This was an extremely reading-ful month.
Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’
Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Not even when it’s my second read-through in as many months.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Re-read, if I can call it that when I don’t think I’ve read this since I was twelve. I was trying to remember Scrooge’s dismissive description of Marley’s ghost, and wound up deciding to read the whole thing — starting before Christmas, but I got interrupted and didn’t finish until early January. I’m struck, as a recent article which I have now lost pointed out, by how non-religious the book is: yes, Christmas, and there are some passing references, but this is very much the Victorian “social gospel” rather than anything overtly Christian.
Deep Wizardry, Diane Duane. Second book in the Young Wizards series, and it’s been fun to see people’s expressions when I tell them the protagonists spend most of the book as whales. 😀 Beautifully-done observations of different whale types; I can’t judge the accuracy, because I don’t know enough to do so, but they stood out as very vivid. And oh, the shark. I told my sister, who adores sharks, that it’s the best shark character I’ve ever seen — not in the “cute and cuddly cartoon animal” way, but the cold and yet necessary killer.
By Fire Above, Robyn Bennis. Sequel to The Guns Above. Her airships continue to be flying deathtraps, and I wanted to rip my hair out when the characters have to follow absolutely moronic orders because that’s the way the military works. But after a slow-ish start involving social politics, we get insurrections in an occupied city, and clever aerial maneuvering winning the day, both of which are fabulous. This book gets pretty dark — some characters make horrifying yet necessary decisions, and some turn out to be kind of awful people — but not unrelentingly so; the plot drags you down and down but then back up again at the end. And there is also still quite a bit of humor.
How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North. The conceit of this book is that it purports to be a repair manual for a time travel machine, only the manual says “sorry, you can’t actually repair this, so instead we’ll tell you how to re-invent a lot of basic technologies so life can at least suck less in whatever time period you’ve been stranded in.” The tone is overall hilarious, in a voice that reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s blogging, though the puns that subtitle nearly every chapter started to wear thin after a while. It’s chock-full of interesting trivia (like every avocado you’ve ever eaten descending from a single tree with a backstory that genuinely makes you ask “are you sure time travelers weren’t involved?”), and makes it clear both how many technological advancements were more a matter of figuring out the relevant ideas rather than having the material capacity to create them, and how often things got invented and then either forgotten or not used for their real potential.
Having said that, although its explanations of how to build everything from a simple smelter to a battery using basic technology are remarkably concise, don’t try to hold this book to too high of a standard: yes, it sort of tells you how to build these things, but successfully building them would require a lot more instruction than this book provides, or else a lot of trial and error. Also, while I’m sure everybody who reads this has a list of technologies North didn’t include and should have, I’ve got to REALLY side-eye the lack of looms. He tells you how to build an efficient spinning wheel, then blithely says this will help you make “thread, which you can sew into clothing!” Uh, no, dude — there’s kind of a vital step in the middle there that you just waltzed straight past. That’s the one thing I truly feel he should have included, and didn’t.
Kingmaker: Stolen Land, Tim Hitchcock, and Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, Rob McCreary. Two modules in the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, which are pre-written materials for running an RPG campaign. I read these two because I wanted to know what a Pathfinder module actually provides to a GM, and since we already played through these two in a campaign, I wasn’t going to spoil myself for anything (I skipped the “campaign outline” in the first one) and could also compare it against my actual experience of it in play.
