Strange Stories, Vol. 1 is live! And part of one hefty anthology (620 pages!).
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: I would argue that this is less a novella and more of a long novelette. It is very short, and because of that shortness, it had more of the texture of a short story—of language, sparseness of description, precise but possibly a little linear plotting—than it did a novella, and I admit, I went into it expecting more of a novella approach. That said, the world is absolutely fascinating and I loved the concept of sentient ships (and their names!), especially the idea that since the central core of the ships are born of humans (it’s questionable if they are humanoid, since the description of a ship’s core is vague) they have human blood-relations. The Tea Master and the Detective utilizes the Sherlock Holmes and Watson archetype, with Sherlock as Long Chau, an incredibly drugged but brilliant deductionist (honestly, this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the most true to the original source material’s personality and presence I think I’ve seen yet) and Watson as The Shadow’s Child, a sentient ship who brews specially crafted teas to help humans acclimate to “deep spaces.” The cultural world-building is absolutely fascinating, but because of the novella’s short length, it’s much more a story of character and culture than it is about solving the mystery. My only quibble was the sparseness of description when it came to the ships. I had little idea what The Shadow’s Child‘s avatar looked like most of the time, and I’m still unsure if a ship’s core is a humanoid being grafted into the ship or a biological mass of brain and heart.
Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks: Oh! Look! Graphic novel! And an adorable little romance story about figuring out the person who’s your person is sometimes your best friend. It’s refreshing to read a story with a bi/pan character where their sexuality and dating history is not considered weird or something to make noise about! Meredith has dated most of her coworkers and it isn’t treated as either, 1. a joke or 2. something reprehensible. Plus! Josiah has never dated anyone, and again, that’s treated as totally valid and not the butt-end of a joke. It is also refreshing to read a graphic novel/comic where the female/fem characters have a wide array of body types! Admittedly, it’s still limited when it comes to heavier body shapes, but it’s better than it usually is. And the art is wonderfully expressive and cute and fits the feel of the story quite well.
And so, we get to half of the reason why I haven’t read all that much this month: TV. Oh, there’s just so much good TV being released. The other half is that I’m currently reading/editing a novel to get it ready for betas, thus, much of my reading brain-space is claimed already. Also, holidays.
First one up: Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2, which I have been waiting for the DVD release for months because I don’t have CBS All Access (this will become a point later).
Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2: Definitely more ‘Trek than the first season. It’s doing it’s own thing, but has callbacks to the Original Series, and with that cliffhanger end, I’m starting to wonder if every season is an almost homage to each of the individual series within the great blanket of Star Trek. First season almost felt like a gritty Enterprise. Season 2 is more Original Series, and not just because of Captain Pike and Spock. Next season seems to be setting up an almost Voyager-esque season. We’ll see if my theory pans out.
My one, major quibble with this season was the events of episode 6: “The Sound of Thunder”, where the Discovery is summoned/led to Saru’s home planet. The setup was intriguing, and I was sure this was going to lead into a two-parter, but then the end happened and I was left feeling very blah. I mean, really? Discovery? You’re just going to leave? You basically set fire to this planet’s (very oppressive, highly morally questionable) society, culture, and political sphere, and then you just…leave and say, “Oh, they’ll sort it out.” Ah, no. I don’t care how much the Kelpiens believe in balance, the Ba’ul were fully prepared to launch a species-wide genocide after thousands of years of oppression and “culling” the Kelpien population for control. You don’t just leave. They are not going to sort this out. I’d be better with this if there was a mention of passing this particular thorny mess to the Star Fleet Diplomatic Corps. That would make sense, where Discovery backs out because they’re not trained for this. But…to leave in silence, then have the Kelpiens swoop in at the end using Ba’ul ships…seriously makes me question if Kaminar has two species any longer, or if the Kelpiens wiped out the Ba’ul and got their tech.
