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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.

Books read, March 2019

After February’s enormous binge, I read much less in March.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Cory Pietsch. You pretty much can’t be a gamer these days without having at least heard of The Adventure Zone, but I have no good space in my life for listening to podcasts. An episode here and there, sure, but not hundreds of them. So friends recommended I try the graphic novels they’ve started putting out, which also have the benefit of condensing the story — I know from my days studying RPGs in grad school just how diffuse and wandering things can be during actual play. I wasn’t impressed by the first half of this volume, which felt more or less like a typical D&D adventuring party (all male, though one of them is gay) doing the adventuring thing and failing to take anything seriously. It picked up more in the second half, though, and got interesting right at the end, when the characters get introduced to what looks like the real plot. (And, encouragingly, the improvement in the story coincides with female characters showing up.) I’m definitely willing to give the second volume a shot, as I understand the challenge of getting an episodic story moving properly in its first installment — especially one based on the hot mess that is most RPG narratives.

The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson. Read for review with the New York Journal of Books. I loved the setting of this one — at the tail end of the Reconquista, from the perspective of characters in the last Muslim state in Spain just as it falls to Ferdinand and Isabella — and the handling of religion, with multiple levels of piety from characters on both sides of that conflict and an antagonist who genuinely believes that it’s more compassionate to torture someone into converting than to let them burn in hell. The plot didn’t work as well for me, though. The central conceit of magical maps wound up being much less central than the cover copy led me to expect, and the whole business with the Bird King’s island felt to me like the kind of thing where either the elliptical approach is going to click for you and be amazing, or it’s going to fail to cohere much at all. For me it was the latter, especially when a threat reared up out of nowhere essentially saying “Remember me, from two hundred pages ago?” To which my answer was, “not really.” Not a bad book overall, but it didn’t hang together the way I was hoping.

Unraveling, Karen Lord. Also read for review with the New York Journal of Books. Speaking of things that are weird and elliptical . . . but in this case it worked for me. Several of the characters are not human (or at least mostly not) and don’t interact with time the way we do; much of the plot takes place in what amounts to a series of dreams or visions of what might happen. It’s a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, which I didn’t realize until after I was on a plane to Florida with Unraveling but not Redemption in Indigo in my bag; based on that, I can say that Unraveling works even without knowledge of the prior book, though it might read less weirdly with. And now I should go get Redemption in Indigo off my shelf, where it’s been sitting for far too long, waiting for me to read it.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories, Kat Howard. Freebie book at ICFA, read on the plane home. As the title suggests, a large percentage of these stories riff off folklore in some fashion, and specifically off northern European folklore. The other running theme in them is Women Done Wrong By Men, which will probably speak deeply to some readers, but I am not one of them. The stories that wandered in a more New Weird/surrealist direction often didn’t click for me, but on the other hand I really enjoyed “Once, Future” (novelette at least, quite possibly novella-length), with a group of college students whose class assignment causes them to begin incarnating Arthurian legend, and also “The Calendar of Saints,” set in an alternate history where figures like Galileo are saints of the church, and following a female duelist who winds up at the center of a challenge to the holy Laws of Science.

Books read, January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books read, November-December 2018

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.