On the whole . . . eh? I admit I want more interconnectedness, instead of a main plotline and then a bunch of random side quests, but I also recognize that’s not what these set out to provide. Mainly I’m grateful to my GM for noping right out of the NPC backstory where the guy is in exile because his lover falsely accused him of rape when her husband found out about the affair, because that’s some straight-up bullshit. There’s more other bits of incidental sexism along the way that grated, too, like the “flirty” female NPC described in a single sidebar who offers a cloak of resistance +1 and a “kiss . . . or possibly more” in exchange for completing a quest. (Also one bit of stealth gay — a dead male bandit who told “his lover” about a cache of treasure, but said lover died in “his attempt” to retrieve it — for what little that’s worth.) But I straight-up loathed the fiction being told in installments across the modules. In the first installment, written by James L. Sutter, the protagonist is an arrogant and unlikeable asshole who evaluates the few female characters on their attractiveness and probability of him getting them into bed, and then the story goes out of its way to reinforce how fat and gross and disgusting the villain is. The second installment, written by Richard Pett, almost manages to be funny with its militant convent of Iomedae — with nuns holding titles like the Mistress of Improvised Combat Using Common Kitchen Utensils — except that a) they take a “sworn oath of chastity and violence toward men” and “horribly punish any man who dares touch them, think impure thoughts about them, or look at them. They don’t even have candles in the convent — too phallic,” b) they are insanely and pointlessly abusive toward their novices (including, of course, our cross-dressing male “heroes”), and c) at the end of the story it comes out that they’re too stupid to realize the male kobold they randomly decided is “the embodiment of purity and goodness” and is therefore allowed to stay in the convent is systematically robbing them blind. Plus half a dozen innocent people get murdered by assassins chasing the main characters, which I guess we’re supposed to think is funny? Because the idiot protagonist thinks they’re all dropping randomly dead of heart attacks?
If I wind up reading through the later modules in the path, I’m not even going to bother looking at the fiction.
High Wizardry, Diane Duane. Third in the series, and it turns out I’m not reading the updated versions, going by the DOS prompt on the Apple IIIc Dairine is using, which means I’ll probably want to pick up something other than the library ebook for A Wizard Alone — I believe that’s the one with the autistic character. I feel like I started to slightly lose the thread of what was going on metaphysically toward the end, probably because I was reading too fast; I’m also a little surprised Dairine didn’t take some harder lumps for her flaws and mistakes along the way. (I actually expected, based on early stuff, that the Lone Power would manage to temporarily fool or sway her, and Nita and Kit would have to give her a wake-up call.) But still: very good reading.
A Wizard Abroad, Diane Duane. Fourth in the series, and I see why people generally say this one is weaker. It gets off to a slow start, its exposition thuds down in somewhat less digestible blocks than usual, and in the end Nita and Kit are just kind of along for the ride; they’re not the linchpin of resolving the conflict, and the role Nita plays in facilitating that resolution isn’t all that compelling, because the buildup to it didn’t really hook me. (It felt like anybody else could have yelled “Do it!” and that would have been just as effective.) On the other hand, as somebody who’s actually familiar with the Lebor Gabála, I like seeing a story that doesn’t just deal with Irish mythology on a surface level but gets down into the guts of it, and I liked the overall feel of what Duane was doing with the Sidhe etc, and the Powers loving Ireland too much to leave it alone the way they did with other parts of the world.
Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, A. Zee. More research on Chinese food. Zee’s approach to talking about language kind of grated; I recognize that he’s trying to counteract the Anglophone “ermahgerd, Chinese is impossible to learn!” way of thinking, but I kept reading his “see how much you’ve already learned! It’s so easy!” comments in the kind of voice one uses towards a toddler. (Especially when he burbles happily about “see, if you know the water radical, you can tell these characters have something to do with water — isn’t this easy?” and then later on just kind of mutters “oh, ignore that water radical, it’s only there for phonetic purposes” and sweeps it under the rug.) But there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about food and folklore and culture, and I liked it best when it got away from trying to persuade me I could totes learn Chinese and instead dove into poems and drinking games and the like.
