Spark of Life: Mike Reeves-McMillan on ILLUSTRATED GNOME NEWS

I’ve said before that I crave more fantasy novels incorporating that revolutionary-yet-simple technology known as the printing press. It turns out Mike Reeves-McMillan is on the same wavelength, because his lates Gryphon Clerks novel is all about newspapers and the power they have to change things. Not to mention little things like freedom and racial equality and social change — y’know, things that are maybe just a wee bit pertinent nowadays. But I’ll let him explain . . .


Mike says:

cover art for ILLUSTRATED GNOME NEWS by Mike Reeves-McMillan

Illustrated Gnome News came to life when one of the protagonists found some people who were worse off than she was, and decided she had to help them.

Let me back up for a minute. Illustrated Gnome News is the sixth novel in my Victorianesqe magepunk Gryphon Clerks series. Although it is a series, linked together by the setting and with overlapping characters and key events, each book stands alone as a complete story and contains all the backstory you need in order to orient you to what’s going on, so you can start anywhere you like.

The most important event driving the stories so far is Gnome Day. The gnomes have, for centuries, been effectively slaves of the dwarves, but because slavery is so very illegal in all human realms (the humans having been slaves of the now-vanished elves), there’s been a long-standing legal fiction that says that the dwarves don’t own the gnomes themselves; they only own their service.

A few years before the start of Illustrated Gnome News, the local human ruler, for her own well-considered reasons, declared that this was a distinction without a difference, and any gnomes outside the self-governing dwarfholds should consider themselves free (and, not coincidentally, available to work for the humans directly, cutting out the dwarven middlemen). The day of this proclamation became known as Gnome Day, and kicked off two wars; one of them — the Underground War with the dwarves, conducted mostly by means of economics — is still underway, and showing no signs of slowing down.

The rising generation of gnomes is now asking: So, we’re free to . . . do what, exactly? Are we, for example, free to work at whatever we like, even if it doesn’t match the rigidly gendered concept of work that’s been enforced by the dwarves for centuries? (Men work at “hard” crafts like engineering; women at “soft” crafts involving food and cloth.) Are we, perhaps, free to have non-traditional relationships? And if not, why not?

At the start of the book, though, Ladle, the overworked editor of the only gnomish newspaper, the Illustrated Gnome News, isn’t thinking about that. She’s focussed on day-to-day problems: the newspaper is losing money; the owner has foisted his annoying and frankly useless daughter on Ladle as advertising manager; and while she’d like to spend more time with the golden-voiced Cog, who runs the magepunk equivalent of a radio station in the next office, both of them are working far too hard to do anything about it. She’d love to do what the paper was founded to do — promote the true emancipation and prosperity of gnomes with hard-hitting investigative reporting — but instead she’s stuck writing about trivia, because it takes less energy and attracts more eyeballs.

The moment of inflection, for her and for the story, is when a young gnome writes to the paper to say: my friends and I are on the street because we want to live our lives in ways our parents can’t accept. But instead of following our dreams, we’re living in squalor and being exploited by gangs. Can your newspaper help us?

The answer to that question not only blows Ladle’s daily grind wide open and gives her something to fight for, it ends up being key to the uncovering of a plot to set gnome freedom back for years. Along the way, the protagonists find unexpected friendships, alliances, and loves, and dare to risk everything to strive after their authentic lives in the face of what’s expected of them.


From the cover copy:

They may be putting out a newspaper, but there are some things they don’t want becoming news.

The Illustrated Gnome News is the only newspaper serving the newly emancipated gnome community, but there are days when Ladle, the paper’s overworked editor, thinks that’s because nobody else is stupid enough to try to run one. She has to balance not scaring off all their advertisers with putting out a paper that stands for a better future for all gnomes. Including those gnomes who don’t match up to traditional ideas of what’s proper.

One of these is her friend Loom, the first gnome woman to qualify as an engineer. But Loom has a secret that would shock conventional gnomes even more than that, and must somehow find a way to pursue her own happiness amidst the wider struggle to turn gnome emancipation into true freedom.

Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He writes a secondary-world steampunk/magepunk series, the Gryphon Clerks, and a Leverage-meets-Lankhmar sword-and-sorcery heist series, Hand of the Trickster, in addition to Auckland Allies. His short stories have appeared in venues including Daily Science Fiction, Futuristica, Compelling Science Fiction, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and he blogs about writing and reading fiction at The Gryphon Clerks.

Books read, August 2019

Dawning in the East, Future Affairs Administration. I wasn’t able to figure out who edited this; it’s a small anthology produced by an organization that promotes Chinese science fiction and the translation thereof, which FAA people were giving out at the San Jose Worldcon. The first story in it, “The Right to Be Invisible” by Han Song, is translated by Ken Liu, and based on this plus what I’ve heard about Cixin Liu’s work makes me fairly confident in saying that I don’t remotely share Ken’s taste in Chinese SF. It reads very much like the type of Golden Age work where the idea is king and characters are barely-sketched vehicles for conveying the idea to the reader in the most direct way possible. The second story, “Universal Cigarettes” by Teng Ye (translated by Yang Yuzhi), was similar, though with a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. Which altogether made me think that’s the general tone of Chinese SF right now in general — but as I read further, the anthology showcased some other styles, ranging from the nigh-impenetrably philosophical (“The Wall of Echoes” by Yuan Dip Terra, also translated by Yang Yuzhi) to the historical (“Furnace Transmutation” by Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu) to a piece with fascinating worldbuilding set in a universe that functions like an LC oscillating circuit (“Summer of the Spiral, Winter of the Poles” by Wang Teng, translated by Nick Stember, which made me wish I remembered my E&M from physics better). I quite liked that last one, which balances character nicely against the concept of the setting, as well as the “The Incomplete Truth” by Sung Wanglu (translated by Elizabeth Hanlon), which is also idea-driven but not in a way that neglects character. My two favorites were probably “The Eyes of Heaven” by Wan Xiang (no translator listed — not sure if he did it himself, or if it was originally written in English), which is on the borderline with fantasy with a character who can see where bombs are going to fall, and “Funeral” by Hao He (translated by R. Orion Martin). That last one confused me initially because it took a moment to realize that all of the scenes, which are written in first person, are all from the perspectives of different characters at the same event. Once I figured that out, though, I enjoyed the unfolding of different layers and their intrigues and counter-intrigues.

Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Manual, Philip Matyszak. Like the slaveholder’s manual I read last month but much less depressing, this is written as advice to a would-be legionnaire, using that as a framework to explain recruitment, training, equipment, tactics, retirement, and more. As a brief but detail-packed overview of the Roman military in the early imperial period, I recommend it. Comes complete with both sketches and photos of re-enactors to give you the visual element.

Uncanny, Issue #29 I’m in this, and in cases like that I generally don’t say much. But: Uncanny! Continues to be great!

Apparition, Issue #7: Retribution I got sent this for free, I think as an apology from the editors: I’d submitted a piece to them for this issue which ultimately got rejected, but the rejection came in the form of a long, gushing email about how much they’d liked my story, and if they could have bought even one more story, mine would have been it. I’ll say that for a theme like that, it’s a much less depressing issue than it might have been; they did a good job of assembling a variety of stories that put different spins on the concept of retribution.

The Seven Principles of Mastery: Part One of the Swordsman’s Quick Guide Series, Guy Windsor.
Choosing a Sword: Part Two of the Swordsman’s Quick Guide Series, Guy Windsor.

I’m grouping these together because when Windsor says “Quick Guide,” he means it; they’re both extremely brief. I can’t remember how I got on this guy’s mailing list, but he does YouTube videos and ebooks about historical swordsmanship, which is useful for research. The Seven Principles of Mastery is about dedicating yourself to your practice in a mindful way, and Choosing a Sword is a brief overview of different types of blade, including advice on where to buy things. Both are about the length of a short story, but he has other, longer ebooks as well, which I have not yet read.