Now, my other quibble is with the series as a whole or, at least, how CBS is making it almost impossible not to pay for their All Access option. See, there’s a moment right at the end of the season that relies entirely on a previously established relationship between two characters…that wasn’t introduced in Discovery. Nope, this was actually in the Short Treks spin-off series, something I hadn’t even realized was a thing. Because I hadn’t known that this was going to be a semi-requirement in order to understand, I then spent an inordinate amount of time switching discs, looking for the episode I missed, then, when I couldn’t find it, assumed it was something I’d forgotten from season 1, so went back to my bingeing. It wasn’t until after watching the two-parter season finale that I found out that one character was introduced in a Short Treks episode, and that’s why I couldn’t find it. *grumble grumble grumble* I may, may, break down and get the All Access subscription when the third season releases, just so I can binge-watch Season 3 and all the Short Treks episodes I missed.
I sobbed at a character’s death. This is not unusual, I sob fairly easily at character deaths, particularly if that character then has a moving funeral (this one did). Favorite scene, by far, was Michael asking Spock if he really thinks the beard is working. *sigh* Highlight of the season.
The Witcher: Oh, I’ve been waiting for this for months. Months and months and months.
I liked the split focus between the three central characters. That said, I have the benefit of having read some of the books quite a few years ago, which might’ve been for the best. While I was familiar with who was important and why they were in the story, my memory has gone fuzzy on the details, so I wasn’t actively comparing the adaptation with the source material (which I think a few reviewers were, whether consciously or unconsciously). That said, the, er, multiple timeline structure is confusing as all hell, and I can only assume it’s even more confusing for those who have neither read the books or played the games (I’m more recent on the games; I binge-played The Witcher III about two years ago and did a story/craft analysis on it). For the first two episodes and much of the third, I was holding two possibilities in mind: either it’s a multi-timeline story where they didn’t mark the timelines as being separate OR they decided to make everything happen concurrently…which would’ve been odd, but it is an adaptation, so…
It wasn’t until the third episode where there’s some overlap with royals’ ages that I figured out it was the former not the latter, and things started making sense. So my one bit of advice for those who haven’t seen it and haven’t read the books, know that Geralt’s and Yennifer’s timelines are occurring decades before Ciri is even born. Geralt’s timeline is mostly the short stories (most of which can be found in The Last Wish), Yennifer’s is backstory that’s referenced (as far as I remember), and Ciri’s is a lead-up to the events of the first book. In a way, it embodied my frustrations when I read the novels (I clearly remember throwing the first book down with an exasperated cry of, “It’s just a PROLOGUE?”).
Which probably explains the tonal conflict and the occasional sudden shifts in emotional tone between episodes. Geralt’s timeline isn’t running as chronologically as Ciri’s, so there’s gaps and spaces of unspoken years between events (and it’s easy to miss when there’s been a time-skip). While I enjoyed this, I can see how this would definitely rub people wrong.
There were some choices with Yen’s backstory that I was a bit iffy on, but I realize that much of it is drawn from the books (it just hasn’t aged well, in my opinion), and there was a point where I was certain there was a blatant contradiction; they might end up addressing that in the next season, so *shrug*. I also question, if a viewer doesn’t know who Ciri is and who she becomes, whether or not her story would feel as vital/compelling as it does to someone who does know.
Much like with Carnival Row, I await season 2 to see where they take this. I also feel the strong urge to replay The Witcher III: Wild Hunt*.
Other shows binge-watched this month:
Shows that I anticipate binge-watching:
* However! I did just fix Skyrim and I’m happily binge-playing that while working on edits, so…it might be awhile.
** Acorn TV is doing a slow-release schedule for both of these of one episode a week. Which curtails my binge-plans.
Isn’t that fancy?*
But! Speaking of fancy, a limited collector’s edition of this anthology in hardcover is available for pre-order! Which also will include a t-shirt and an advanced printed excerpt of Forty-Two Book’s upcoming poetry anthology, Putrescent Poems. Strange Stories will also be available in paperback and e-book, if hardcover isn’t your jam.