The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon. Read for blurbing purposes, and my copy was provided by the editor; it’ll be out in February. This is epic fantasy; if I attempted to summarize its plot it would sound dreadfully cliche. (An ancient evil dragon called the Nameless One is breaking free after a thousand years of imprisonment, and people must band together to defeat it.) But when you look at the actual story, it doesn’t read like that at all — for reasons that have a great deal to do with the worldbuilding, which I adored. The two main locations are clearly based on England and Japan circa what in Europe was the Renaissance and in Japan was the Tokugawa Era (closed-country policy and all), but there’s more going on with Inys and Seiiki than a mere name swap; among other things, Shannon does a brilliant job of coming up with a religion for Inys and its neighbors that feels believably European without being any form of Christianity. She also does something I love, which is create a situation where lots of people think they have the truth of what happened in the past, and none of them are entirely right — or entirely wrong. I felt the second half rushed a bit, losing the fine attention to detail that I’d been admiring so much in the first half, but it’s still excellent reading. A review will be going up at the New York Journal of Books closer to the pub date.
The Queen of Swords, R.S. Belcher. Read for the NYJB; full review is here, since I was reviewing for the paperback publication date, and the hardcover came out a while ago. I didn’t actually realize, when I requested this one from the queue, that it was the third in a series; I haven’t read the first two, which almost certainly colored my reactions here.
In the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard. A very, very loose novella-length retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in a post-apocalyptic world where the Beast is a female dragon — of the Asian rather than European variety. The worldbuilding here is incredibly dense, enough so that I actually wound up disoriented from time to time; the Vanishers and their relationship to the world, and the nature of what they left behind when they vanished, is complicated enough that I could have used a lot more time to explore it.
The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit. I can’t remember anymore where this title came up, but it made me think “huh, I’ve never read that much Nesbit,” so I picked it up in Gutenberg ebook. Reasonably enjoyable, but I’m honestly a bad audience for a story in which kids screw things up constantly because they’re kids and don’t realize how terrible their ideas are; I wind up getting frustrated at them. Some amount of that, I can cope with, but this book is basically a series of that happening over and over again, which meant that I went “argh!” a lot. But Nesbit’s writing is charming nonetheless.
The Storm Runner, J. C. Cervantes. Second book from the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which is basically “Rick Riordan uses his name to help promote authors of color telling stories like the ones he tells, about their own mythologies.” I was very much looking forward to this one because Mesoamerica is one of my random nerderies, and I loved when it got past the kind of standard-issue Rick Riordan “kid finds out he’s half-divine” setup and into the guts of Maya myth. (White Sparkstriker: not high on the list of mythological figures you hear about if you haven’t gone diving into the Popol Vuh.) But overall, it’s a bit like the Nesbit above; I’m not the best audience for a middle-grade book, and occasionally found myself impatient with the middle-grade-ness of it. I had the same feeling about Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book from the imprint. On the other hand, the list of upcoming titles is essentially a giant pile of catnip for me, so middle-grade-ness notwithstanding, I’m likely to go on reading these.
Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Even when half the book in question was written by Alyc.
The A.I. War, Daniel Keys Moran. I may very well write a whole blog post about these books later, because reading this reminded me how much I enjoy the series, despite its unfinished and pretty much guaranteed never to be finished state. This one came out in (I think) 2011, and I bought the ebook at the time, started reading it, and . . . I don’t know. Got interrupted somehow, and I’m not sure why it took me this many years to get back to it, because once I picked it up again I devoured it in a couple of days. Moran reminds me somewhat of Neal Stephenson in that I could not in good conscience recommend that any writing student of mine imitate some of his techniques, but they work, even though they shouldn’t. And I really appreciate that Trent goes out of his way to save the lives even of the people who are trying really hard to kill him, and that he keeps his sense of humor no matter what’s going on.
Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters, ed. N.X. Sharps and Alana Abbott. My own work doesn’t count, but that’s only one story in this volume. Kaiju! Smashing things! Or sometimes not! Unsurprisingly, my favorite stories in this one were the ones that got the furthest away from the mode of “giant monsters are destroying things and people must defeat them.” But all of them have giant monsters of one sort or another, because that’s the point.