The Moon and the Sun, Vonda McIntyre. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, and regret not having done so before Vonda passed away. It’s a beautifully written alternate history set in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, where the one significant change is that merpeople exist, and eating the right part of their flesh is supposed to grant immortality. The “sea monster” is fascinatingly alien, but in a way, not more so than the French court; Vonda absolutely nailed the hothouse atmosphere of a place like that, the significance attached to even tiny gestures or mistakes, and the way in which favors and gifts are the currency fueling the social and political economy of the court. Also the sexism, which rears its head in screamingly frustrating ways. The pacing of the ending felt slightly odd to me, but apart from that I loved this.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. I would not expect a novel about a modern Japanese-American woman finding the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl washed up on the shore of the island where she lives to remind me so much of a alternate-historical speculative fiction novel about a fifteenth-century female mercenary captain in Burgundy, but Mary Gentle’s Ash is about the only thing I can compare this to. It does fascinating things mashing up quantum physics with the Zen philosophy of the thirteenth-century Buddhist priest Dōgen. It also functions as a guided tour of many depressing things, from kamikaze pilots to 9/11 to the Tōhoku tsunami to school bullying of the sort that drives kids to suicide, but in the end it doesn’t crush your soul. And it features a Buddhist nun character who is truly excellent.

As a side note, I’m not sure where the line between autobiography and fiction lands in this book. One of the characters is named Ruth, and is a writer, and lives on a remote island in Canada, and has a husband named Oliver who works in environmental design, all of which is true of the author as well.

Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Read for review in the New York Journal of Books. Historical fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, with a young woman who inadvertently frees one of the gods of death after he was betrayed and imprisoned by his brother. Some things about it didn’t entirely work form me — foremost among them the omniscient pov, which gives Moreno-Garcia the freedom to fill in lots of historical information but also keeps you at arms-length from the characters on many occasions — but it pulled together very well in the end, and I love enough things about the concept and setting that overall I give it a thumbs-up.

The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Frederick P. Hitz. This is adapted from a seminar the author teaches every year, where he juxtaposes real history about espionage against the fiction we’ve written about it. Early on he makes a very good point distinguishing espionage — using Kim Philby’s definition of the collection of “secret information from foreign countries by illegal means” — from covert action, and pointing out how problems arise when those two paradigms collide. He doesn’t go as much into depth as I might have liked (it’s a very short book), and the focus is very much on twentieth-century history, but the discussion of personalities and tactics and so forth is still a pretty decent overview. Hitz’ main takeaway is that fiction is honestly much less bizarre and inventive than real espionage, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. 😛

The Glass Town Game, Catherynne M. Valente. Historical fiction about the Brontë siblings and the fantasy world they invented when they were children, which they wind up entering. It reads like a mashup of Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making with Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy: much the same kind of whimsy as in the Fairyland series, including a far better class of punning mentality than you get in, say, Xanth, but layered with the problems of encountering a thing you thought you had invented that doesn’t behave in quite the way you meant for it to. Branwell, I should warn you, comes off as a near-total ass in this — but he’s a near-total ass in ways that feel very much like Toxic Masculinity, Victorian Edition. Also, Valente apologizes in the afterword for her treatment of Jane Austen, which I guess is rooted in Charlotte Brontë’s opinion on the matter.

Heart of Brass, Felicity Banks. This one went onto my to-read list because there’s shockingly little fantasy set in Australia, either modern or historical. It is thoroughly magical steampunk in genre; the heart of brass is literal, and is inside the heroine’s body. Unfortunately, while I’m happy to go along with that magical conceit (there’s some interesting stuff here about the personalities different kinds of metal have, and the benefits they confer on people who touch them), I omgwtfbbq did not go along with the fact that the heroine’s father put the mechanical heart in her when she was nine years old — not to save her life because her organic heart had some kind of defect, but just because the two of them thought it would be a cool experiment. Since there is massive prejudice against that kind of experimentation and the heroine repeatedly has to cope with either the social dangers of people finding out about it or the mechanical dangers of keeping her heart fueled and repaired (one of the first things that happens in the story is that a valve breaks and nearly kills her), it is really difficult for me to buy that as something you would do to a nine-year-old girl whose organic heart is working quite fine, thank you. Even if she wants you to, because cool experiment. I also had increasingly severe problems with the pacing as I went along; stuff happens much too quickly, over and over again, especially with regard to characters trusting each other or having changes of heart or declaring Eternal Vendetta Forever on the basis of very little provocation. And the end of the book turns out to involve a noteworthy event from Australian history — but from the novel, you would think it burst up out of nowhere, without any mention of the months of lead-up and all the organizational work that various people were doing. So in the end, I found it more frustrating than satisfying.