* Yes, I know, it says August 2019 on the cover, but it’s December. Originally, it was slated for an August release but got pushed back.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: Okay, I love this book. It is such a delicious, rich, flavorful book, and it touches on so many things that I, personally, find fascinating. Culture and cultural exchange across cultures. Language and how language changes. The idea of being in love with a culture not your own, and equally being afraid of that culture subsuming yours. The question of what it means to be human. The whole concept of memory and personality, and the effect each has on the other, plus the fascinating question of, if you have two sets of memories, one present and one past, are they the same person? Are they different? And where, when memories of two different people are combined into one brain, we become I and I become we? And what it would be like to experience memories that aren’t yours? (True, I’m biased, since that’s one of the major elements I’ve been exploring in my own novel, so it’s wonderful to see someone else tackling the same questions that I am, but with a different lens and perspective*). I am also excited to learn that this is only book 1, and that all those dangling plot threads at the end might be answered in the next installment (and it’s saying something that I didn’t even notice there were unanswered questions till I started writing this, the end was so satisfying). True, I will now have to wait until 2020 to read A Desolation Called Peace, but will mean that future-me will have the satisfaction of a good read.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: Irreverently giggle-inducing, often gruesome, and occasionally downright weird. The combination of magic and space ships is both different and pleasantly jarring—those shouldn’t work together, and every so often, don’t seem to work together, BUT the mixture is unique and unexpected, and I felt that outweighed the odd hiccup. In a way, the plot’s structure reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with a cast of characters with dubious morals trapped on/in an inescapable location, being murdered one by one, the only suspects each other. And that end. All I will say about that end is “Hm. Now that is interesting.” However, just as a note, the beginning can be a bit tricky; there’s a lot of jargon and quite a few sentences that I needed to read a second time to get their meaning. But once they’re at Canaan House, I found things either smoothed out or I gelled with the writing style, and it became easier, and once a certain conversation happened late in the book, the relationship between the main characters sat better with me. It also has a tendency to leave things visually vague, which calls for the reader to do some imagination legwork. Unrelated to the actual content of the book, the hardcover with the black side-trim is absolutely gorgeous, a total work of art. It’s such a pretty book. Harrow the Ninth looks like it’ll be just as pretty (and maybe answer some of my blasted questions!).
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: So. This year at Windycon, I was on a panel devoted entirely to discussing the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, in particular The Vorkosigan Saga (the theme this year was Space Opera), and I realized it’d been awhile since I’d reread the earlier books in the series, seeing that with this latest reread, I was for some unfathomable reason reading the books backwards. So I jumped back and realized…I’d conflated a lot of the events in The Warrior’s Apprentice with events in The Vor Game. Anyway, it’s interesting to go back to young Miles, and to see what’s being setup for later books.
The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold: Continuing my reread in preparation for the panel. Not much to say other than, still vastly enjoyable, four rereads later. Seriously, The Vorkosigan Saga is one of those where I can read and reread and not be bored, even though I know how everything turns out. Instead, I get to look forward to the parts I know are coming, and it’s with giddy anticipation that I read. The Vor Game is still a delightful romp, pre-Miles-as-professional-deep-cover-agent, so it’s just so much fun to see him mess up and save it, and somehow make it look like he was planning for that eventuality the entire time.
Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold: Cetaganda can be a bit…odd, compared to the others. Tonally, in some ways, it’s almost more in line with the later books after Miles is medically forced to retire from his double life as Admiral Naismith. This one is, in a way, an early precursor to Miles Vorkosigan, the Imperial Auditor, since he gets to investigate and do his hero-ing under his own name. Only thing is, all his heroics end up swept under the rug of “so classified, the classification is classified” due to him…saving? what is, ostensibly, the enemy. However, the thing I so love, absolutely love, about this one is the humanizing of the Cetagandans. Up until this point, they were more of bogeymen wearing terrifying face paint; there’s a brief moment of screen-time for them in The Warrior’s Apprentice, but for the most part in the first few books, they’re either a threat in the past or faceless ships. It’s in Cetaganda that we get to see them as individuals…and they are simultaneously characterized as both incredibly alien and incredibly human.
