Uf. Been awhile since I’ve done one of these (again) and it’s also been awhile since I, er, read some of these (way back in January!). So, because there are so many, and because I’m growing fuzzy on some of the details, this is more a roundup with a few short thoughts than it is a review post.
The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty: Ah! The end of the trilogy! I’d been looking forward to this one for quite a while. While I felt the beginning was a tad uneven, it’s a solid, satisfying conclusion to the trilogy that nicely comes full-circle. Do recommend.
Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold: As always, an absolute delight. And, amusingly, set in between previous novellas, which will make the omnibus binding interesting…
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: Technically a reread. A coworker of mine started reading the series and wanted to talk about it, but it’d been awhile since I’d read Harrow so I reread (it’s a…complex book). Once again, struck by the artistry and craft of what Muir is doing. And how absolutely, delightfully bonkers it all is.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Creepy, evocative, and very much gothic, with quite a few interesting twists I wasn’t expecting (and a few I was—but probably because I saw parallels between it and another book in a different genre that played with similar concepts). It lends itself to Hollywood, methinks, and I won’t be a bit surprised if there’s a movie deal for it in the making.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell: Space opera romance with political shenanigans! A combo I very much enjoy. Interesting backstory for this one, but it was originally offered on AO3 as a serialized original fic, and it incorporates hallmark fanfiction tropes alongside that “I must read the next chapter.” Looking forward to the next installment.
Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis: Recommended by a coworker and thoroughly charming. Devoured it in a sitting.
Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher: Ah! Another installment in her delightful paladin romance series! And, even better, it’s one of the few examples of a romantic couple who are over the age of 35 with a heroine who’s plus-sized and tall and a hero who is of a similar build. They both complain so rightfully about how things are just not sized for them. Like chairs. And door lintels. Heartily recommend.
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: This was excellent, and a brilliant follow up to A Memory Called Empire. And very much unexpected, and I’m so very pleased that the end was the end I didn’t dare hope for, completely convinced it would go the other way. Also, I see a mushroom trend going on in my reading as of late… But no matter. I absolutely can’t wait to see how this concludes in the next book. Both A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace are hefty books, concept- and character-wise, and are the kinds of books that sit with you for days after as you mull over the implications and the meaning.
A Summoning of Demons by Cate Glass: Another conclusion to a trilogy, though the way it concluded, I do hope there’s, if not another in the series, then at least a follow-up standalone or duology to explore some of the concepts introduced here. ‘Cause they’ve piqued my interests and, as a reader, I am not yet satisfied with the answers. But! The heist is, as always, entertaining and wonderfully convoluted. If this is truly the last Chimera volume…well, I’ll be content, though foresee rereading in my future.
So I hit my self-imposed goal of 30,000 words by January 25th. Yes, I realize now in looking over my 2021 Goals post that I’d said 20,000, but proceeded to then forget the actual number and went with what I vaguely remembered—30k.
The other…interesting hiccup is that this…isn’t the novel I started with. See, I was about 15k into a different novel, then this thing came along and blindsided me. Words were coming slow for the 15k one, so I decided, on a lark, I’d try my hand at fanfiction just to shake things up.
The attempt last less than a day. I categorically failed at writing fanfiction.
What I did succeed at, though, was starting a completely different book, a book that I humored for the first 1,000 words. Then the second. Then the third. And by the time I hit 10k in less than a week, I had to admit to myself that, er, this was the new book, not the other.
Essentially, I’ve written 30,000 words in three weeks. That’s probably the most productive I’ve been in sheer word count since undergrad. Huh.
In retrospect, I tried to pull the other one out of the proofing drawer too soon, and while it looked risen at first, the more I tried to knead it, the more I realized it hadn’t built up the gluten. This thing is more like the baking equivalent of three ingredient no-knead bread.*
It’s also an absolute blast to write. I’m currently sitting at 32K and honestly, my output has only slowed because grad school started this week and I’m still acclimating to that.
This is not the novel I intended to write, but it is the novel that’s getting written. Which is…interesting, to say the least. In many respects, this is the first novel I’ve worked on without a formal outline planned. Yes, I know where it’s going, but because it’s rather more linear that my previous ones and, so far, has just the one viewpoint character, it seems to require less pre-writing, less balancing of story threads, so I can fall back more on plain-old play. “Oooh, if I introduce this complication, what’ll happen? Oooh, if it instead jinks to the left here instead of the right, where does that lead?”
