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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Book read, August 2020

Continuing the process of catching up . . .

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, ed. Nisi Shawl. A short story collection from last year that ranges all over the SF/F map, providing all kinds of tasty variety. I think my favorite was “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations,” by Minsoo Kang; it’s not a very conventional short story, being more of a fictional historical commentary, but it’s a great look at the role of translators in diplomacy and how they can influence politics — which then closes out with an appended note wherein someone else chides the historian for neglecting the the perspective of the female character in that history.

Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison. How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how overdosed you feel on Sherlock Holmes, because the author’s note at the end straight-up admits that the novel began as Sherlock wingfic — that is to say, fanfic where one of the characters has wings. But although the plot largely consists of bits of Holmes canon stapled together in sequence, there’s been real work done here on the worldbuilding, creating a nineteenth century with “angels” who are the spirits of public buildings. Crow, the Sherlock replacement, is an anomaly among his fellow angels: he has no habitation, yet he’s somehow avoided falling back into the ranks of the Nameless, the undifferentiated masses of angels with no home. There are other changes as well, some of them specifically doing what they can to file the racism off of the source material, but I found the most interesting part of it by far to be the new supernatural elements and the story built around those. I would happily have read a novel merely set in this alternate history with no Holmesiana to it at all.

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, Curtis Craddock. Second of the Risen Kingdoms trilogy, which I posted about before. I continue to really enjoy multiple aspects of this: the highly quotable lines that crop up from time to time, the rich worldbuilding (which begins exploring some of the other sorceries in this world, and also addresses the issue of bloodshadows seeming to be the most horrible form of sorcery by showing they can be used for something other than evil — it’s just that most of the nobility don’t bother), and the real complexity of the intrigue. I particularly appreciate the Grand Leon as an example of realpolitik: he’s genuinely reform-minded in some good ways, but that doesn’t make him nice. You know how some middle books of a trilogy feel like they’re either treading water or rehashing the first plot in a new form? This is definitely not one of those.

The Unstrung Harp, Edward Gorey. The traditional re-read, performed upon completion of a novel draft.

Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.) Speaking of openly being inspired by something . . . what if you took Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and made it totally Indian? But while that may have been the starting point here, it isn’t where the story ends. Sheetal is the daughter of a star who lived with her family for many years before returning to the sky; since then Sheetal has been trying to hide her supernatural heritage. Of course that doesn’t work, and so much of the novel takes place in the realm of the stars, where she has to navigate the politics of the different astral houses and the question of how they should relate to the mortals they’re supposed to inspire. There’s one bit where a thing gets suggested which seems on the surface like it ought to be great . . . only when you look closer, it really isn’t. And I was very glad to see the story come back to that and say, “yeah, no, there are some serious problems with this.”

Scarlet Odyssey, C.T. Rwizi. African-derived fantasy that, unlike most such things I’ve read, very much draws its inspiration from South Africa. I enjoyed a lot about this, but found the pacing off: there’s a much bigger metaplot underlying the starting plot, and I either wanted that to come more meaningfully into play here, or to be held in reserve until much later. The cover copy focuses on how Salo’s queen sends him to a distant city to gather important information — but the book ends with him arriving in that city. In the meanwhile, you get a long segment of him before he leaves (which is fine, I enjoyed that part), a long journey to the city, and sections from other points of view, primarily a young woman in the city and one seemingly-disconnected thing whose connection I guessed at before it was revealed. Because of that, when I got to the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like anything in particular had been resolved or achieved; it had just been set up to do the real stuff later. So: not bad, and there was a lot I genuinely liked, but my feeling of momentum and anticipation faded as I got toward the end, rather than building.

Across the Burning Sands, Daniel Lovat Clark. One of the Legend of the Five Rings novellas, this one taking some Unicorn Clan characters out of their territory and into a neighboring land. Given how much Rokugan has usually been depicted as an ethnocentric and insular land, it’s honestly refreshing to see Rokugani characters in a place where everybody’s basically going, “Rokugan what? Yeah, not impressed.”

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, Melissa Bashardoust. This is probably one of the most engaging YA novels I’ve read in a while. It’s heavily inspired by Persian folklore, and it digs incredibly well into some difficult emotional issues. So many books shy back from letting there be serious bad consequences to their protagonists’ actions, or framing those actions as genuinely their fault; well, here the heroine knows she shouldn’t do a thing, and she does it anyway for bad reasons, and horrible shit happens as a result, and she has to figure out how to deal with that. (Also, if you’re looking for queer representation, this has that, too.)

Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection. A very brief catalogue from an exhibition at Cushing Library at Texas A&M, sent to me by my archivist there. This isn’t just the usual suspects for fantasy maps (e.g. Middle-Earth), and I really enjoyed seeing the broad variety of types represented.

Books read, July 2020

I am way behind on this, and yes, I know August and September are also over, but if I try to do everything at once it will be such a dauntingly huge post that I won’t write it. So let’s catch up on July first.


Books read, June 2020

(And also one I missed in my writeup from May.)

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword, Henry Lien. Middle-grade fantasy novel about a girl whose life dream is to become a champion of wulin, i.e. martial arts figure skating. This has great details about skating; because it’s done on a surface called “pearl” (whose creation is a closely guarded secret) rather than on ice, and the entire city that houses the wulin academy is built of pearl, basically everything Peasprout does is about skating. There was a fair bit of me wanting to smack her for being obtuse and arrogant — she sees practically everybody else around her as either irrelevant or The Competition — but she’s generally obtuse and arrogant in a way that’s believable for her age, even if I was a little annoyed at how she latched onto a certain explanation for something and basically paid no attention to the utter lack of evidence to support that explanation. And this dug surprisingly deep into the international politics of Peasprout’s country versus the one she’s in, as well as some gender identity stuff. Highly recommended, want the next book now.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Look, it’s got masks (well, masques) and mirrors in the title, plus it takes place in a sky world. As one of the authors of both The Mask of Mirrors and Born to the Blade, this naturally caught my eye. 🙂 It’s a very engaging secondary-world political fantasy with a bit of the feel of eighteenth-century Europe — there are musketeers — but some creepy as hell worldbuilding around how the various nations have ruling bloodlines descended from ancient saints, each of them possessing a particular type of magic (which they, uh, very rarely use for anything good). The main character does not carry the magic of her bloodline, plus she was born with a deformed hand, so she’s an outcast who winds up being thrust into the middle of some very complex intrigue. I’m looking forward to reading the second one of this series, too.

The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty. Technically this is historical fantasy, as it starts in Cairo (which made me think of Clark’s upcoming A Master of Djinn), but the bulk of it is set within djinn society, so it reads more like a secondary-world fantasy. What’s interesting to me here is that . . . all the factions kind of seem like assholes? There’s no clear setup as to who you’re supposed to be cheering on. The shafit lead the pack, because they’re the oppressed underclass of djinn/human hybrids, but they are not simplistically good and pure. This is not a story where I can see what the desired ending looks like — which, in a running theme here, means I’m eager to read the next one.

David Mogo, Godhunter, Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Nigeria (and by a Nigerian writer). Here’s what you should know, that I didn’t know going into this: it’s really three novellas. Connected ones, to be sure, but a third of the way into the book I was thinking, “man, this reads a lot like a climactic confrontation — what is the rest of this book going to look like?” The answer was that it was going to have new plots and new enemies to fight. In fairness, the book does signal the divisions with splash pages; however, since the first novella is titled “Godhunter” and the book is David Mogo, Godhunter, the significance of that didn’t register on me until I turned a page and saw another splash page saying “Firebringer.”

Anyway, regarding the story itself: the West African gods have fallen to earth and really screwed over things in Nigeria (unclear what’s happening in the rest of the world; the story is understandably not concerned with that). The half-divine main character makes a very marginal living dealing with some of the resulting problems, and gets drawn into the bigger struggle behind the whole situation. It reads a lot like Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series in terms of its breakneck pace and the general feeling that people are just barely hanging in there. For reasons of personal taste, I think the thing I’m most interested in reading is what happens after this novel; certain things change, and the consequences of that are the sort of thing I really dig. I’m not sure if Okungbowa is planning a sequel, though.

(As a side note, I appreciate that he seems to have genderflipped a couple of deities along with leaning into the gender ambiguity of another one. There are women in this story, and while I would have liked to see more done with them, that’s true of all characters in a book with this kind of pacing.)

Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar, Robert Lebling. Nonfiction book, recommended by Ali A. Olomi, a professor who’s posted some really fascinating threads about jinn and other aspects of Muslim folklore (a term I use in the academic sense of “traditional beliefs and practices”). It’s as sweepingly comprehensive as the title implies; by far the longest chapter in here goes through a series of different countries or regions and talks about what jinn belief looks like here as opposed to there. Because of the other things I’ve read, what was fascinating was seeing the places where it echoed European faerie beliefs, or Japanese yokai beliefs, etc., without being quite the same as any other thing. I’d love to find comparable books about other regions and traditions.