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 edited by Carmen Maria Machado (series editor: John Joseph Adams): This one was intriguing to analyze from the perspective of a writer writing and submitting short stories. While the majority of my reading tends to be novels, I do enjoy a good short story, particularly during my lunch break. Anyway, the majority of stories included in this year’s The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy leaned heavily into unusual/nontraditional story structures, often riffing on other forms not usually used for fiction (such as “Poor Unfortunate Fools” by Sylvia Park, which is told as an academic paper, “STET” by Sarah Gailey, which is told through editing notes and notations, and “Dead Air” by Nino Capri, which is an audio transcription), but had its fair share of traditional narratives as well (and an interesting use of second person right off the bat in “Pitcher Plant” by Adam-Troy Castro).
Godblind by Anna Stephens: Hrm. I’m conflicted on this one. On the one hand, I devoured this book in two days, and it’s not a small book. It was compelling and kept me turning pages. On the other, it didn’t feel quite…deep enough for what I was wanting. I like to be entirely immersed in my fantasy, and Godblind seemed more keen on fast pacing than immersion. Yes, it moves at a very quick clip; things start spiraling out of control for the main characters practically from the get-go and don’t let up. But that fast pace is at the expense of the world- and character-building (more so world than character). It also has a lot of viewpoint characters (ten, count them, ten!), which can give you a bit of whiplash when you go from one end of the country to the other in the space of three pages (though if I remember right, Mark Lawrence did something very similar with Red Sister, so it might just be a mark of the subgenre). These two things combined in such a way that the book didn’t—hm—have the chewiness I like in my fantasy. Still, if you’re a fan of fast-paced grimdark, Godblind is a good addition to the genre. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
* I also have found a new comp title for when I start querying the new novel. Am pleased. Am very pleased.
Today, I want to talk fantasy. And epic armies. And economics.
Yes, they connect.
First off, I have no expert knowledge in this subject. I’m neither an economist nor do I have a military background of any sort. But I read a lot of fantasy, and I write a lot of fantasy, and recently, I’d been mulling on the topic of fantasy warfare when I’d realized an army in a book I was reading had no food. Which then spun off to other musings, and things (namely, my suspension of disbelief) started crumbling. While this…discussion…is more aimed at epic and grimdark fantasy, it can also be applied to military science fiction and more battle-oriented space opera (though I’ve noticed that military sci-fi tends to be more realistic about the, uh, monetary cost of war). Anyway. Onward!
If you, dear reader, intend to introduce some warfare on a grand scale into your fantasy world, I would like to remind you of a few things:
Armies are big.
Armies are expensive.
Armies eat a fuck-ton of food.
They also, as a whole, move very, very slowly. Mobilizing an entire army and having it move, say, twenty miles is an undertaking. Namely because of supply trains. Because your big-ass fantasy army (which shall be, from now on, referred to as the BAFA) is really made up of thousands of people, and if those people are marching and burning calories, they’re gonna need to eat to replace all that energy expended, especially if you want them to then fight when they get to wherever they’re going (I’m not even bringing up the issue of clean drinking water).
But it’s not just food. It’s supplies. It’s equipment. It’s (if you have cavalry) all the horses’ tack and their grooms. It’s all those damn tents. The bedrolls. The cookware for preparing all the aforementioned food (unless you’re going to make them all march on hardtack…expect lower moral). Oh, and all the army’s support staff (the blacksmiths, the quartermasters, the cooks, the grooms, the healers/medical personnel, the engineers for the siege equipment, the army administrators—all the logistical supply for the logistical supply). Armies are big. And bulky. And cumbersome. And, when everything is moving in concert with all its various parts, starts to feel insurmountable. When taken as a whole.*
It’s still made up of individuals.
Who also, if they’re doing this as a mode of employment, like to be paid. Where are you getting all the gold necessary to fund this? Honestly, this is usually why my suspension of disbelief starts to waver when the BAFAs come out. If the writer hasn’t built a believable economy, I start to question where the funds are coming from. By the way, you know what’s more expensive than armies? Countries. Good lord, those are giant money-sinks. But back to the armies.
