Many Months of Books: April, May & June

I’ve lumped April, May, and June together in one post, partly because each month’s offerings were a little slim due to beta-reading, partly because I haven’t been able to dredge the motivation to write anything more complex than a daily To Do list in weeks.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: Another recommendation from a friend who’s reading tastes often fall in line with my own after I’d asked for the names of some speculative fiction with F/F romantic pairings that didn’t end in tragedy or break-ups (I wanted a HEA people!). Anyway, this novella’s prose is, frankly, gorgeous. The words, the sound of them, the sounds of them strung together, the richness of the metaphors, the similes, the poetry of the prose, all of it had me reading and re-reading lines to enjoy their impact more than once. The romance’s build-up is slow and the approach of two individuals falling in love through letters alone was both brilliant and ambitious and it worked so, so well. The characters themselves are fascinating, and both are products of their individual futures, most times relatably human but other times, almost alien in their perception of the world(s). I did lose track of potential timelines and upthread/downthread a bit, and by nature of the execution, the mental “image” as it were tends to be vague, but that had little impact whatsoever on my enjoyment and appreciation. The texture of it is more short story than novel (a bit like my experience with The Tea Master and the Detective), so the world-building tends to be more snippets and snatches to create atmosphere and immersion as opposed to explaining things (an approach which I enjoy, but I know that not everyone does). The story, the structure, the prose-style, the world-building, all ask for this to be a book read slowly and savored, and I managed that—until the last 40 pages, which I consumed like a vacuum hose.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie: I’ll admit, I wasn’t planning on reading this. It had been on my shelf for years, but I hadn’t gelled well with The Blade Itself when I read it years ago, and expected Half a King to be much the same. I was wrong. Half a King has echoes of the brutality of The Blade Itself but with characters I actively rooted for, and I enjoyed the central theme of the danger of oaths sworn. I enjoyed it so much, I read the book in a day, something I haven’t done since…er, undergrad (part of this might be due to me being furloughed). I caught two out of the three major twists: one from the start seeing that it was strikingly similar to a plot twist from a Disney movie, one on page 188 because of a seemingly small throw-away line, but the third took me by surprise, yet, I appreciated the subtle layering of hints. I also enjoyed that twist’s structure, the echo-/full-circle nature it lent to the narrative. It was intriguing to me to draw parallels between the myth and legend the characters have for the world, the little snippets that made me fairly convinced that it was a far flung post-apocalyptic earth (some of the elf architecture sounded a heck of a lot like concrete with steel rebar supports, there’s a reference that sounds a lot like radiation sickness, and there’s a bit about a green chip with gold lines made into a necklace that seemed…hmm), and the cyclical nature of Ragnarok, since much of this has a Vikings-esque texture to it.

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold: More Pen and Des! Yee! I’ve been looking forward to this one since I read a teaser sample of the first third-ish, and then somehow managed to completely miss the release date until I happened to listen to an interview with Bujold conducted by Baen Books, where the release was mentioned. The novella is rather prescient, given that this was released during a real-world pandemic, and is dealing with a fictional one. In that aforementioned interview, Bujold explained that it wasn’t based on Covid 19, but on other historical pandemics (there’s a reference that looks a lot like the Bubonic Plague, plus a few others). Which makes sense, since in order for this to be released in May, the actual drafting would’ve had to occur before the beginning of Covid. Which just means the release of this story coincides with real-world events, which adds another layer to an already excellent tale. As always, highly recommended. Please read these because, truly, they are fantastic and, even when dealing with material as dark as a spreading pandemic, nevertheless uplifting, and I tend to devour them within a day. Also, the idea of a demon gaining its first personality impression from a dog, and how easily that demon is then to 1. train, 2. entertain with the same activity repeated over and over, and 3. communicate with made a great deal of sense. Also appreciated seeing what a more usual method of transferring a demon from one rider to the next, since Pen and Des’ was a bit unorthodox, and most of the demon-ridden sorcerers in The Paladin of Souls are not all that willing to have a demon in the first place.