It’s also rather refreshing to tackle a project that’s rather finite and, hm, constrained. It’ll probably be a duology, but only because it’d be impractical, size-wise, as one book, but it is one story. There are no standalone components. And, as it’s just the one viewpoint character doing the one thing, I have to juggle fewer future timelines and reveals because, er, it’s rather simple in its structure.
Which brings me to the grand reveal: it’s Chosen One fantasy.
I swore I’d never write Chosen One fantasy. It’s boring, it’s familiar ground, it’s been written to death. And yet…exploring it, directly engaging with it, balancing homage with subversion, has been a fascinating sandbox in which to play.
Also, I really enjoy the idea of a chosen one who’s fast approaching middle age and is, essentially, a level 1 hero but a level 50 quartermaster; all his skills are with numbers, ledger books, and logistics, not with waving swords around and challenging gods. And I’m having far, far too much fun with a character who is ethnically from a certain land, but culturally from another, and struggling to adapt in the land supposedly his homeland when his heart belongs to a completely different place, one that, frankly, is more often the aggressor…
I realize this is incredibly vague. I tend to do that. So! In light of vagueness, I instead present—drumroll, please—concept art!
Because why not riding dinosaurs? No color version yet, but their feather crests are almost macaw-bright, with the rest of their scaly selves more alligator/crocodile in coloration and texture. And with this one, fantastical change, suddenly, I have so much freedom with designing the local flora and fauna. So far, it’s limited to the dinos and a sort of cross between a ring-tailed lemur and a skunk, but I expect this to continue, because why not? Because if I’m going to explore such familiar territory as the Chosen One, I might as well go completely ham with everything else. At the very least, it’ll push my creature-design skills to their limits.
As a challenge, I aim to finish this draft within the year. Step up my production schedule, ’cause three years for a novel is rather long, just in the scheme of making this a career. So! 120K by January 2022.
That’s the goal, at least. We’ll see how this goes.
* Have I been watching a lot of The Great British BakingShow? …maybe.
Although, if I’m to be honest, “resolutions” seems so chiseled in stone and imposing than just “goals” so perhaps we’ll just go with “goals.”
Last year I made a resolutions plan for 2020, some of which I’ve accomplished, some of which I have not. Like the goal of 60 submissions. I don’t think I even made 40 (*cough* 28, according to the Grinder) in 2020 but, erm, there was the whole plague and quarantine that happened, and I lost easily six months of potential writing productivity to just a general sense of hopelessness and defeat. But, hey! Three acceptances! Same as last year, so fewer submissions but same rate of acceptance. Go figure.
I did, however, hit every one of those goals for Dead God’s Bones. I finished the editing pass, then did another, found betas, got feedback, did more editing, found more betas, did more editing, and got my submission packet together. Then decided, er, might be better to wait till 2021 for this. Querying in 2020 didn’t seem either wise nor feasible, so I mostly researched agents, put together my list of who to send it to, and just generally did prep work. I did write at least five short stories (five exactly) and I also started the next book (more on that later—possibly more on that in a separate blog entry). I also did a bit of painting, so there’s that?
I didn’t end up querying In Blood another 20 times; I think I did five or six more then retired it. I thought I’d be absolutely heartbroken but a year of distance between querying it and three years of distance from writing it, and I can see its flaws more clearly. It’s not a bad book, and there are elements of it that I still love, but I’m all right with it just being for me. The component parts don’t fit together as seamlessly as DGB or the new book, and I’d like to think I’ve leveled up as a writer.
So I suppose that’s 2020. The most surprising things this past year mostly happened around my day job. I was promoted, realized I’ve reached the ceiling for advancement/pay without a degree in the field, so applied, was accepted, and am now going back for yet more college.
Moving on to that handy bulleted list I used last year.
2021 Resolutions Goals:
Hit 40 submissions again. I need to get back into the habit.
Start querying Dead God’s Bones with intent. I have my list, I have my packet, all that remains is to do the legwork. So far, my agent list is about 15 agents strong at this point, but for DGB, I’m going for more targeted querying than I did with In Blood. We’ll see how that works out.
Continue working on the new book (more on this in its own dedicated blog post). I’d like to get 20k words in by the time I start school, and while I’d love to have the draft done by this time next year, not sure how feasible that is with grad school looming. I’d be happy with halfway by January of 2022. Anything else is extra credit.
Go to school. Again. This time, though, instead of a degree in writing, I’ll be working on a degree in libraries. In my day job under another name, I’m the Assistant Head of Circulation. My goal, however, is to specialize and become either an Outreach Librarian and/or a Reference Librarian.