It’s possible they may be unpaid, untrained conscripts. Expect some wholesale slaughter if they’re up against a superior force. Also, expect a lot of desertion. However, a few epic fantasies I’ve read lately have been going the route of religious fanaticism to keep their unpaid, untrained constricts standing in lines. …okay. You can have that once, maybe twice, but seriously, it’s starting to get lazy, imo. And they never seem to fall apart quite as frequently nor in the same way as they do in history…
So. Either you are paying your army or your conscripting them. There’s also a third option: pillage-as-pay (or raiding).
Now, if you’re going to go down the pillage-as-pay route, there’s one inherent flaw: if there’s no pillaging, there’s no pay. If the food, supplies, and money for your army is going to come from the people you’re invading, all the invadees have to do is set fire to their fields and starve you out. You’ll likely run out of supplies long before they run out of country to flee over. Aaaaaand then you have issues of low moral.
(Seriously. It’s like a giant game of Oregon Trail here.)
Let’s say you don’t want to invade. Instead, you’re on the defending side, fighting back the invasion with a standing army. That still costs. They still need housing. They still need to eat. Else you’re going to get the low moral problem.
Low moral, by the way, means people start to resent you. And people who resent you are difficult to convince to go fight and die on your behalf.**
Now, stepping sideways into a specific example, and something that’s been lately bugging me.
Fantasy writers, please stop misusing cavalry. I know, I know, it looks dramatic in the mind’s eye to line your cavalry up with all their shining armor and lances, and have them suicide-charge against the enemy’s cavalry. Cue flashing weapons, crunching armor, horse squeals, and sprays of blood.
Remember what I was saying about armies being expensive? Cavalry is really expensive. Not only do you have to train your soldier to ride and fight from horseback, you need to train the horse…and horses are not cheap. So you’ve got food, housing, animal care, training plus room and board, training, and arming/outfitting for the human (oh, and pay), and this is just one cavalry-person. Fantasy likes to have cavalry numbering in the hundreds upon hundreds, and every one of them costs.
Are you seriously going to throw your cavalry into certain death? Or are you going to keep them in reserve and, if desperate, dismount your cavalry and have them fight on foot? Save the horse for when you actually need a horse—say, for when you need forces to go from point A to point B quickly, or when you need speed for engaging/disengaging, such as having them to flank and harry the sides of a force.
And while we’re on the topic of cavalry, what about anti-cavalry? Where are the damn pikes? The spears? The pointy-things partially made for downing horses? And what about anti anti-cavalry? I don’t quite remember who said it, but I know it was at a GenCon panel a few years ago, but someone pointed out that those big heavy claymores? Those are for lopping the ends off of pikes so they don’t impale your cavalry. Now, I recognize this needs citation to be accurate, but if it is, where are the claymores?
Warfare seems, at least to my eyes, to be weapons and counter-weapons (and armor, and tactics). There should be depth to war strategy (honestly, this is why I usually avoid writing from the viewpoints of generals; it can be hard to grasp the stakes when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people being moved this way and that on a map).
Though it’s a common thing to poke at in fantasy, I will also reiterate that horses aren’t machines. There’s a few wonderful series of articles about horses and fantasy on Tor.com, and I highly recommend taking a gander.
Also, a bit older, but this article on Fantasy-Faction about building fantasy armies might be worth a look while you’re at it.
* We’re talking whole armies here, not skirmishes/raiding parties. Smaller groups can get away with less support.
**While, yes, if we’re talking fantasy, there could be other ways to compel an army to fight, such as through magical means. However, this can lead to the army becoming just a homogenized lump of faceless humanity and little more than a prop to introduce conflict into the narrative.
If anyone knows who did the other three images, I’d love to be able to properly attribute them.
I…did it. I’m done. Holy bleepin’ hell, I just typed “END” and finished this goddamned book.
*continues to cackle*
No, the book isn’t really “done.” Not quite yet. I still need to go through and replace all my placeholders with actual words, stitch together any sections where I skipped ahead while I was writing and never went back to fill in the gaps, and I still need to fix that one scene that’s really more of a script than a scene (lots of conversation, very little actual description of…anything, really. White-room syndrome galore).