A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite: This was an utterly delightful read. I’m a secret fan of regency romance, though incredibly picky since the time period and adherence to prescribed gender roles can be a bit “er, no thanks” for me, but this is the first regency F/F romance I’ve come across (though not by chance; it was recommended during a panel at the online Nebula Conference). Lucy and Catherine’s relationship, as Catherine learns she can embrace her attraction to women and Lucy heals from the heartbreak of her longtime lover marrying someone else, was sweet, passionate, and well-paced (though I quibble a little on what drives them apart for the traditional “lovers are driven apart” stage of a romance—the reunion and climax of the external plot was more engaging for me, though I recognize that without that step, the end wouldn’t have had the cohesion it did). I also loved the budding science field aspect, the combination of hopefulness and sense of discovery with the infuriating dark flip-side of the suppression of women scientists. It does end rather neatly and positively on that point, but this is a romance novel, and the expectation of an HEA precludes defeat. So while real-world history was often far grimmer, this parallel version fits the story it’s telling. And I see the author has another in this series coming out toward the end of July, so guess what one of my August reads will be?


May all of you stay safe and healthy and please, for the love of the all, wear a mask if you go out.

Well, This Has Languished…

I admit, I’ve slacked on updating this blog. While I’d like to place the whole of the blame on Covid-19 and quarantine it’s…not entirely the culprit. Yes, quarantine has thrown my usual schedule off-balance, but my lack of blogging has less to do with a world-wide pandemic, and more to do with having little to say.

So, because I have little to say, and most of it is fairly inane, I’ll arrange it all in bullet-point style.