Everyday Life in Early Imperial China During the Han Period 202 BC-AD 220, Michael Loewe. Continuing my tour through different periods of China’s history. This is a very slender book — barely two hundred pages — and dates back to the sixties, so it’s not nearly as in-depth or up-to-date as I would like, but after reading books about the Tang and Southern Song Dynasties, it’s still useful to go back and look at the roots of a lot of things that grew and flowered in later eras.

Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets: The Mad, the Bad, and the Dangerous, Catherine M. Andronik. I went into this having read an Amazon review that pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies, so I don’t necessarily recommend it. Having said that, it did what I needed it to do, which was to give me enough of a sense of the social connections and relationships between the major Romantic poets that I could write a short story which depends on the premise of “the major Romantic poets all knew about X thing whose dissemination ultimately traces back to Wordsworth.” It also did what I wasn’t looking for it to do, which was to convince me that what I needed to do to turn my concept into an actual story was to pick one of the women around the Romantic poets to be the central character. For that I will forgive it the breezy tone, which was occasionally a little much, and also the factual inaccuracies. (Don’t worry, I’ve been checking my actual concrete facts against the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)

The Raven’s Tale, Cat Winters. YA fantasy novel about the young Edgar Allan Poe. The cover copy does not adequately advertise that this is very minorly an alternate history; it took me a while to realize that when the characters talked about muses, they all recognized and accepted that one’s muse is an actual supernatural creature, which can be fostered and led to evolve or stifled or outright killed. The novel is about Poe’s struggle with the fact that his muse is a morbid, Gothic creature he (of course) names Lenore, which he fears will drive other people away and make it impossible to succeed in life. It’s scrupulously researched — the author dug down to the level of reading old bills from Poe’s life — and I put up with and even sometimes enjoyed the absolutely over-the-top melodrama of Lenore and her interactions with Poe, because frankly, if you’re not being melodramatic and over-the-top with this topic, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Fiyah #13
Fiyah #14 I haven’t read nearly as much in electronic format since my tablet died; my phone is much less congenial for such things. Which means I’ve gotten behind on this magazine — but, uh, it exists specifically to publish black writers, and hey, that’s a thing I want to be reading more of now. One of the stories in #13 (“The Transition of Osoosi” by Ozzie M. Gartrell) was painfully on-topic, with police brutality and a trans character running into trouble because of their gender identity, plus an overall setting where True Americans and Citizen Americans are groups with markedly different legal rights. I enjoyed it despite the flinch of “look, I’m reading in part to escape current events;” I also enjoyed “Roots on Ya” by L.H. Moore, historical fiction with a really engaging voice.

Books read lately

I didn’t have a lot of time for reading during March and April because I was so busy finishing the draft of Night Parade. But my household placed several large orders with various bookstores, and since May began, I’ve been plowing through things at a good clip. So here’s a big catch-up post.

Beauty Like the Night, Joanna Bourne. I was delighted to see a new book in this series (the one romance series I’ve ever really gotten attached to). Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me; I’d put it down with the second book as very much the weak installments in the series. It says something that at this point, a couple of months on, I can’t even tell you what didn’t work about it for me — the whole thing basically faded out of my head the moment I was done with it.

The Fires Beneath the Sea, Lydia Millet. Hey, do you like Madeleine L’Engle? Lydia Millet clearly does. Which isn’t a bad thing, and points to her for real creepiness with the Pouring Man . . . but yeah, it reads a lot like L’Engle, so if that’s not what you’re looking for, this probably isn’t the book you want.

Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, Jacques Gernet. The English translation of this book was published in 1962, so . . . it’s a little dated. (Dear M. Gernet: I suppose sweeping positive generalizations about The Character of the Chinese People are better than sweeping negative ones, but still, not so great.) However, I very much appreciate that Gernet goes out of his way to situate his details in their historical period: he will not only say “this is how they did it in Song times,” but also “this is how that’s different from what they did in Tang times.” For somebody like me, who’s still working on getting a good sense of the change between one historical period and the next, that’s valuable.

Ancient Magic: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome, Philip Matyszak. The tone of this book is very breezy and pop-culture, but on the other hand its citations are all from primary sources, so it isn’t the kind of book that’s just rehashing warmed-over New Age interpretations of the past. And serious props to Matyszak for pointing out that a certain class of “love magic” is identical in form and intent to cursing, and if it had worked, would be straight-up magical roofies. It’s one thing to pray to a god that you hope so-and-so might notice you and smile, but quite another to ask the god to make it so that person has no choice but to crawl to your feet and submit.