The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas O. Höllmann, trans. Karen Margolis. File this one firmly under the header “very broad overview of the history of Chinese cuisine” — it’s only about a hundred and fifty pages long. But overviews have their place, and I found this one extremely useful for research purposes, as it covered everything from ingredients to implements to cooking techniques to restaurants. The one place where I felt like the overview-ness became a bug rather than a feature was when it came to the twentieth century; the upheavals from both technological and political change are huge enough that they really can’t be lumped in with the previous two thousand years, and trying to do so means the text skips like a rock off of some things that even I, with my extremely marginal knowledge of modern Chinese history, can tell needed way more unpacking than that. Everywhere else the summary nature felt like a good orientation, but not there.
It Happened at the Ball, ed. Sherwood Smith. Ditto above re: having story in here, except replace “kaiju” with “dancing.” (Er. Not that dancing is destroying things and people must defeat it. You know what I mean.) Lots of historical fiction in here, because the theme of the anthology is balls or other events that feature dancing, but not all of it is historical, and some of the dancing is more alluded to than shown. Which is good, because I tend to glaze over at anthologies where the theme is so narrow, and/or authors observe it so narrowly, that every story winds up feeling the same.
Shadow of the Fox, Julie Kagawa. YA epic fantasy with a Japanese-inspired setting, reviewed here at the New York Journal of Books. I liked the premise of this one, but it didn’t really deliver on the character front, which was a pity.
So You Want to Be a Wizard, Diane Duane. Somehow I missed these books back in the day. I’ve been hearing about them for years, but only just recently picked up the first one. It reminds me a lot of Madeleine L’Engle — a similar feeling to the magic, a similar vibe to the cosmological threat, and a similar impression of kindness and compassion on the character level. My library has all of them in ebook form, which really facilitates mainlining the whole series; I anticipate reading at least several more, though I’ve gotten the impression from friends that there’s a point at which the quality really tapers off.
(I’m also given to understand that the books were revised in recent years. Since I’m reading ebooks, I’m pretty sure it’s the revised version, but I don’t know what changes were made.)
Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa, trans. John Bester. Another one read for the New York Journal of Books, but that review isn’t live yet. It’s a collection of short stories by an author who lived in the early twentieth century; most of them have the feel of animal fables. On the whole I found them fairly slight, but as with the Duane, there’s a feeling of compassion that was very pleasant spend time with.
The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang. First in a series of epic fantasy novellas. I really liked the setting in this one, and the overall shape of the story, but . . . it read to me like the Cliff Notes of the story itself. There were so many things that got disposed of in a single scene, with no setup beforehand or development afterward, and things that got dropped in without prior context — like when one of the characters had to fight someone from their past, except this was the first we’d ever heard of that person, so it really didn’t carry much weight. The plot here elapses over a period of decades, and there’s enough raw material that it easily could have filled a novel. I didn’t dislike the novella, but that’s the problem: because I liked it, I wanted to see all the things in it get properly developed, rather than done on fast-forward.
A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny. Been meaning to read this one for ages, but I’d gotten it fixed in my head that I had to read it in October, and furthermore that I had to read it in “real time” — each chapter takes place on a different day in October, and I wanted to read it at that pace. Which is silly and unnecessary, and in fact I screwed up a few times and had to read two or three days’ worth in a sitting. But on the whole I (finally) accomplished what I wanted to. And I enjoyed the book; as my husband says, it does a lovely job with its canine protagonist (and does so while also having a decent feline character, which is a thing not all authors can manage), and I was glad it kept the Lovecraftian stuff mostly alluded to rather than shoving it up in your face. There were some amusing twists, too. And now I have read it, and there’s that small life goal checked off the list.
Writing has left me with relatively little time for reading, the last couple of months, and it hasn’t been helped by the sheer size of some of the things I’ve been reading. But I’ve managed to finish a few:
The System of the World, Neal Stephenson. YOU GUYS YOU GUYS I’M DONE. It only took me about five and a half years. Not for this book alone; I apparently started Quicksilver in April 2013, finished it in February 2014, and completed The Confusion some time in mid-2015 (July, August, or September; I lumped all three months together in my post). I was bound and determined to finish this one before September, so I could tell myself it had only been less than three years in the making.