  • Since quarantine, I’ve started to beta-read more (and beta-read outside my usual network of writer-friends). Which is also why there hasn’t been a “Month of Books” since…oh, wow. March? Two months ago? Wow. Anyway, beta-reading, by its nature, tends to require me to read slower and devote far more attention to, well, everything. Meaning, I can’t just sit back and read purely for the enjoyment of it, and because it requires so much more mental energy, I haven’t been reading much else. BUT! I have read some excellent yet-to-be-published fiction, and that has been a joy. 
  • It has also gotten me ruminating on writing and writing craft, something I haven’t actively done since finishing that degree.
  • This might result in more blogging. We shall see.
  • Still waiting on beta-reads for my own novel, but they’re starting to (slowly) trickle in. Most of my readers are, understandably, distracted by a world-spanning pandemic, so it might take awhile longer.
  • imagesInstead, I’ve started preliminary brainstorming for book 2. Should I? Probably not. If I was wise about this, I’d instead be writing something entirely unrelated, because the likelihood that the first book not only being picked up by an agent, but also by an editor, and the publisher gambling that it’d do all right enough to warrant a book 2 is…beyond astronomical. And yet…I still find this story, these characters, this world compelling, and the ideas for book 2 are starting to spark. Will it go beyond brainstorming? Maybe. Maybe it’ll go to the outline stage. Will I write it? Now? Eeeeeeeh. I don’t know. But it’s lovely to have a large project percolating in my brain again. I’d hit a bit of a slump immediately after finishing “Dead God’s Bones” (heretofore referred to as DGB). By extension, or perhaps, as a result, book 3 is also starting to take on more substance than the vague “it’s book 3!” it’s been since I started writing DGB.
  • I’m currently playing with the idea of expanding a short story into something longer (novelette or novella, not sure yet). The story came close to being published in an anthology I’d submitted it to, and hilariously, I’m going counter to the expectation and instead of turning around and submitting it somewhere else, I’m thinking of ripping it apart and stitching it back together as something new. I realized, after receiving the rejection, that I have no idea how to write a romance story. And this was supposed to be a fantasy romance. I also realized that the thing that was missing (other than the romantic spark) was the other half of the romance’s viewpoint…and why most slow-burn romances have dual PoVs. It’s hard to convey that both characters have feelings for each other when we’re in only one head and that head is not only in denial, but convinced the other doesn’t care. So I’m going to have some fun with this, I’m going to make a whole slew of mistakes, and I’m going to write a romance, goddamnit!
  • Speaking of short fiction, I’ve been writing a little of it here and there. I sold two pieces, which will be coming out at some point in the future, and I’ll update this with links and such when they are.
  • 407798-the-elder-scrolls-online-morrowind-playstation-4-front-coverThe other reason I haven’t been reading much has been because I buckled and bought the Elder Scrolls Online, and have been happily traipsing down memory lane on Vvardenfell. It’s not exactly the same, of course, but I’m enjoying the way the developers interpreted and reinterpreted the lore…and it filled that void for a stable Skyrim I’ve so desperately dreamed of (my Skyrim—and Oblivion for that matter—are notoriously glitchy, partly because I mod, partly because the game engine is unstable). So I’ve become an ESO player.
  • I also caved and bought a subscription. Because crafting materials take up so much space. I wanted that crafting bag. I’m not even actively crafting and I wanted that bag. There’s just not enough inventory slots available for materials and still be able to pick up that fancy pair of boots. Was this wise? Not sure but, hey, haven’t regretted it yet.
  • Eventually, I’ll roll up another character. Namely, my beefy high elf sneaky-fighter who’s been my main in Skyrim for the past long while. Why high elf, you ask?
    Osrin
    Osrindil, soon, you shall return to Tamriel, though I think high elves start in Summerset? Need a pirate hat though…
     Because I find it bizarrely amusing to play a masked, swashbuckling high elf wearing a giant feathered pirate hat gallivanting across Skyrim. Also, if you play high elf, when you infiltrate the Thalmor embassy, you can steal a set of Thalmor robes and waltz right through, and since I have mods for immersive sneak-centric characters, there’s just something very satisfying about waylaying a Thalmor inquisitor, putting him in a choke-hold, rendering him unconscious, and stealing his clothes, to go sneering off past all the Thalmor guards unmolested. It just…completes it, y’know? 
  • On the topic of ESO, their music is gorgeous. I purchased the soundtrack and it’s become my new ambient music for when I’m working/writing. Worth it.
  • I did have my first piece of nonfiction published, “Viewpoint Intimacy Through a Third Person Lens,” which, I hope, will not be the last article/essay of mine that appears somewhere that isn’t my blog.
  • Also, I made a website for my artist alter-ego (about damn time).
  • Since I’m home due to Covid-19, I’ve had more of an opportunity to take photos of the wildlife in my yard:

And that’s it for my bullet-point updates. 

I don’t know about the new WordPress blog editor interface. I’ll get used to it, eventually, but it’s going to take a little while. It likes doing odd things to my image formatting, though having the new slideshow option is nice. I’m not using it, but it’s nice.