Lent, Jo Walton. I made the mistake of glancing at the Afterword when I was only partway through the book, whereupon I chanced to see a line that spoiled the big reveal of this book. That didn’t ruin it by any means — Walton’s too good of an author to have her books ruined because you know where they’re going — but I do wish I’d hit that reveal fresh. Anyway, historical fantasy about Savonarola, very steeped in Catholic theology and the politics of its time period. I quite enjoyed it.

A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark. Read for blurbing, and not coming out until (I think) 2021, so it was sent well in advance of publication and I don’t even think you can pre-order it yet. But it riffs off Clark’s short fiction set in an alternate history fantastical Cairo, with interesting worldbuilding around how supernatural creatures fit into everything, and plenty of attention to the diversity of religion and culture within Cairo itself. There came a point where I saw the answer to the mystery, well in advance of the characters figuring it out, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ride there.

By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends, Emilie Demant Hatt, trans. Barbara Sjoholm. Recommended ages ago by Marissa Lingen. Stories collected in the early part of the twentieth century by a woman whose methods anticipated a lot of the advancements in anthropological fieldwork that wouldn’t become widespread for some decades afterward — though still not perfect in some ways, as it was the decision of the translator to include the names of the individual storytellers where known, drawn from Demant Hatt’s notes. (Demant Hatt herself mostly only named off the region of collection in the original publications.) These of course read very much like folktales rather than modern short stories, but if you like that kind of thing, this is a good one.

The Unkindness of Ravens, Abra Staffin-Wiebe. Epic fantasy novella in a setting with some distinctly African-derived elements. I’m not sure if it’s me as a reader, the genre collectively as writers, or a bit of both, but I keep feeling with novellas like their pacing is frequently off? That length is having a resurgence right now, but it seems like that means in part that we’re having to re-invent the best ways to structure them. I liked the ending of this one, but the beginning felt to me more like it was paced for a novel, and then when it got rolling faster it went a little too fast. This is the first in a series, so there’s more to come, but the shape of this installment felt a little lopsided.

Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg. Supernatural noir from the seventies that was made into a film whose voodoo elements eventually inspired Jane Jenson to create Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. I enjoyed some of the prose quite a bit, and it did a decent job of making its non-white characters meaningful agents in the plot — Epiphany in particular, who is both quick-thinking and much better educated than the protagonist — though the visual descriptions of them fell into many of the usual traps (and the protagonist definitely objectifies women’s bodies in some uncomfortable ways). When all’s said and done, though, the ending is bleak, which is not really my thing.

Chaucer’s People, Liza Picard. I recently discovered that there is one nonfiction author for whom I’m enough of a fan that I will squeal in delight, “oooh, she’s got a new book out!” Picard was an invaluable resource for me when I was writing the Onyx Court, because she has books about daily life in London during every century from the sixteenth through the nineteenth; well, now she’s added the late fourteenth century. This one is a little different because she uses the characters of The Canterbury Tales to structure it, grouping them into “Country Life,” “City Life,” “Religious Life,” and “The Armed Services,” and discussing topics that would be relevant to each character — so that, for example, the Wife of Bath’s chapter talks about both the wool trade and religious pilgrimages (because the Wife of Bath has been on many). In a few instances this leads to some unfortunate repetition, e.g. the Merchant’s chapter repeats the previous information on the wool trade, and you get reminded something like four times that the Black Death had recently decimated Europe’s population. It’s also less strictly focused on London, and more on English life in general. But I still love Picard’s books and find them incredibly useful as well as entertaining. (I wonder if I could bribe her to write one on Roman London?)

Whispers of Shadow and Steel, Mari Murdock. Legend of the Five Rings clan novella, focusing on the Scorpion, i.e. the clan that specializes in secrets and blackmail and so forth. The main character of this, Yojiro, is referred to as “the Honest Scorpion,” because unlike everybody around him he really wants to be honorable, and since he’s investigating a mystery, this is very much the kind of setup where you have the honorable detective working within a corrupt system. I found some of the corruption to be over the top, but the way it all fell out was pretty satisfying — I’m used to thinking of Aramoro as basically just an asshole in the other L5R fictions, and while that’s not wrong, I liked seeing him be kind of a good Scorpion here. (Which is not the same thing as an honest one.)

The Fire Opal Mechanism, Fran Wilde. Second novella in a series where I haven’t read the first, but the plots are separate; they just share a setting. The beginning of this felt very Jo Walton-y to me, with a librarian trying to save books from the destructive movement sweeping the land. Some of the descriptions felt to me like they were operating on a different wavelength than my brain, though, which meant I had difficulty in places following quite what was going on.