What I said about the previous two persists here: as a novel I don’t think it’s very good, because honestly half the time I had no idea where the story was going. But I enjoyed reading it, which is a different measuring stick entirely. In fact, I kept reading bits of it out to my husband and sister, because there were so many funny moments and hilarious lines. And only Neal Stephenson would make one of the two climactic sequences of the ending a frickin’ Trial of the Pyx.
An Illusion of Thieves, Cate Glass. Read for blurbing purposes. Epic fantasy in a world where magic is illegal, with a main character trying to keep herself and her brother alive and their magic hidden. There’s clearly more being set up here for the long term; the characters resolve the immediate problem, but there’s a bigger question of attempts to reform their society, which are going to take longer to deal with.
Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Superhero urban fantasy, with Asian main characters, set in San Francisco. There’s a certain pleasure in reading something that takes place in a place you know; there’s also a lot of pleasure in Kuhn’s writing. The main character is actually the assistant to a superheroine, handling her marketing and PR and so forth, but she has a superpower of her own that she’s reluctant to use. I found the climactic plot developments the least satisfying part of it, but the relationships are the real driver here: not just of the romantic sort, but also familial and the friendship between Evie and her boss, which goes back to childhood and has fallen under increasingly untenable strain now that Annie Chang is Aveda Jupiter, Protector of San Francisco. If you can survive wanting to drop-kick Aveda through the back cover, those problems do eventually get addressed; I still want more out of that, but since the second book in the series focuses on Aveda, I suspect there’s more growth coming.
Important Beyond All This: 100 Poems by 100 People, ed. Larry Hammer. I’ve been following Larry’s weekly poetry posts on his blog, and enjoying his selections often enough that I picked up this collection. I didn’t like everything in it; in particular — and to my surprise — I found some of the longer narrative pieces especially hard to get through. They’re of course much shorter than novels, but the ways in which poetry can digress into description etc. meant I kept losing the thread of the story, and wound up feeling like “ugh, why are you using so many words.” But some of the other narrative poems worked fine for me, and I found a number of shorter works that were new to me and quite engaging.
So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. Picked this one up on the recommendation of Marissa Lingen, who said “I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all ‘oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff’ and definitely needed to learn this stuff.” Since that was a sentiment I could identify with, I read the book. And while I did know some of it, there were parts that were new — and I especially found it useful to see how Oluo uses the language of abusive relationships to talk about white supremacy and racial prejudice. I can think of ways to use that in explaining concepts like microagressions across to some people.
There’s a book I was almost done with and about to put on my list of Books Read — until it managed to drive me off in no time flat. And I want to post about why.
Content warning for sexual assault, including upon dead bodies. Which right there is the tl;dr of why I stopped reading, but I want to unpack the situation a bit more.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini. Exploration of the principles and techniques used by what Cialdini calls “compliance professionals” — anybody whose job is to get you to go along with them. Salespeople, fundraisers, advertisers, interrogators, con artists, etc. I have to admit it’s a little creepy reading this book, identifying all the knee-jerk reflexes we have and how they can be leveraged against us . . . but also very useful for a writer, because it gives me a more solid grounding for figuring out how to get one character to manipulate another. The six broad categories Cialdini identifies are reciprocity, consistency and commitment, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity; he says up front that he’s leaving out material self-interest because it’s straightforward and self-evident. Just ignore the part in his introduction where he tries to explain participant observation (a bedrock of anthropological fieldwork), because omgwtfbbq no, it isn’t “spying” or “infiltration.”
Like most people who don’t know Lovecraft’s fiction all that well, I associate him pretty much entirely with coastal New England towns. I didn’t know, until I read Ruthanna Emrys’ words about her sequel Deep Roots, that he also wrote about New York City. Of course in typical Lovecraftian fashion he found it utterly horrifying — but for Ruthanna, it’s an opportunity for her Deep One protagonist to rebuild her community.