A Month of Books: March

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: This is my second attempt on Ancillary Justice. The first one, I hadn’t been in the right mood to enjoy it, and the shifting between timelines frustrated me more than it enticed me. Second attempt, and I devoured it in a few days. The world-building in this is spectacular, though there is a bit of a learning curve. You’re dropped in the middle of things and the story just goes, filling in the world-building as it becomes necessary and, even then, not all of it. Some things remain vague, some things go unexplained, and I personally delighted in having a world (well, worlds) that I could puzzle over. However, that “drop you in the middle” is honestly why my first attempt at this book didn’t go much beyond the first flashback. Which brings up the other potential hurdle: it’s told in a split-timeline structure with the past and the present trading off chapters between them. In some ways, it helped make the past (and betrayals of the past) more immediate; in others, I’m fairly certain that structure is the reason it took me almost a week to read to the point that the past timeline falls off and the narrative remains entirely in the present. Once it narrowed down to one timeline, the rest of the book zipped by (true, there’s also the investment element in there; by that point, I needed to know what happened next). Now, I’m not sure if I truly called the betrayal, or if I’d somehow absorbed knowledge of it when it’d been nominated, but I didn’t find the past storyline as compelling since I knew where it was going, though I didn’t see the why behind the betrayal. The eventual payoff is worth the wait, though.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: The scope narrows here, going from a massive quest for revenge across an empire to a single space station in orbit around a single planet, though with a much larger cast of characters than the first book. I will be entirely honest, this review isn’t much of a review because I read this one weeks ago and failed to write a review immediately upon finishing, and then COVID-19 happened and my perception of time has turned into dripping molasses, while simultaneously making everything that happened prior to two weeks ago feel like it happened last year. The thing I remember most clearly in this was how so many of the secondary characters on the ship go by title/rank rather than by name and yet, I could tell them apart so easily, the characterization of them was so strong. More and more, however, I do wonder if, perhaps, the guessing of the characters’ gender/sex might be the wrong approach; the more I read, the more I started to feel that the singular pronoun freed characters to act in stereotypical gendered ways without it being a reflection (or subversion) of gender, and the more I read, the more my mental image of the characters flowed. It was an intriguing experience, and though it took me two books to get used to it, I appreciate the approach.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Ah, and the conclusion. One highlight was definitely Seivarden’s outrage over the suppurating cuticles oath. That, and how brilliant Station is and its way of leveraging Anaander in order to keep its citizens safe. Spoilers perhaps, but the end is a bit more open-ended than I’d prefer for a trilogy. The main conflict set up in Ancillary Justice doesn’t, precisely, get resolved. The civil war is still waging. Hypothetically, it might become more difficult for said civil war to continue quite the same way as it did before a certain event at the end of Ancillary Mercy, but it isn’t resolved. I was also a bit surprised that the concept of cloning ancillaries didn’t come up before the very end and it was…not so much dealt with as tabled for later discussion…except, this is the final book, so I suppose it’s up to us, the readers, to decide how that turns out?

A Conjuring of Assassins by Cate Glass: Oooooh, I’ve been waiting for this one for months! And then, when it arrived, I was in the middle of reading a trilogy, so set it aside to finish the Ancillary series first, ’cause I’m not blessed with one of those minds that does well with multiple immersive speculative novels being read at once. Much like the first book, A Conjuring of Assassins takes a little bit to get going, and there is some recap sections that if you’re reading the two back-to-back, might tempt one to skim, but once the mystery of Cinque is answered, the pace picks up and it’s spies and magic and grand con games in order to get closer to the Chimera’s target (the Assassins List). There is also more of a hint of the epic in this one. In the first book, there’s an unanswered mystery that could lend itself to epic fantasy, but here, it’s more overt, and the introduction of Teo (and Teo’s mystery) feels very much reminiscent (and pleasantly so) of the writer’s other epic fantasy series under the name Carol Berg (that hint of the epic, of the almost divine, of magic being otherworldly and beyond human understanding, of parallel worlds, of mind-speech). I look forward to seeing where things go in the next book, and what exactly is magic, and how does it tie in with the long-vanished gods? As a side note, it was both weird and unnerving to read a book so heavily based on Renaissance Italy while simultaneously watching news of the epidemic in Italy as it unfolded.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig: Confession: one trope that I absolutely adore is the one of the old and possibly world-weary immortal/near immortal with centuries of memory interacting with the modern (or near modern) world*–bonus points if there’s a love story (not necessarily romantic love; found family love or platonic love are under-explored with this trope, in my opinion). How to Stop Time somehow managed to slip by under my radar until now, and it’s an exemplar of the trope. I did find the major twist somewhat predictable, but didn’t mind it so much. The romance angle is a great deal more downplayed than what the back cover blurb promised (which was fine). It’s more a story of Tim engaging with the world, realizing that his pattern of isolation and being a recluse isn’t working for him anymore, and that his will to live is slowly, but surely, becoming walled in by fear (of discovery, of death, of change), stoked by Henrich, another alba (or very long lived individual). Much like Ancillary Justice, How to Stop Time uses a dual-timeline structure, though this one is aided by the time period being firmly set in Earth historical past. There is, as a note, far more “past” flashback chapters than “present,” and much of the present is quieter, more introspective. The final resolution of the book’s external conflict is a little ho-hum, but then, it wasn’t really about the external conflict, but the internal one. A small warning, but much of the book has a low-key hum of depression throughout, even though it ends on a rather hopeful note. I, personally, found this resonated with me, but others might find it triggering.