Daily Life of the Aztecs, Jacques Soustelle. I’ve had this on my shelf for ages and thought I’d read it before; I picked it up now because I needed to refresh my memory on this time period and culture. But it shed little bits of excess paper from the binding as I read, in a way that strongly implied I’d never so much as opened it before, so . . . ? Like the Gernet above, this is an older book, but fairly well-done despite its dated aspects. Soustelle gets very specific about the history of the Triple Alliance and its leaders, which is good because I know more about the culture than about the actual events and people. And he does a really nice job of showing how the mismatch between Mexican and Spanish ideas of war meant that, despite being a highly militaristic society, the Aztecs were wildly unprepared for the war they wound up fighting.

A Bond Undone, Jin Yong, trans. Gigi Chang. Second book of the quartet that Legends of the Condor Heroes is being broken into for translation, read for review. The beginning was a bit of a slog, since nearly the first hundred of its five hundred pages are taken up with a rolling series of battles all in the space of the same twenty-four-hour period as the end of the first volume. But after that it picked up and started doing some richer things with the characters and their history — along with a notable amount of humor.

A Murder of Mages, Marshall Ryan Maresca. Set in a world the author has written in before, but it’s the first in a new series. Mostly that worked, though I felt like I was missing some context regarding Circle mages — what they’re for and how they operate — that might have been in the other books. That aside, this is a fun fantasy murder mystery, with a team-up between two characters I really liked (and no, not just because “fantasy cop” and “con artist” rang some Mask of Mirrors bells in my head). In particular, I appreciated that both of them had families who are important to the story: in Satrine’s case, a badly disabled husband and two teenaged daughters, and in Minox’s case, a giant clan of relatives who are all mostly in one branch of the police/military/etc. or another. Also, if you’re tired of inevitable romances between the two leads, there isn’t one here. Satrine is married, and there are indications that Minox might be gay, though it’s underplayed enough in the first volume that I’m not sure.

The Perfect Assassin, K.A. Doore. Epic fantasy with a Middle Eastern-inspired setting whose economy and politics are heavily based around water. The most frustrating thing about this book was that on page 68 the main character hears someone say a thing which is very relevant to the plot . . . and then proceeds to not remember that he heard that. Even when he’s trying to find the answer to a question for which that thing he heard is the answer. Even when he’s trying to figure out how two people could be connected and that thing he heard would explain it. 166 pages later, somebody repeats to him that thing he heard, and even then, he doesn’t remember it. I know this happens in real life, but when it happens in a book, with a character who is not forgetful or scatterbrained but rather highly intelligent and trained to be observant, it grates really badly — all the more so because I think the author could have cut that bit where the thing got said without any harm to the story whatsoever, and a great deal of benefit. I spent most of my time reading this being annoyed that the obvious answer was sitting right there, rather than enjoying the story as much as I might have otherwise.

Books read lately

I keep falling out of the habit of recording what I read, much less posting about it — the last such post covered my reading from August of last year. But I remember some of the things I’ve been reading, and an incomplete booklog is better than nothing, so.

A Golden Fury, Samantha Cohoe. Sent to me for blurbing purposes. Historical fantasy focused on alchemy, with a very interesting spin on the Philosopher’s Stone and what it really means. The beginning was fine, and then the story hit a point where it really took off for me — I inhaled quite a bit of it in the space of about a day. Ultimately I was left with a few questions about how the logic of it all hung together (there was an instance of someone being uber-selective about a thing for unclear reasons, to seemingly counterproductive result), but I enjoyed the overall tale a fair bit.

A Hero Born, Jin Yong. Read for review in the New York Journal of Books. This is the first in a projected four volumes translating the Chinese wuxia novel commonly known in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes, which I think might be compared to The Lord of the Rings in terms of both the author’s erudition and the popularity of the work. Reading it is kind of a fascinating experience, because I’m very accustomed to seeing the visual manifestation of these ideas, but have read relatively little of them in prose format. It is also not remotely paced like a modern Western fantasy novel — for example, one hundred and six pages into the story, one of the two main characters is finally born. A lot of page count is devoted to describing the characters’ various battles, which means the amount of actual incident is fairly small for the length of the book. But I’m very glad to get this translation, and hope to review the future volumes, too.

China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty, Charles Benn. I love this kind of book. Benn is no Liza Picard, but then again few people are, and as overviews of a specific (albeit long) period go, this one is both specific and comprehensive. It’s clear he’s drawing from a lot of primary sources, because there are all kinds of incredibly random details about various incidents that happened in various locations, of a sort you would only cite if you read something that said, yep, this definitely happened.

Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Second book of her series about Asian-American superheroines in San Francisco, this time focusing on the character of Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang — and I put the names in that order on purpose, because much of Aveda’s problem is that she really, really would like to forget that she’s normal human Annie Chang underneath it all. It’s frustrating to watch her spending most of the book doubling down on her errors (hint: the way to repair your relationships with the people around you is not to recommit to pretending you have no squishy vulnerabilities and in fact have never even met such a thing), but it’s clearly in service to her eventually getting past that mistake.

Crown Duel, Sherwood Smith.
Court Duel, Sherwood Smith. Listing these two together because I read them in the Book View Cafe edition (which is also the Definitive Edition). I can see why it is both a duology and a unified story; although ultimately there’s a single struggle going on, the first half of that struggle is carried out in a very different fashion (more warfare-oriented) than the second half (more politics-oriented). Which is, among other things, a nice antidote to the idea that all you need is a good climactic battle to settle things: here that’s just the midpoint of the process of achieving change.

Order of the Stick: Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: No Cure for the Paladin Blues, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: War and XPs, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Don’t Split the Party, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Blood Runs in the Family, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: The Origin of PCs, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tails, Rich Burlew.
Order of the Stick: Good Deeds Gone Unpunished, Rich Burlew. Re-reads for all but the final title listed here. I spent much of late November and early December mainlining the collections of The Order of the Stick for my Yuletide story, but it also served as a good refresher before Burlew launches into the final arc of the series. I, uh, had pretty much forgotten Blood Runs in the Family. Like, to the scale of “they went to the desert? For a whole book? Ohhhhhh, right — yeah, the stuff with Gerard Draketooth.” Not because it wasn’t memorable, but because it was so long ago that I read it. Given the incredible gut-punch that volume delivers to one of the characters, I’m a little embarrassed that is slipped my mind.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, H.G. Parry. Read for blurbing purposes. This is the first half of a historical fantasy duology set in the late eighteenth century, and it manages to pack both the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution in, while also covering what was happening in Britain at the same time, because those things are very interconnected. I felt like the Haitian end got a little short-changed here, maybe in part because of viewpoint choices: the British and French ends follow some very famous individuals like Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, and Robespierre, but the Haitian end doesn’t follow (say) Toussaint L’Ouverture. Instead our viewpoint there is a female character who is, so far as my research has been able to turn up, invented for the story — and while she interacts with Toussaint et alii, it makes for a different, and more distant, angle on the events. But I also have the feeling we’ll see more of Haiti in the second half of the duology. Meanwhile, Parry does an excellent job of making the historical figures feel like real people rather than animated wax models. And it’s no small achievement, packing fifteen years of history into a single novel.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. Re-read for research purposes, because I’m noodling around with an idea that would have some of the “trapped on a dangerous island and there’s a ticking clock for getting to safety” feel to it. I last read this when it came out, soooo, like thirty years ago? Criminy. The concept remains an excellent one, but the book version spends much more time on build-up than I remembered, with lots of one-off looks at the situation through the eyes of various minor characters. I had also (mercifully) forgotten how badly it did by its female characters: Ellie Sattler’s face-off with the velociraptors is good, but I could have done without every male character ogling or commenting on her legs, and Lexie basically does nothing but cause problems or make existing ones worse. Dennis Nedry is also pretty much the walking stereotype of the fat, greedy, computer nerd slob — and unfortunately, while I remember the film doing better by the women, I don’t believe they changed him at all.

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat. Speaking of not being Liza Picard . . . it took me ages to get through this book, even though I love daily-life stuff, and at first I thought it was because Nemet-Nejat’s writing is very dry and factual, with little to no authorial personality coloring anything (apart from mentioning one artistic motif being repeated “ad nauseam”). Then I thought it was because it’s covering such a huge span of time. But while both of those things are part of it, ultimately I think the problem is that nothing here flows: a paragraph will start off with a line about X, but then the rest of the paragraph has to do with Q instead, and then the next paragraph is about V. So all the information in it winds up feeling disjointed, which makes it hard to maintain momentum while reading it.

Kingdom of Souls, Rena Barron. I liked the setting and concept of this one (which are based heavily on African inspirations, and I think specifically West African), especially the part where it avoids simplistically saying “Group A good, Group B bad.” But I had flow issues here, too — things like certain bits of exposition feeling like they arrived in the wrong place, or revelations at the end being insufficiently set up, or the narrative spending lots of time on interstitial bits and then very little on climactic moments. I also realized three-quarters of the way through that the protagonist had accomplished almost nothing meaningful: most of the things she attempts to do fail, and the ones that succeed rarely seem to have any significant effect on the trajectory of the plot. It’s possible to write a story that specifically explores helplessness or constraints on agency, but it didn’t feel to me like this was trying to be that story; it just felt like the gears never quite meshed.