The spark for Deep Roots came years before I wrote it. Years before I read Lovecraft, or imagined Aphra’s first steps into freedom as she left the internment camp, or thought up the details of her family’s life beneath the Atlantic. That spark struck, and sputtered out, in half a dozen stories before this one: two chapters of a cyberpunk dystopia in high school, scattered post-apocalyptic dreamworlds, a half-written urban fantasy about magical infrastructure failure. And at long last that spark caught, and burned, for the second Innsmouth Legacy book.
Aphra’s insular community of amphibious humans—considered monsters by their neighbors—was destroyed in a government raid when she was twelve. She spent eighteen years imprisoned, watching her friends and neighbors die one by one in the bone-dry air of the desert internment camp, finally released at the end of World War II into a world she barely recognized. In Winter Tide she returned to the ruins of Innsmouth, hoping to recover the esoteric knowledge buried there. In the process she found new family, made fraught alliance with the government that once caged her, and came away determined to rebuild what they destroyed.
And then what?
Aphra’s story is, among other things, a transformation of H.P. Lovecraft’s wildly creative and infamously bigoted horror stories. Winter Tide took place among his imagined Massachusetts coastal towns: Arkham, Kingsport, and of course the remnants of Innsmouth. Lovecraft found such towns scary because they were full of people not descended from rich white Anglo-Saxons, and also old houses. Aphra finds them scary because they’re full of people who abetted or ignored her family’s destruction.
But small New England towns weren’t the only places that Lovecraft thought terrifying. He spent a few years living in New York City—and his stories and letters from that time are full of vile rants against the immigrants living (and horror of horrors, speaking languages other than English) there.
Some of those immigrants were my family. He described them, or people much like them, with the same language he used for his invented monsters.
My parents moved from New York to rural Massachusetts a few years before I was born. But I grew up visiting the city. I learned to find my way around the subway, and keep my balance as the trains juddered beneath the street. To walk in starling synch through the crowded sidewalks. To gravitate to menus describing all the treasure you can carry through Ellis Island, and love foods that couldn’t be found anywhere on Cape Cod. And every time we crossed the bridge into Queens, I could feel the city’s heartbeat, a thrumming, wakeful energy linking me to millions of people jostling to do those same things.
I tried to write that rhythm, and that sensory palette, for years. The smell of the subway and the primal shriek of the train coming in, the echo of tiled foyers in Greenwich Village, the music of all those languages that Lovecraft feared. And it never quite fit—it didn’t belong to the cyberpunk assassin or the meditative AI. It belonged, it turned out, to Deep Roots.
Of course Aphra would go to New York. It was only logical: she wants to find her remaining relatives on land, and you can find ten of anything there. But New York also accentuated her internal conflicts. Aphra grew up in a small community of people who shared a culture and a faith and a set of assumptions rarely found outside their walls—and she thrived there. But whatever she does, she can’t rebuild that. Even if she finds a town’s worth of people with Deep One ancestry, they won’t have grown up there. They won’t take the same things for granted. The family she’s making for herself now includes people from many cultures, many faiths, many sets of assumptions. So New York, with all that cosmopolitan community that I love and Lovecraft hated, is both the opposite of what she finds comfortable, and the epitome of the new kind of life that intrigues and terrifies her.
So that’s the spark—that rhythm I’ve felt since childhood and can imagine in my sleep, finally finding its place in a late ‘40s New York full of Deep Ones and aliens and—truly terrifying—ordinary humans.
From the cover copy:
Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy, which began with Winter Tide and continues with Deep Roots, confronts H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos head-on, boldly upturning his fear of the unknown with a heartwarming story of found family, acceptance, and perseverance in the face of human cruelty and the cosmic apathy of the universe. Emrys brings together a family of outsiders, bridging the gaps between the many people marginalized by the homogenizing pressure of 1940s America.
Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. Deep Roots continues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.
RUTHANNA EMRYS lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC, with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons, Analog, and Tor.com. She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide. She makes homemade vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.
