MNC Book Report: Her Majesty’s Spymaster, Stephen Budiansky

The major criticism I’ve seen of this book online is that in its efforts to canonize Sir Francis Walsingham as the founder of English espionage, it gives too short shrift to Cecil, who apparently used (or invented?) many of the same techniques credited here to Walsingham. Which might be true, but for my purposes it’s irrelevant; the point is that Walsingham did use them, around the time period I’m going to be writing about, and therefore I can wreak whatever havoc with them I like.

But oh, is this book full of tasty espionage. (Espionage, and political backbiting; god, I never knew educated Renaissance gentlemen could be so damn catty.) Maybe Budiansky is novelizing his subjects a little too much, but there’s a good sense of personality in a lot of the incidents, some of it reassuringly backed up by genuine quotes from period documents. Until this book, I had no idea Walsingham had a sense of humour; one wouldn’t have expected it, given the Puritanism and the espionage, but it seems to have been true.

It’s very readable, though a touch novelistic in places, which makes me a little wary that Budiansky might be interpreting events to make them fit his story, but I don’t see any glaring evidence of that. I’d give it a thumbs-up as both a short bio of Walsingham and an example of Renaissance spy-work (which I want for other purposes besides Midnight Never Come) — he gives good, detailed accounts of the diplomatic and covert work that went on around the St. Bartholomew massacre, the Ridolfi plot, the Babington plot, and the Armada.

My complaint from this book is directed at Mr. Secretary Walsingham himself. He was so very adroit in the matter of the Babington plot, and moreover kept such very good records of it, that I’m left with far less wiggle room than I would like in which to have Other Stuff Going On. C’mon — couldn’t he oblige me by being less good at his job? It would make my job so much easier.

Oh. Right. Nobody ever promised this would be easy.

also, gip

I couldn’t find a portrait of Elizabeth that was quite what I wanted in an icon, but she did have a lovely signature.

So this can be my Elizabethan-love icon.

And now I think I need to flop down on the couch like I’ve been meaning to since I got home. (Morning workout + most-of-the-day trip to Indy = tired kitten.)


Today’s trip to Indy resulted (quite randomly) in the purchase of a lovely new fountain pen.

Now I have a burning desire to write something with it . . . but I don’t know what.

Maybe if I can settle on the tack I want to take with the Bluebeard story, I can write that. It ought to be short. All of my dark-and-twisted fairy-tale stories are pretty short, and this would be a good pen to write one with.


I’ve fallen out of the habit of making post-game posts (which is probably a good thing, since these days a large percentage of the people reading this journal aren’t involved in the games, and therefore probably don’t care), but yesterday’s Bloomington Angel Post-Apocalyptic (BAPA) game was fuuuuuuuun.

(Short description of the game in general: Buffyverse, set in Bloomington, demon apocalypse happened about a year ago, we’re some of the few free humans left.)

In the fine tradition of Joss Whedon Buffyverse stuff, this was the Evil Game, the alternate universe in which we were all bad guys instead of good. (Well, most of us, though I didn’t learn that until later.) It was interesting to see the ways that people re-imagined their characters; since there are a lot of people I almost never interact with in that game, in some cases this gave me much more insight into who and what they are normally. In contrast with them, I think my own tack was pretty tame: I was just the Dr. Mengele of enchantresses, a cold-blooded experimenter, more interested in the question of how something could be done, and whether I could do it, than the consequences. (But honestly, I tend to find those people creepier, since they’re a lot more common in real life than the out-and-out psychotics.)

I must confess, though — I suspected that when the game ended, our normal characters were going to remember their evil lives (’cause that’s always more fun, right?) and so I took the opportunity to prod certain things for my character. Like, say, putting her in a position where she wasn’t terrified of Anastasia, though I admit I hadn’t expected to take direct action to bump her off during the game. (Still, it’s the one action Sess isn’t sure she regrets from her time being evil. I mean, there comes a time when you just have to put a bullet between your aunt’s eyes, and for once she had the guts to do it — though not entirely with success, alas.)

It’s sloppy character development to just magically gift a person with something they were lacking before, but to give it to them and then take it away again, so they have to earn it back the right way — now, that can be fun. (I had a spine, really I did; now where did I put it . . . .?)

Though I didn’t except to end up under a curse. That’s going to complicate things a bitsy. (Like they do.)

And I had a chance to put together a fun costume for once in this game. Normally it’s just jeans and a fleece; Sess is such a boring character to dress.

So yay, fun. Yay, evil. (Or not.) I suspect it will be very interesting to see what flavors of trauma the other characters have ended up with — those who didn’t just blow their brains out on the spot. (I’m looking at you, d_c_m.)

hello, spring

I do not think it’s possible for me to overstate how wonderful an effect warmer weather and sunlight have on my mood. I’ve got lots of things I need to do today, sure, but I’m relaxed. I’m in good humour. I’m sitting around in my summer PJs; how can I not be happy?