Well, it’s been a while. A long while. So long, in fact, that instead of the regular list of books, I’m instead doing a sort of book-collage, particularly since many of the books are technically rereads. Some I’ve featured on here before, some were books I read as a teenager and I decided to come back and read them again as an adult (which has been a rather interesting experience).
So without further ado, the collage:
That’s a lot of books. In short, most of these are rereads, and most of those are comfort-rereads. Covid has hit my TBR pile hard; though I have a teetering stack of books to read, all I’ve wanted to do instead is retread old, familiar ground. And that’s…perfectly fine.
I did want to highlight A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher and The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison as being utter delights that I desperately needed at the time of reading them. Personally, I feel Goodreads is being quite unfair to The Angel of the Crows by saying that it wasn’t “new” enough–I argue that I didn’t WANT new, I didn’t want things turned on their heads. I wanted a sweet retelling of classic Sherlock Holmes with a twist, and that is EXACTLY what I got. It promised what I wanted and followed through entirely and I appreciated the gift of it. I highly recommend it especially if you find yourself entirely overwhelmed by the constant threat of Covid and just want something sweet and familiar and comfortable, and love a good Sherlock Holmes retelling.
Lastly, it was interesting to reread Carol Berg’s Rai-Kirah trilogy, which I remember having read somewhere around 14-15 and being disappointed by the third book. 14-15-year-old me didn’t get it. 27-almost-28-year-old me did. In many ways, it hasn’t aged well (20 years is…20 years). In other ways, it was fascinating to read certain details (like not breathing on food and the one culture’s preoccupation with cleanliness and avoiding corruption) in this time of Covid and infection. Just…huh. But teenage me really didn’t understand the concept of merging identities and personalities, of multiple people contained within one, multiple worlds, and the central theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Teenage me took it entirely at face-value and was thoroughly confuzzled by the third book (and bored to tears by the second). Adult me appreciates it, and adult writer me found myself endlessly occupied with analyzing the craft side. In many ways, it’s a rough precursor to Berg’s later work, and in that roughness, it’s easier to see the building blocks, the individual components, because the edges aren’t so seamless. And, hoo, the emotional rollercoaster of the third book. Just…damn.
Anyway. Next time around, this won’t be an overwhelming collage-block. Next time, A Month of Books shall return to its usual format.
Because in real-life, I’m fighting the fluctuating but constant feeling that I’m either being gaslighted by society at large or that things are utterly bleak and hopeless, and in the U.S., we’re experiencing so much social and political upheaval ramping up to an election with potential results that, frankly, terrify me, I’m going to use this space to babble about a video game that shaped how I write and what I write about.
That game is Morrowind.
Look at those graphics! Look at those giant bug critters! Look at those…people with eldritch horror tentacles ripping their way out of their faces…hm. Y’know, in the original low resolution on an old 90’s block screen, you didn’t quite get the visual horror of these guys that modern high resolution retexturing mods give them.
Anyway, this video game was THE video game for me, though as a kid, I had issues with sticking to a choice and playing a character for more than six levels, along with just not quite getting what I was supposed to be doing. So, as a kid, the guidebook was my bible. Like, really, I carried the guidebook around at school and when the glue in the spine crumbled from so much reading, I put the pages in individual protector sheets and stuck them in a binder. I also read a lot of the in-game lore books, since I was mostly restricted to Seyda Neen, Balmora, and maybe Ola Oad or Aldruhn if I felt particularly daring. A few times I ended up in Sadrith Mora, but since I usually didn’t play a character long enough to unlock the levitation spell, I couldn’t go past the entrance halls of the Telvanni towers.
A few years ago, I bought the game and played it as an adult and…yeah, well, the graphics haven’t aged all that well and the combat is absolutely nothing like subsequent games (Oblivion and Skyrim). But! As an adult, I was able to, 1. commit to one character and 2. finally understand how to read directions. Because there are no map markers in Morrowind, and occassionally, the directions are wrong. After many, many years of never getting beyond the first major quest in the main quest, I finished not only Morrowind, but Tribunal and Bloodmoon, the two expansions.
It also gave me the opportunity to truly appreciate how much of an indelible mark this game made on proto-writer me, particularly in how I approach worldbuilding.