Emerald Empire. This is the fifth-edition setting book for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. Most of its content is already familiar to me (through my familiarity with fourth ed), but I decided I should read it properly to familiarize myself more thoroughly with the places where the new owner of the game has changed things. Most of those places have to do with the spiritual and religious side of Rokugan — toning it down from the “everything is Tainted and shugenja are basically wizards” feeling AEG fell into and instead making things more nuanced, subtle, and integrated with the rest of daily life. Which I appreciate.

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.

Books read lately

I’ve fallen out of not only posting about my reading here, but (for a while) even logging it. So this is what I’ve read in the last three or so months, minus whatever I’ve forgotten.

It’s very nonfiction-heavy. I went on a kick of that recently, in part because I realized . . . when I was in college and graduate school, my classes regularly exposed me to a motley assortment of cultures and time periods, based either on what sounded interesting to me when I was picking my schedule, or what happened to be the professor’s area of specialty in the case of the more generalized requirements. But as I finished up my coursework, I began writing the Onyx Court books — my home Ph.D. in English history — followed by the Memoirs, which weren’t as narrowly focused, but were still purpose-driven. Isabella’s going to Polynesia; I’m going to read about Polynesia. Now she’s going to the Middle East; I’m going to read about the Middle East. I only read about things I needed to know, not things I didn’t need but might unexpectedly make use of four years from now when an idea pops into my head.

I need the grab-bag approach. It’s a necessary part of building the mental compost heap from which new stories sprout. So lately I’ve been pulling random books off the shelf, deliberately ricocheting around just to get some fresh material into my brain.


Spark of Life: D.B. Jackson on TIME’S DEMON

A while back, I started up a series of guest blogs called “Spark of Life,” where authors could talk about one of my favorite parts of writing: those moments you didn’t plan for, where it seems like your characters or your plot have taken on a life of their own. I got busy and fell out of arranging these posts, but I’m reviving it now — starting with a post from D.B. Jackson that resonates so hard for me. In my case it was a line earlier in the same book, rather than a previous one . . . but I seriously don’t know how I would have pulled together the final confrontation in Warrior if it weren’t for a totally unexpected line I’d written a couple of months before.


David says:

cover art for TIME'S DEMON by D.B. Jackson The Spark of Life moment I had with my newest book, Time’s Demon, the second volume in my Islevale Cycle, actually began with a throwaway line in book one, Time’s Children. The circumstances take some explaining, so please bear with me.

The Islevale novels are time travel/epic fantasy. They are set in an alternate world that is home to Walkers (my time travelers) and humans who wield several other sorts of magic. As the title of book II suggests, it is also home to various sorts of demons – Ancients, as they prefer to be called – including Tirribin, or time demons. Tirribin appear as children, though they live for centuries. They feed on the years of humans, and since they consume years as they spend them, they never age. They are predators – canny, dangerous, but also childlike in their capriciousness, their curiosity, and the fact that they can be distracted from the hunt with a riddle. Better make it a good one, though . . .

Walkers and Tirribin share an affinity for time, and so Walkers don’t have to fear time demons quite the way other humans do. Early in book I, when one of my heroes is still training to be a Walker, she befriends a Tirribin named Droë, and mentions this to one of her instructors. The instructor warns her of the dangers, even for a Walker, of interacting with any Ancient. “You know Tirribin can be dangerous. One is said to have killed a trainee many years ago, before I came to Windhome.”

That’s it. That was the line. I had no particular incident in mind when I wrote it, although I believe that somewhere in the depths of my hind brain I knew that I would use the thread later.

Skip forward to my work on Time’s Demon, the second book. I knew that I wanted Droë to figure prominently in this novel – hence the title. I also knew that I wanted to give some vital back story on one of my other key characters: the assassin, Quinnel Orzili. Orzili is not a Walker, but rather a Spanner, someone who uses magic to travel great distances in mere moments. Spanners, like Walkers, are trained in Windhome.

The problem was, I had too many plot threads and I wasn’t sure how they all connected. I was still following my heroes from book I, including the young woman who receives that warning from the instructor in Windhome. I had Droë’s story. And I had Orzili’s narrative threads as well – the backstory and the “present” story. All of these plot lines needed to be included in the book and I knew that for this middle volume to work, for it to feel complete and at least somewhat self-contained, all of its disparate storylines needed to cohere in some way.