I think part of the process of growing up is learning how I operate, and allowing for it. Like, when I wake up I need fifteen minutes or so of low-key websurfing or the like before I try to do much of anything, and I shouldn’t eat for a while after that. When I go to a con, it will take me half a day, give or take, to turn on the switch in my head that says “Social!,” and before that goes on, I’ll be a little bit awkward. When it’s February, I should not expect to get anything substantial done, because winter saps my will to live around then. As long as I understand these things, I get by just fine.

So I’ve got an eyeball-high stack of things to do (several of them hangovers from February; see above about inability to do anything during that month), but that’s okay. Going outside to run errands doesn’t mean wrapping a scarf around my neck and finding gloves and a hat, so errand-running becomes a more pleasant thing to do. And when I’m done with that, I’ll deal with e-mails, or revise a story that needs to go out today, or maybe work on my costume for the upcoming Regency game, or whatever, and it will all be good.

Because I’m in a good mood.


If you’re reading this post, then odds are you’re already well-informed about my writerly doings, but I should still announce the creation of a newsletter, which you can sign up for here. It will be a once-a-month thing (no more — I promise) with a quick rundown of short story and novel news (like sales and street dates), website updates, and public appearances. So if you want a nice, compact version of the straggling announcements that show up here, that’s the way to go.

MNC Book Report: Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard

Step one in writing that wretched beast known as a historical fantasy is, of course, research. Ergo, I’m alternating between Elizabethan history books and English fairy lore, on the theory that will produce the correct state of mind necessary for the novel. So far, it’s mostly melting my brain. Whether this is suitable remains to be seen.

But I figure I can at least share the progress of my research with you, the reader, by making brief posts on the books I read as I go along. If you have recommendations of other books I might find useful, or caveats about the ones I’ve read, please share with the class.

First up is Elizabeth’s London, from Liza Picard. For readability, you can’t beat her. Let me quote from the section on period gardening: “Hill suggests olive oil or soot for snails (Oxford snails would come miles for a nice extra-virgin oil) and for that other pest, moles, put a live mole in a pot — first catch your mole — and after a while ‘he will cry and [all the other moles in the neighborhood] will hastily draw near unto him and minding to help him forth will fall into the pot’. But what do you do with a potful of crying moles?” Or there’s the plate caption for a woodcut where, after having carefully identified all the other figures in the image, she concludes by saying “I have no explanation for the man in bondage gear.”

I want to say I spotted something in the book that contradicted what I’d read elsewhere, but a) the other thing I read might have been wrong, and b) I don’t remember what it was anyway. In general, the book is chock-full of concrete facts, including things like different types of cloth and their uses, prices for vast numbers of things, and a very good map with all the halls of the major livery companies marked. In other words, the kind of information most books I read take for granted.

The biggest drawback is not Picard’s fault: this book focuses on the lives of common-to-wealthy Londoners, not nobles, and as such it doesn’t tell me much about life at court. I need another book for that one. Anybody have a recommendation?

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven . . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce the decision on my next novel. The title of my forthcoming book will be . . .

. . . <drum roll> . . .

Midnight Never Come.

(Confidential to Memento people: yes, that means exactly what you think it means.)

For everyone else, who does not already know what this is, here’s a redacted (read: spoiler-free) version of the pitch I sent to my editor.

A jewel in the crown of Renaissance Europe, glittering with power and wealth. For over thirty years Elizabeth has held the throne, taking no husband, but surrounding herself with the great names of the age. Sir Francis Drake plagues the Spanish at sea, while Sir Francis Walsingham quietly removes more subtle threats at home. Sir Walter Ralegh charts new lands abroad, and Doctor John Dee charts the stars of England’s destiny. With a keen mind and an overwhelming force of personality, Elizabeth plays the game of politics as well as any king.

A dark mirror of the glory above, hidden in the catacombs beneath London. Since Elizabeth took the throne, a new queen has reigned over the fae: Invidiana, a frozen, ageless beauty who rules with a ruthless and Machiavellian hand. Surrounded by dark fae and mortal pets like her mad seer Tiresias, she works in the shadows, weaving a web that touches the world above.

Ancient traditions once kept mortal and fae affairs largely separate. That changed with the rise of these two queens, who play an intricate political game, using the power of one side to manipulate the other. But someone is about to uncover, not just their game, but the secrets that lie behind it.

tooth_and_claw? Yeah, there’s a reason I’ve been pestering you for that portrait of Invidiana. ^_^

I am giddy about this one. Where by “giddy,” I mean about to go on Amazon and buy the rest of the books I need for research (I say “the rest” because I caved and bought some of them already). And I’m contemplating a brief trip to London — not the lengthy visit I want to make someday, but enough to walk around the Square Mile, go to the Tower again, get a feel for the place even if few buildings from Elizabethan times still survive. (Stupid Great Fire. Why did it have to interfere with my research?)