Morrowind has a steep learning curve, and it explains very little beyond the basics. Once you click past the tutorial, you are on your own (unless, of course, you have a guide). Instead, it immerses you entirely, and once you start scratching at the surface of the worldbuilding, you realize…it’s layers. Layers upon layers, and some of those layers are in direct contradiction with other layers, but both are, sort of, true. The sheer amount of reading available in this game is utterly staggering. Though the lore books average maybe four pages, there are hundreds. And, unlike subsequent titles, most of the game’s dialogue happens in dialogue boxes, with a single notable exception. Little is voiced. (But the little that is…oh, the sound of an Ordinator saying, “We’re watching you. Scum.” will forever be immortalized in my memory. Along with, “Mournhold! City of light! City of magic!” and “Wake up. There you go. You were dreaming. Now, what’s your name?”)
But the worldbuilding is so, so rich, and the quests and characters are some of the most unique in the Elder Scrolls series (excepting Elder Scrolls Online, only because that game is truly massive, and it does its fair share of callbacks to Morrowind, but I’ll get into it more later). And so much of it is conveyed with little explanation, forcing you, the player, to fill in the blanks and dialogue with it while the local fauna is trying to kill you as you run for your life under the canopies of giant mushroom trees. And if, like me, you’re one of those players who, when you stumble across a secret or uncover another layer of worldbuilding, you squeal in glee and treasure it like the shiny nugget it is, this game rewards you, and often. It encourages multiple play-throughs, simply because you are going to miss details, and every time through gives you something new.
Yet, it also plays a lot with the mutability of truth. Of how much perspective plays a role not only in history, but in how history unfolds in the present. And the importance of leaving just a bit of mystery, just a few questions unanswered, because it’s in those spaces that you let imagination proliferate.
So, basic rundown of the core concept of the game. By the emperor’s order, you’ve been pulled out of prison, stuck on a boat, and shipped to the very alien landscape of the island of Vvardenfell in Morrowind, one of the two eastern-most provinces of Tamriel. At first, you are an imperial agent who gets cast in the role of the Nerevarine, the reincarnation of Nerevar–an ancient Dunmer hero–and a sort of Dunmeri messiah figure. But, the further along in the story you go, the more tests your character passes, and it starts to become clear that you might actually be the Nerevarine, not just an impostor lookalike. Which coincides with the rise/reawakening of Dagoth Ur, the fellow behind the eldritch horror tentacles and, possibly, Nerevar’s murderer.*
I say possibly. Because it’s also possible he was murdered by his own allies, Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil, who subsequently ascended to a mortal godhood and became the Tribunal. And even though you have the opportunity to talk to, well, two of the three (Vivec and Almalexia), you’re never given a clear answer as to what happened. How did Nerevar die? It’s unclear, and depending on the interpretation, all perspectives are true due to a dragon break. But even without the dragon break, it’s fascinating to hold up the pieces, the snippets that different characters give you, and see how they fit together. What overlaps, what doesn’t? And that approach, that uncomfortable “knowing but not knowing” is a fascinating technique that I notice I often use in my own work. What’s truth? Subjective. Different people have different takes, different theories, even when they were witness to the event.
Also, judging by the content of Dead God’s Bones, I also really love to engage with the idea of mortal gods. Oh, and when I do utilize the chosen one trope, it’s almost always the “you look like the chosen one, you’ll do” and the character becomes the chosen one through a “fake it till you make it” approach (or never becomes the chosen one at all). Which has similar parallels to Morrowind’s approach.
And, for DGB at least, I often channel the visual, mm, texture of Morrowind and, to a certain degree, Oblivion. Less so Skyrim, not sure why. I often wish I had the ability to convey truly alien creatures the way visual media–such as games, movies, or art–can do. Writing is filtered through the reader’s perspective, and so such things require a different kind of building to maintain clarity. Sometimes, I wish I could drop a reader into a landscape like Vvardenfell the way Morrowind does but, alas, my skill is not yet high enough. But I can try, to some extent.
Still, I so very much enjoy building massive worlds to only show the surface, inviting a reader to scratch and see what’s underneath. Or, in the case of short fiction, since short fiction is limited in word count and what can be explored,setting up the illusion of great depth of worldbuilding. I strive to give just enough hints, while maintaining just enough mystery, to engage my readers’ imagination, and invite them to piece things together and fill in the blanks for themselves. Mostly because I want to recreate that experience that Morrowind provided me, but for someone else.
Also, as a side thing, I still haven’t found a literary equivalent of this game. I’m always on the hunt for suggestions, though, so if you’re familiar with Morrowind and have read something that channels the same spirit, please suggest?
