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 withRed 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).
* 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.
We got a new scanning/fax station at work, and since I was helping coordinate the installation, I got to test-drive the new equipment. Behold! The fruits of my scanning labors! Since I don’t have a scanner at home anymore, I hadn’t been able to digitize these sketches yet. None of these are story-related or anything. Just for fun.
Dragon because dragon! They’re my go-to for doodling.
Steampunk fae-dude with goggle-mask and knives. Can you tell I recently binge-watched Carnival Row? (Also, no ref for this, so the anatomy is all wonky.)
And a six-legged squirrel/sloth/armadillo critter. It’s hard to see, since it has almost all of its paws on that scaly tree trunk, but the paws have two forward-facing claw-tipped digits and two rear-facing, so it has a grip a little like a chameleon. Or one of those grabber claws from the claw machines.
So at the beginning of the year, I gave myself the challenge of 40 short story submissions. This was a modification on a challenge that I’d heard of where one tries for 40 short story rejections in a year*, but I’d felt that that still relied too much on external factors that I can’t control. My success in my own personal challenge would still be dependent on someone else.
Some markets don’t send rejections letters (it’s rarer than it is with agents, but it happens). Some markets are notorious for slow turnarounds (I’ve got something out right now that’s at 133 days pending; someone else who’d submitted long before me just got a rejection notice at almost 300 days). And sometimes, sometimes, instead of a rejection, you get an acceptance.
Which is a lovely reason not to have a rejection, by the way.
Better, say I, to count submissions. I can control how many submissions I send out. It’s a quantifiable number that’s entirely dependent on my own agency.
Long story short, I accomplished my personal challenge! Woo! As I’m done early, I’m giving myself the stretch-goal of another 10 by December (grand total, 50 submissions in 2019). And, should I hit that, ten more.**
For 2020, I’ll aim for 40 again, with stretch goals.
I also made myself an achievement badge. For bragging. (And because I found an Xbox achievement generator.)
* Okay, so, there is another reasoning behind the original challenge that isn’t just getting in submissions. The idea is to look forward to rejections in order to replace the negative connotation of rejections in your mind so they sting less when you receive them. I’m one of the lucky few who can roll with rejection letters fairly well (yes, I admit, when I see the rejection letter phrasing in my email’s preview, I sometimes don’t open the letter till I’ve worked up the gumption/my emotional defenses, but for the most part, I’m not overly saddened by rejection notices). If rejection letters really hurt, I suggest maybe trying out the original challenge, for funsies. I needed more accountability for submissions when I started, thus, my modified challenge.
** I’m not counting queries or novel submissions in this. Just short stories, novelettes, flash fiction, and novellas.