of interesting trivia (like every avocado you’ve ever eaten descending from a single tree with a backstory that genuinely makes you ask “are you sure time travelers weren’t involved?”), and makes it clear both how many technological advancements were more a matter of figuring out the relevant ideas rather than having the material capacity to create them, and how often things got invented and then either forgotten or not used for their real potential.

Having said that, although its explanations of how to build everything from a simple smelter to a battery using basic technology are remarkably concise, don’t try to hold this book to too high of a standard: yes, it sort of tells you how to build these things, but successfully building them would require a lot more instruction than this book provides, or else a lot of trial and error. Also, while I’m sure everybody who reads this has a list of technologies North didn’t include and should have, I’ve got to REALLY side-eye the lack of looms. He tells you how to build an efficient spinning wheel, then blithely says this will help you make “thread, which you can sew into clothing!” Uh, no, dude — there’s kind of a vital step in the middle there that you just waltzed straight past. That’s the one thing I truly feel he should have included, and didn’t.

Kingmaker: Stolen Land, Tim Hitchcock, and Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, Rob McCreary. Two modules in the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, which are pre-written materials for running an RPG campaign. I read these two because I wanted to know what a Pathfinder module actually provides to a GM, and since we already played through these two in a campaign, I wasn’t going to spoil myself for anything (I skipped the “campaign outline” in the first one) and could also compare it against my actual experience of it in play.

On the whole . . . eh? I admit I want more interconnectedness, instead of a main plotline and then a bunch of random side quests, but I also recognize that’s not what these set out to provide. Mainly I’m grateful to my GM for noping right out of the NPC backstory where the guy is in exile because his lover falsely accused him of rape when her husband found out about the affair, because that’s some straight-up bullshit. There’s more other bits of incidental sexism along the way that grated, too, like the “flirty” female NPC described in a single sidebar who offers a cloak of resistance +1 and a “kiss . . . or possibly more” in exchange for completing a quest. (Also one bit of stealth gay — a dead male bandit who told “his lover” about a cache of treasure, but said lover died in “his attempt” to retrieve it — for what little that’s worth.) But I straight-up loathed the fiction being told in installments across the modules. In the first installment, written by James L. Sutter, the protagonist is an arrogant and unlikeable asshole who evaluates the few female characters on their attractiveness and probability of him getting them into bed, and then the story goes out of its way to reinforce how fat and gross and disgusting the villain is. The second installment, written by Richard Pett, almost manages to be funny with its militant convent of Iomedae — with nuns holding titles like the Mistress of Improvised Combat Using Common Kitchen Utensils — except that a) they take a “sworn oath of chastity and violence toward men” and “horribly punish any man who dares touch them, think impure thoughts about them, or look at them. They don’t even have candles in the convent — too phallic,” b) they are insanely and pointlessly abusive toward their novices (including, of course, our cross-dressing male “heroes”), and c) at the end of the story it comes out that they’re too stupid to realize the male kobold they randomly decided is “the embodiment of purity and goodness” and is therefore allowed to stay in the convent is systematically robbing them blind. Plus half a dozen innocent people get murdered by assassins chasing the main characters, which I guess we’re supposed to think is funny? Because the idiot protagonist thinks they’re all dropping randomly dead of heart attacks?

If I wind up reading through the later modules in the path, I’m not even going to bother looking at the fiction.

High Wizardry, Diane Duane. Third in the series, and it turns out I’m not reading the updated versions, going by the DOS prompt on the Apple IIIc Dairine is using, which means I’ll probably want to pick up something other than the library ebook for A Wizard Alone — I believe that’s the one with the autistic character. I feel like I started to slightly lose the thread of what was going on metaphysically toward the end, probably because I was reading too fast; I’m also a little surprised Dairine didn’t take some harder lumps for her flaws and mistakes along the way. (I actually expected, based on early stuff, that the Lone Power would manage to temporarily fool or sway her, and Nita and Kit would have to give her a wake-up call.) But still: very good reading.

A Wizard Abroad, Diane Duane. Fourth in the series, and I see why people generally say this one is weaker. It gets off to a slow start, its exposition thuds down in somewhat less digestible blocks than usual, and in the end Nita and Kit are just kind of along for the ride; they’re not the linchpin of resolving the conflict, and the role Nita plays in facilitating that resolution isn’t all that compelling, because the buildup to it didn’t really hook me. (It felt like anybody else could have yelled “Do it!” and that would have been just as effective.) On the other hand, as somebody who’s actually familiar with the Lebor Gabála, I like seeing a story that doesn’t just deal with Irish mythology on a surface level but gets down into the guts of it, and I liked the overall feel of what Duane was doing with the Sidhe etc, and the Powers loving Ireland too much to leave it alone the way they did with other parts of the world.

Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, A. Zee. More research on Chinese food. Zee’s approach to talking about language kind of grated; I recognize that he’s trying to counteract the Anglophone “ermahgerd, Chinese is impossible to learn!” way of thinking, but I kept reading his “see how much you’ve already learned! It’s so easy!” comments in the kind of voice one uses towards a toddler. (Especially when he burbles happily about “see, if you know the water radical, you can tell these characters have something to do with water — isn’t this easy?” and then later on just kind of mutters “oh, ignore that water radical, it’s only there for phonetic purposes” and sweeps it under the rug.) But there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about food and folklore and culture, and I liked it best when it got away from trying to persuade me I could totes learn Chinese and instead dove into poems and drinking games and the like.

New Worlds: Incense

[Note: As Book View Cafe works on migrating to a better host, this week’s New Worlds Patreon essay is running here.]

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It only does so much good to make our bodies smell better if everything around us reeks. So from perfume we turn to incense — and also potpourri, pomanders, scented candles, and everything else you can use to cover up less-than-pleasant aromas in the world around you.

Many of the things one can say about perfume apply here, too. Incense was historically often expensive, because the components were rare or had to be traded across long distances; the kadō art form in Japan and its associated party games exemplify the way its creation and appreciation could be elite activities. You can divide the scents into the same categories as with perfumes and blend them in the same way — though there’s less of a tendency toward gendering in scents for a room than for the body.

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