Remember how I mentioned this would relate to ESO? Right, so when I bought ESO and started playing it for the first time, I hadn’t realized that the version I got came bundled, original game plus the Morrowind chapter. The game started, there was a tutorial thing, I did it because, er, ESO has a bit of a learning curve too, if you’re used to TES games. Anyway, tutorial over and…I’m in Seyda Neen. More so, I am on that DOCK, the one from the beginning of Morrowind and…the music is playing, and it’s reminiscent of the original soundtrack, to the point that some things are direct covers of the original, and…oh, the feels. So much sentimentality going on. And then I start walking and run into this thing:
And went, “What the hell is that? And what are those?”
Apparently, the in-game explanation for why this Vvardenfell’s flora and fauna look a little different (beyond developments in graphical capabilities and changes in aesthetics due to different development teams) is that ESO’s Morrowind is a little under a thousand years prior to the events of TES III: Morrowind, and things change. Notably, things change a lot if your island is an active volcano and only gets more active, and covers your land in a fine dusting of ash. Which actually makes a lot of sense. One of my critiques of the Elder Scrolls universe is that, between games, there often isn’t a huge visual difference, though hundreds of years may have passed. Beyond Vvardenfell, the entire architecture of Mournhold is different which…also makes sense, seeing that in a hundred years or so, it’s going to get razed.
TES in general has a thing for reoccurring characters, and ESO is no exception. There are a lot of references in ESO’s Morrowind to TES III: Morrowind (similarly, Skyrim’s Dragonborn expansion references a bit, though not quite as thoroughly).
I have shamelessly bought the Ald Velothi bug-style Redoran house in ESO and have, also shamelessly, decorated it to be as Morrowind-reminiscent as I could, with a few nods to the Clockwork City because, second to Vvardenfell, it’s by far my favorite area. Also, Clockwork City gave that denied chance to speak to Sotha Sil, seeing that events of Tribunal make that rather impossible. He’s…interesting. Philosophical but also very meta, very sideways-aware he’s an NPC. It’s an interesting conversation.** Vivec is Vivec, and by the end of the Vvardenfell chapter, I was questioning just how much I was charismatically manipulated into certain actions. Hmmmm… And Almalexia is…slightly less insane. But, also, roped me into saving her temple and then gifted me with a lamp? It felt a little anti-climactic, but also very fitting.***
However, since I’ve now cleared Vvardenfell, Clockwork City, Stonefalls, and Deshaan, I’m off to Shadowfen, which is very much new territory to explore, given that there hasn’t been an Elder Scrolls game set in Blackmarsh since Arena, but that’s set on/in all of Tamriel, and Daggerfall is as far back as I’ve gone so far.
In the meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Skywind, and fan-made port of Morrowind’s intellectual spirit into the Skyrim engine. They are making their own models, they’re making their own textures, they’re building Morrowind from the ground, up, but using Skyrim’s more modern infrastructure. And I absolutely cannot wait. This is the game that’ll woo me away from ESO, I guarantee. My grand-plan is to, eventually, play Skygerfall (the Daggerfall main quest remake in the Skyrim engine, a mod that’s already released), then Skywind, then Skyblivion (the Oblivion recreation in the Skyrim engine, much like Skywind), then eventually, replay Skyrim and actually do the main quest without taking a year break in the middle. And, depending on how the release schedule ends up, maybe being able to then play The Elder Scrolls VI.
And thus brings a close to my long, rambling ode to a game near and dear to my writerly heart. If not for Morrowind, I certainly wouldn’t write the way I do, and I wouldn’t be fascinated by the concepts that I am. Or, er, quite as obsessed with worldbuilding.****
After writing all this, I do find myself craving a new playthrough. Hm. (Wait for Skywind, I tell myself, wait for Skywind.)
* I don’t feel like this is a spoiler, since this game was released in 2002. ** There’s some a few references to what ends up happening to Sotha Sil peppered around in the dialogue. He apparently has defense measures set up for three potential, and possibly only, threats to his life. One is himself. Another is an angry daedric prince. The third is Almalexia. Very much a “Hah!” and “Oooh…” moment. *** Also, fun and somewhat weird thing, but if you start playing in the Morrowind chapter, then go back and wander into Mournhold, you’ll run into a familiar face from Morrowind…who’ll have no idea who you are, because ESO is designed to go chronologically for character development, but being an MMORPG with multiple expansions, doesn’t guarantee a player will meet that character at the start of their arch. **** It didn’t fit in the essay, so this is postscript, but the Elder Scrolls universe also plays, at least worldbuilding-wise, with cultures which aren’t based on a good vs. evil dichotomy, which is rare in high fantasy. A reoccurring theme within the Elder Scrolls is more an order vs. chaos, which is fascinating.