As it happens, all of the Islevale books, including the third volume, Time’s Assassin, which I am completing now, have defied my attempts to outline them. I’m a plotter – I like to plan my narratives in advance. I always write with an outline. Or I did, until this series. It’s ironic in a way: Here I am writing time travel, which is incredibly complicated on its own, in a sprawling epic fantasy with multiple plot threads and point of view characters. If ever I needed to outline any set of novels, these were the ones. And I just couldn’t do it. To this day, I’m not sure why. Different novels demand different approaches, and these books demanded that I wing it.

So I was writing the early chapters of book II, in which I explore Orzili’s backstory, and Droë shows up. I hadn’t planned to write her into this part of the series, and I still don’t know what made me do it, but the moment I re-introduced her to my readers, I knew: Droë was, in fact, the Tirribin who killed a trainee, and that trainee was Orzili’s friend. The boy’s death at the hands of a time demon sets in motion the key events that lead to Orzili becoming an assassin. That event, first mentioned in a throwaway line in the first book of the series, becomes a key moment in my story arc – the nexus connecting my heroes in book one, my title character for book two, and the key villain for the entire series.

Plotting a novel, or a series for that matter, is an inexact undertaking. Even when we can outline, even when we think we know precisely what should happen, our characters have a way of surprising us. That is both the joy and the challenge of writing fiction. We want our characters to do and say the things that advance our narratives, but we also want them to act and sound and feel to our readers like real people. And often that means allowing them the agency to do and say things we don’t expect. I hadn’t known that Droë would show up when and where she did in Time’s Demon. But when she did, it breathed new life into the entire novel. It was the spark I needed to make my plot points come together.


From the cover copy:

Fifteen-year-old Tobias Doljan Walked back in time to prevent a war, but instead found himself trapped in an adult body, his king murdered and an infant princess to protect.

Now joined by fellow Walker and Spanner, Mara, together they much find a way to undo the timeline that orphaned the princess and destroyed their future. But arrayed against them are assassins who share their time-traveling powers, and hold dark ambitions of their own. And Droë, the Tirribin demon on a desperate quest for human love, also seeks Tobias for an entirely different reason.

As these disparate lives converge, driven by fate and time and forces beyond nature, Islevale’s future is poised on a blade’s edge.

D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and as many short stories. His newest novel, Time’s Demon, is the second volume in a time travel/epic fantasy series called The Islevale Cycle. Time’s Children is volume one; David is working on the third book, Time’s Assassin.

As D.B. Jackson, he also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. As David B. Coe, he is the author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, as well as the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy; the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood; a contemporary urban fantasy trilogy, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson; and most recently, Knightfall: The Infinite Deep, a tie-in with the History Channel’s Knightfall series.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

You can find him on Twitter @DBJacksonAuthor, or on Facebook as DBJacksonAuthor or david.b.coe.

The return of THE GAME OF KINGS

It’s no secret that I love Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles: a historical fiction series set in mid-sixteenth century Europe, starting off with English and Scottish politics, but eventually ranging farther afield to locations like France, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. I blogged my way through a re-read of the first book, The Game of Kings, some years ago, inviting people who had read the whole series to join in on the analysis and enjoyment; I’ve written two articles for on her work, one a brief squee about a duel in that book, and one about what epic fantasy writers can learn from Dunnett. In Writing Fight Scenes I use the aforementioned duel as a case study in excellent craft. Dunnett, I often tell people, is the one writer who just makes me feel abjectly inferior about my own work: she’s just that good.

The problem is, finding her books has been easier said than done. The editions I have were published in the late ’90s, and they were getting increasingly difficult to acquire.

But sometimes it seems like you can’t throw a rock in publishing without hitting somebody who imprinted on this series hard. So recently I got an email from Anna Kaufman at Vintage Books, who is in charge of re-issuing the entire series in new editions, asking if I’d be interested in a copy of the first book, in exchange for helping spread the word that, hey, they’re coming out again with shiny new covers etc.


cover art for THE GAME OF KINGS by Dorothy Dunnett

So if you’ve ever heard these books recommended, or you read them years ago and don’t have copies but would like some, or you’ve owned them for long enough that pages are starting to fall out, I’m delighted to say that the entire series is out as of today. Six books of amazingly good historical fiction, with some of the most unforgettable characters and events and prose I’ve ever encountered. Dunnett’s writing is not always easy to get into — it takes a little while to get the hang of reading her work, since she has a habit of doing things like describing stuff around the key element in the scene and trusting that the penny will drop for the reader in due course — but it’s amazingly rewarding once you do. And I aspire to someday write both intrigue and interpersonal conflict as well as she does.