After that, I print the whole thing, stick it in a binder, and start cutting with the pencil lead of doom. There’s a LOT of bloat in this book, and it needs to become a lean, mean, fiction machine. After that, it’s betas, more revisions, possibly more betas, and then I start packaging it together for submission.
Final word count for this finished draft: 185,638.
And only three days past my self-imposed deadline of the 15th.
Immortal Born by Lynsay Sands: Ah, the newest edition to the ongoing romance saga. I’m conflicted on this one. The premise intrigued me and I’ve been looking forward to it for a few months now, but in execution it’s…not the strongest. For one thing, I didn’t find it all that funny, and usually, I’m cracking up reading these. Not one snicker. Secondly, there’s a lot of character cameos from previous books in here. To the point that it’s a bit of a name-soup (doesn’t help that it’s been well over a year, year and half since I read most of these, so I struggled to remember who was who and married to who (most of the time, I failed)). The romance was also weirdly weak (there’s almost no flirting, no banter, and little courtship–no one worked for this romance), and the plot…to a certain degree, felt a lot like the plot from book #21. I dunno. This one wasn’t one of my favorites.
The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold: Speaking of favorites! Erm, I seem to be reading a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold these past few months. In my defense, I am scheduled on a panel in November discussing her work (primarily the Vorkosigan Saga, but the panel description seems flexible, so we’ll probably end up talking about her fantasy, too), so my excuse is that I’m brushing up on the ones I haven’t read as recently?* I’ve always felt The Hallowed Hunt was underappreciated by Goodreads readers, and I enjoyed it for all the differences others seemed to have disliked. Ingrey is prickly, and takes some time to get used to, and may, at first, seem to have a stunted emotionality (not true though! It’s just subtle). He’s less, on the whole, as sympathetic a character as the other two, but I really, really do like his insistence that for a wolf-ridden shaman warrior, he’s supposed to be normal. He wants nothing to do with all this uncanny nonsense!
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold: Oh, I’m reading these all out of order. Ah, well. Fourth reread of this one? I think? It’s interesting to view it as part of the series as a whole and to see where and how the world of the five gods evolved from here. We haven’t had much mention of death magic/miracles in the later books (it’s been awhile since I read the earlier Penric & Desdemona novellas, so maybe it’s in there and I’ve forgotten), but in The Curse of Chalion, it is CENTRAL. I’ve also found that the more times I reread this book, the clearer the scenes become, while simultaneously, I’m better able to see the structure of the novel as a whole. Now comes the question, do I continue on to The Paladin of Souls or continue my reread of the Vorkosigan Saga…
The Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold: Well, that answers that. So far, with every reread, there’s this one scene a little past the midway mark of the book that never fails to leave me misty-eyed. It isn’t a death scene, it isn’t a heart-breaking moment of grief but, rather, a moment of kindness and hope, and I still find it deeply moving, even when I know the scene is coming. This read-through, I noticed that, in a weird way, the romance is sort of a subversion of the guy-gets-the-girl trope, where Ista’s love interest is definitely divinely inclined to her, and he might be a little bit of a reward to entice her back to the material world, but it’s pretty clear they’re a reward for each other, in the end. Still. It was interesting to notice that this time around.
Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shaman, Penric’s Fox, Penric’s Mission, Mira’s Last Dance, The Prisoner of Limnos, and The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold: Because of my earlier statement that death magic/miracles doesn’t come up as a central plot element in later books, I felt it necessary to reread all of the Penric and Desdemona novellas in order to back up that claim. For science. And the answer is…nope, doesn’t come up again as a major plot point, at least, not yet. The series is still, as far as I’m aware, still going. This seems to be the month for rereading. Probably because I’m so, so close to finishing the initial draft of this book I’ve been working on. I’ve been returning to old favorite reads rather than striking out with something new. They’re just…so wonderfully comfortable, you know? As a side thing, I dream of owning a print copy hardcover of Penric’s Demon. I wasn’t able to afford these till after it’d gone out of print, and now that it’s a collector’s item, I definitely can’t afford it. Which is unfortunate, seeing that I have the others.
* This is a lie. I would’ve re-read it regardless.