Oh, and the really awesome news? Warner wants to bump this one up to trade paperback, instead of mass-market. I know some people dislike that format, but from the moment I started thinking about this book, it wanted to be bigger — hardcover or trade — it just didn’t feel like mass-market in my head. And it turns out my editor agrees.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but watch this space for more information, as I babble about the awesome things I’m finding in my research, the story of where this novel came from, the music I’m already assembling for it, and so on. That will all have to wait for later, since right now I kind of need to go jump up and down and squeak with joy. *^_^*

A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto

People wo have engaged in certain kinds of discussions with me are probably quite tired of hearing me flag my comments with “that makes the anthropologist in me think X” or “since I’m an anthropologist . . . .” (I’m a little tired of it, myself.) But I’ve come to realize that it’s an important clue to how I think and what I think, not just in an academic or general context, but specifically with regards to my writing. Which has led me to identify what I’m trying to do with my fiction, at least a good percentage of the time. And since “anthropological fantasy” is an unwieldy term, let’s call it “cultural fantasy.”

What this means is that worldbuilding is not just important to me; it’s one of the most central parts of what I do. (With some stories, maybe the most central.) Character, for me, arises from and is shaped by the socio-cultural context of the individual; their beliefs and the actions they take aren’t independent of that context. People aren’t puppets of their cultures, of course, but neither are they free of them.

It also means that I’m promoting cultural relativism. Often people misunderstand this idea; they think it means that everything’s okay, that you can’t criticize a practice if it’s a part of somebody’s culture, so in the end you can’t criticize anything. Not true. Cultural relativism means trying to understand the reasons why people do things, how that practice fits into what they believe about the world — trying to see it from their point of view. It means releasing the assumption that there’s automatically something more natural or right about the way your own culture does things — which, yes, in the long run means you’re going to be more accepting of odd practices, because they don’t look so odd anymore. Something they do in one culture may be no weirder than what you do in your own — or equally weird. You end up seeing how your own cultural practices are constructed and artificial. But understanding the reasons behind human sacrifice or whatever does not require you to say it’s okay: a reason is not the same thing as an excuse.

Corollary to that: I’m not interested in constructing an ideal society, where there’s perfect gender equality, racial harmony, religious tolerance, and a benevolent government, to name a few things I happen to like. Utopias bore me. I’m interested in constructing messy, complicated societies that are full of flaws and then saying, ooh, this is interesting, let’s see what happens if I poke it here. And concurrently with this and the previous point, I’m interested in making up cultures that are different.

Folks, the real world, taken in all its multifarious glory, is weirder and more wonderful than you could possibly imagine. And what that means is that there are (to butcher Kipling) nine and sixty ways of constructing governments, families, religions, genders, meals, music, fashion, houses, and anything else you care to name, and every single one of them is neat. I have an abiding love for Celtic, Norse, and medieval culture, but you’ll rarely find them in my fiction, because I want to introduce readers to things they haven’t seen before. It’s a fine line to walk; too much weirdness, too many new and unfamiliar things, and you start losing readers. But I want to keep extending my writing out into new cultural territory, exploring all the different ways people can live, and what that means for who they are and how they act. Especially in fantasy, where metaphysical propositions can be accepted as literally true, with demonstrable consequences that might seem unrealistic in the real world.

So when I say “cultural fantasy,” this is what I mean: fantasy where the world is as interesting and developed as the characters are (and develops those characters in turn), where you’ll find ideas and practices that aren’t all familiar north-western European constructs. And since some of you Gentle Readers reading this may know my writing only through my novels, I have this to say to you: if you’re in the camp that thinks their setting isn’t that original, I’ve gotten better since then, and if you’re in the camp that things they were fabulously original, I’ve gotten better since then. I have a thousand and one worlds in my head, and I want to spend the rest of my life exploring them, and bringing readers with me.

back from ICFA

It pleases me that I already have twenty-three comments on this weekend’s rant, without me having had a chance to answer any of them yet. For those who have contributed to the discussion so far, I will respond, but probably not until tomorrow. For those who haven’t read it: go see me compare SF elitists to nineteenth-century anthropologists. As I said to ninja_turbo, the post lacks swearing only if you think “warmed-over nineteenth century unilinear cultural evolutionary theory” isn’t me swearing.

ICFA? ICFA was good. It’s moving to Orlando next year, and from the sound of it that’s going to be all-round a positive change, but I confess I will miss the familiarity of that hotel. (And I’ve only been going for five years; what of the people who have known it for twenty?) I would still love to see someone kidnap the Con Cat and bring him to Orlando, even if he does have fleas. Because I will miss having a kitty to pet.

My paper seems to have gone over well, despite being ten pounds of idea shoved in a five-pound sack. I will probably expand it a bitsy and then try to sell it to Strange Horizons, for those who wanted to read it. The expansion will be a Good Thing, though it will necessitate another round of prioritizing information, since I still won’t be able to get remotely everything in there. (What, you mean trying to cover twenty-eight novels, three and a half editions of D&D, and thirty years of textual history in five thousand words isn’t a manageable idea?)

Every paper and discussion I attended was good. This is unique in my conferencing experience so far. Either ICFA’s getting better, or I had good karma this year.

I have a head full of thoughts, not all of them fully baked. Look out in the near future, though, for a manifesto on Anthropological Fantasy, coming to an LJ near you.

I have reached the point where I have a Manifesto.

This is an interesting place to be.