New Worlds: Locks . . . and How to Pick Them

I have this urge to say “the New Worlds Patreon returns,” even though it’s been ticking along steadily with its usual essay per week. But all my travel in August meant I wrote that month’s essays ahead of time and scheduled them all to go live on the apppropriate days, so it’s actually been quite a while since I did this! Anyway, we return/continue/whatever with security, which is the topic my patrons voted for this month. And we begin with locks: a topic that could fill thousands of words and several videos on its own, but that’s only if you delve down into the specific mechancics of how the different types work and tips for how to go about defeating them. This is just a general overview, with an eye toward the arms race between defenders and attackers, and what these days makes a lock maximally secure.

Comment over there!

It begins . . .

(Really it should have begun about six months ago, but best intentions, etc. etc.)

The Harvard Band has a long tradition of crusties — former band members — coming back for certain events. Every five years, there is a formal reunion.

Next month is the 100th.

So naturally I’m going. And when I filled out the questionnaire, I checked the boxes that said yes, I intend to march, and yes, I would like to play while I do so . . . in the full awareness that I haven’t played horn since, uh, 2002. Seventeen years is more than enough time to lose one’s embouchure.

Which is why there’s now a small silver mouthpiece sitting on my desk. While I read things online, or otherwise dink around doing things that don’t require me to be typing, I’m tootling away with the mouthpiece, reminding myself of exactly how fast those tiny little muscles in your lips can tire out. The goal is to be able to at least vaguely acquit myself as something resembling a former musician by the time of the reunion in the middle of next month. I’m hoping that remembered skill will mean I do at least slightly better than I did after a month and a half of practice the first time I picked up a French horn. I probably won’t have anything resembling a high range anymore, nor much in the way of breath control, but I’m successfully producing arpeggios in a variety of different keys, so that’s a good sign, right?

This is absurd. And I know it. But I’m doing it anyway.

Rook and Rose Book 2, Chapter 3

We finished Chapter Three last night. We’re really hitting our stride now: the beginning of a sequel is always a tricky piece of work, balancing reminding the reader of past events against the need to move the story forward, and I expect we’ll do a fair bit of revision on the first two chapters to make them as tight as possible. But now we’ve got some proper momentum . . . and a return to the fun that is banter-y action stuff.

I can already tell that point of view choices are going to be an interesting thing in this book. Last time around, there were certain constraints on who we used for what events, but those are mostly gone now — which means that we decided at the last minute to swap one of the scenes in this chapter to a different viewpoint, which clicked much better for us both. That choice is going to be dictated more by the tradeoffs of “what fun things would this perspective offer us versus that one?,” instead of having to do it one way or another for plot reasons.

Word count: ~22,000
Authorial sadism: “She’s fine now anyway, so what does it matter?”
Authorial amusement: Setting up two perfectly good plans that happen to cancel each other out.
BLR quotient: Why hello there, blood. Both the literal (there’s a fair bit of violence in this chapter, though none of it lethal) and the metaphorical (the consequences of past betrayals).

Rook and Rose Book 2, Chs. 1 and 2

As I mentioned in the announcement post for Rook and Rose, we’ve already started writing the second book of the trilogy. I haven’t been blogging about it here because it felt weird to discuss the sequel before we could make news of the sale public — and in fact I’ll have to be cautious about what I post on that subject in general, since there’s a greater risk of spoilers. But it was really fun reporting my progress before, so let’s give it another shot!

Don’t expect the pace to be like it was last time, though. There’s a lot of travel interrupting us this time around, and we’re also not going to half-kill ourselves with four straight months of NaNoWriMo-pace writing again.

But for Chapter One . . .