For a while there I completely stopped not only posting about what I was reading, but keeping track of what it was in the first place. So here, have what I’ve read in the last two months + what I can remember from before that.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers, R. A. Lafferty. Collection of short stories. Lafferty is one of those names I’ve heard a bunch but never read; I picked up this book at a used bookstore ages ago, and finally took it off the shelf when I joined a challenge on Habitica for reading more short fiction. As with any such collection, it was very hit or miss; Lafferty has a certain type of character he writes in multiple stories who just leaves me cold. On the other hand, “In Our Block” (with alien creatures doing a terrible job of pretending to be human) made me laugh out loud, and “Land of the Great Horses” managed to dodge making me cringe over its depiction of the Romani — in part because of how the story ends.
I’ve talked before about how some of my stories have pivoted on pieces of music, with lyrics or just the general feel making my subconscious decide which way the plot needed to go. And the entire Great Cataract sequence in The Tropic of Serpents? That came from a photo of Iguazu Falls. So it’s no particular surprise to me that not just the initial inspiration but the spark of life for Kate Heartfield’s Armed in Her Fashion came from a painting.
My debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was inspired from the beginning by a piece of art: Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel. I suppose it was only natural that when I got stuck, near the end of the first draft, I returned to the painting for fresh inspiration.
Bruegel was a 16th century painter in the Netherlands. He was influenced by the monstrous, surreal visions in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a century before. But Bruegel merged those grotesque imaginings with images of ordinary peasant life, and in Dulle Griet, we see a very ordinary-looking woman, holding a frying pan, leading a raid on the mouth of Hell.
Griet herself, a traditional Flemish figure who sometimes represents greed or shrewishness, was the beginning of my story. I wanted to know what would lead a woman to raid Hell; what was she looking for? What could she hope to gain? What could she teach us about how women have provided for themselves and their families throughout human history, and about how their communities saw them?
I set my own version of Griet in the Bruges of 1328, in a city under siege. Margriet de Vos is very ordinary: a wet-nurse, and a widow. Determined, pragmatic, sharp-tongued and old enough not to care what names people might call her.
But the weirdness in the background of Bruegel’s painting influenced the novel’s world. This is an alternate version of 14th century Bruges, in which monsters are very real. The Hellbeast in my novel is a literalization of the Hellmouth that appears in Bruegel’s painting, which is itself a late version of the Hellmouths that appear in medieval European art. As I considered the amalgamations of human figures with musical instruments, birds and devices that appear in so many Bosch and Bruegel paintings, the novel began to explore the promise of body modification, and the horror of non-consensual weaponization of the body.
As I neared the climax of my plot, I knew what had to happen, but I didn’t know why; I didn’t know what events in the world of the story could force my plot in the direction I needed. One day, I glanced at Bruegel’s painting again, and I realized there was one element I had not yet included in the novel: Eggs. They’re everywhere in Bosch and Bruegel. Maybe they’re an alchemical symbol, or maybe they signify greed, or gluttony, or fragility, or the promise of new life. Probably all the above. I knew what they signified for me: a deeper level of world-building, and a new twist in my plot. They represented change and renewal, and I knew right away what these eggs were and why they mattered to my characters.
Like many writers, I often turn to the art created by others when I feel my creative well running dry. Often, that means putting on a piece of music or watching a movie. But when I really need to recharge, I go to the art gallery.
From the cover copy:
In 1328, the city of Bruges is under siege from the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.
One of those widows, Margriet de Vos, will do anything to make sure her daughter’s safe, even if it means raiding Hell itself.
Kate Heartfield is the author of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy novel from ChiZine Publications, and The Road to Canterbury, an interactive novel from Choice of Games, set for release in spring 2018. Tor.com Publications will publish two time-travel novellas by Kate, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in late 2018. Her fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World. Kate is a former newspaper editor and columnist and lives in Ottawa, Canada. You can find her at her website or on on Twitter.