Word count: ~7800
Authorial sadism: Not a lot in this chapter, to be honest. We’re too busy delicately picking our way through the web of exposition to really make our characters suffer yet. But I suppose R– realizing the sheer scale of what she’s gotten herself into counts.
Authorial amusement: The first of many messages left on a balcony.
BLR quotient: No blood yet. Fair bit of rhetoric, though, which (as you may recall) for the purposes of progress-blogging encompasses political maneuvering. And love, too — because in its way, the love is always there.

And for Chapter Two . . .

Word count: ~14,000 (This chapter is currently too short, because we weren’t sure how long it would take us to get through the absolutely necessary material. We’re going to expand it later.)
Authorial sadism: The wrong subject mentioned in front of the wrong person. There’s a lot of both to go around, so this is likely to be a recurring problem . . .
Authorial amusement: A– continues to be one of our favorite characters. Also P–. The world is very glad that the two of them would probably never think to work together; I shudder to imagine what might result.
BLR quotient: Rhetoric is still on top, though it’s getting bloodier. Especially given what R–’s been asked to do.

It turns out . . .

. . . that when my orthopedist tells me that for my own medical good I should embrace the Way of the Ankle Boot for the rest of my life, and I go on a thirteen-day trip in August, and then six days later I go on a five-day trip . . .

. . . then when I get home and take my boots off, choirs of angels burst into song.

If anybody needs me, I’ll be at home, not wearing boots.

New Worlds Theory Post: Emic and Etic

It seems we can’t go three months this year without tripping over a fifth Friday. But that’s okay, because it gives me a chance to work through more of the “theory posts” that are one of the bonus funding goals for the New Worlds Patreon. This time around I’m discussing the concepts of emic and etic frameworks from anthropology and folklore, and how to apply them to worldbuilding.

This is your periodic reminder that the New Worlds series is supported by my excellent patrons. If you get value out of these essays, please consider joining their ranks — you get a photo every week, and at higher levels of support, things like ebooks, opportunities to vote on upcoming topics, and behind-the-scenes glimpses at my own projects! Or recommend this series to friends; I always welcome new readers and patrons.

Where to find me at DragonCon!

This upcoming weekend, I’ll be at my very first DragonCon. I’ve got quite a full schedule, but fortunately everything has enough of a gap between it that I should be able to surf the crowds to my destination?

  • Friday, 1-2 p.m., Regency VI-VII Hyatt — The Heroes of High Fantasy (with Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher, Aleron Kong, and Jennifer Liang (M))
  • Friday, 3-4 p.m., AmericasMart, The Missing Volume booth #1201,1203,1300,1302 — signing
  • Friday, 10-11 p.m., Chastain 1-2 Westin — Magic Systems 101: Diverse Approaches in UF (with Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Melissa F Olson, R.R. Virdi, Tim Powers, and Carol Malcolm(M))
  • Saturday, 1-2 p.m., Chastain 1-2 Westin — Back in Time: Historical Urban Fantasy (with Leanna Renee Hieber, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Walter H. Hunt, Tina Glasneck, and Laura Mathews(M))
  • Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Macon Sheraton — Stand and Deliver: The History of Highwaymen and Bandits (with Tamsin L. Silver, John Floyd Rice, David Boop, and Darin Bush(M))
  • Saturday, 5:30-6:30 p.m., International Hall South 4-5 Marriott — signing
  • Sunday, 10-11 a.m., Roswell Hyatt — reading
  • Sunday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Chastain 1-2 Westin — Powers of the Mind: Psychics in UF (with Cecilia Dominic, Alledria Hurt, E.J. Stevens, Leanna Renee Hieber, and Jennifer Morris(M))
  • Sunday, 10-11 p.m., Chastain 1-2 Westin — Wreaking Havoc: The Fae in Urban Fantasy (with Patricia Briggs, Eric R. Asher, E.J. Stevens, John G. Hartness, Ted Naifeh, and Carol Malcolm(M))
  • Monday, 11 a.m.-12 p.m., AmericasMart, The Missing Volume booth #1201,1203,1300,1302 — signing