* As much as I claim to be a vampire-junky, it’s not the vampire that engages me, necessarily, but rather this trope of immortal/near immortal, and it just so happens that the most common subgenre containing it is the vampire one, which is why I don’t like all vampire stories, but a very particular subset.

A Month of Books: February

Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven: I will be honest, I was a bit conflicted about reading this book. I love Grace Draven’s other fantasy-romance series, but the Goodreads reviews on this one were sharply split between high stars and low stars, with few in between. After having read it, I’d say I’m still a bit conflicted, but I think I know why. It’s mostly a pacing thing. For the first 100 pages, events happen in a tight chronological order, which lends it a fast-paced, almost claustrophobic opener. The next 200-something pages, the pacing shifts; there’s long stretches that are covered with a short time-passing transition, and months go by rather quickly. Firstly, once you’re past the first 100 pages, it becomes clearly a Grace Draven novel, so if you’re reading and, like me, felt unsure about the beginning, stick with it. For me at least, this choice of pacing and presentation had a fascinating emotional impact. Because of that fast-paced, intense first 100 pages, for a long while after, I found myself braced for it to slip back into that style, and it took me time before I realized that…it wasn’t going to. Which seemed to echo Gilene’s emotional state as she slowly comes to trust Azarion. You brace, ready for the situation to get worse, so much worse…but over time, you come to trust that it won’t. Even when things escalate at the end, it’s a different kind of escalation than in the beginning, and it almost feels safely epic. I will, however, warn that there is a lot of allusions to rape, physical and mental abuse, and slavery, especially at the beginning. It’s a hell of a dark start for what will, eventually, become a rather sweet romance built on trust and friendship, so if this is a concern, then I recommend steering clear of Phoenix Unbound and pick up Radiance instead. That said, for all my initial uncertainty, I enjoyed it.

Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher: As always, T. Kingfisher’s fantasy-romance adventure tales are an absolute delight. This one came as a wonderful and unexpected surprise (I totally was going to read something else but…this was releasing in a week so…). While similar to Swordheart, the tone is more solemn, more somber, a bit more like Clockwork Boys (Paladin’s Grace, for more reason than one, felt a bit like a merging of Swordheart and Clockwork Boys, which, I might note, is certainly not a strike against it), though it has it’s moments of outrageous hilarity. Like Clockwork Boys, we have angsty guilt-ridden paladins yet, like Swordheart, they’re more militant types and, like Swordheart, the romance is pretty front-and-center (well, there’s also the poisoning thing. And the court-room drama. And the, er, heads—it’s a brilliant blend of a lot of different subgenres that work together, though on the surface, they shouldn’t). Like much of Kingfisher’s work, there’s this underlying note of darkness (in this case, someone is murdering people and, er, leaving only the decapitated head around—the answer to that little mystery is a bit disturbing). But Stephen is delightfully outraged that people are not taking this threat seriously! Honestly, this combination of weird and wondrous and tinged with a slight shadow of horror reminds me a lot of Doctor Who (both classic and reboot). Grace, with her sense of smell superpower (it isn’t really, she’s a perfumer so her sense of smell is a bit…keener than the rest of the world, but she also has training to identify smells), and Stephen, with his hobby of knitting,  fit so wonderfully together. And I still love the idea of solicitors sacrosanct and the White Rat, and I was thrilled to see Zale again.

Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher: I’m reading these all out of order. I started with Swordheart, moved on to Paladin’s Grace, and am now doubling back for what was originally the start (not quite of a series, but perhaps more of the world) but I just never quite managed to read it. So! Finally reading Clockwork Boys and I must ask myself why it has taken me so long. I am also going to review these two as one, since they’re very much structured as one novel broken in two, rather than two stand-alones (though, hypothetically, I suppose you could read The Wonder Engine without having read Clockwork Boys). I’m a bit torn on the end. While it’s ostensibly what I wanted, at the same time, I feel a little conflicted about how things resolved (and while I recognize that one character’s death was, emotionally, resonant, I feel I would’ve appreciated the twist being a little less sudden, particularly since I’d grown quite attached to that character). I also felt there were two rather large plot threads that didn’t get addressed all that much, and I’d have appreciated another touch or two, since everything else was bundled quite neatly (Boss Horsehead and the removal of the tattoos, namely; I would’ve really liked things to have come full-circle with a short epilogue addressing the tattoos, seeing that it isn’t explicitly stated that they’re, er, moot). The romance in these two, by the way, is not quite the same sort of fluffy of Swordpoint or Paladin’s Grace, and I appreciated that. The tone here is darker, and the two love interests are so clearly broken people, and certain events lead to a period of grieving which the narrative doesn’t shy from. There’s also so many bits that so brilliantly characterizes the characters in a line or two, making them both complicated and utterly fascinating. While the duology is probably not my favorite, it’s still a damn good read.

No Month of Books for January

I admit, I haven’t done much reading this month. Or, rather, I haven’t done much reading of other people’s writing. I’ve mostly been reading my own. Specifically, that long, still-unnamed fantasy cop drama novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. In order to hit my self-imposed deadline of finishing initial edits/getting the book ready for beta-reads by the end of January, I’ve been doing little else.

Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve also  been playing Skyrim. A lot of Skyrim.

H2x1_NSwitch_TheElderScrollsVSkyrim_image1600w

See, I downloaded the “Legacy of the Dragonborn” mod, and for the past few weeks, have been dividing my free-time between working on edits, and working on filling out my fantasy museum. The mod basically turns you into a fantasy Indiana Jones, and you get to go around Skyrim finding relics and/or putting together your exhibits, and pretty much just making your museum a visually stunning place to walk through.

In some ways, it’s very peaceful. In others…I never quite realized the level of frustration I’d feel hunting for a relic knee-deep in Rieklings, and still being unable to find it because it clipped slightly through the chest it was sitting next to and if you didn’t already know exactly where it was, finding it was next to impossible. Or the annoyance of walking into the armory and seeing that one display that’s missing a few pieces…

I’d also forgotten how glitchy Skyrim can be. So many falling mammoths. So many companions that get stuck in the “dying” animation and just…keep falling over. In doorways. Stopping me from walking.

Gr.

Still, if you’re playing Skyrim on PC and find yourself bored with the same-old, same-old quests and dungeons, and you like having a visual marker for your completionist tendencies, I highly recommend “Legacy of the Dragonborn.” If you’re playing Special Edition, the new and improved, completely overhauled version of “Legacy of the Dragonborn” just released. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks gorgeous.

Thick book.

As for edits, the book isn’t shrinking as much as I’d hoped. What I get, I suppose, for heavily outlining beforehand and editing big-picture stuff as I go. This draft will probably come in at the mid-180,000’s for word count, which leaves me with the puzzle of going with the length OR cutting the book in half and having two 90,000-word books instead.

The danger of the latter is that, firstly, book one won’t “finish,” it’ll end on the cliff-hanger moment-of-change. Secondly, as it is now, the book is a “fair play” mystery, with the murderer and the clues hidden under (a mountain) of red herrings, but hypothetically, a reader could work it out (and they might easily; I won’t know until I get beta-feedback). If the book is split into two, the focus is then less on the mystery and more on the characters and how they go about solving the mystery. There’s also the (smaller) concern that they might appear too short at 90k.

On the other hand, if it remains one book, it’s still 180,000 words. Which is long. Especially for a debut. Especially for a non-epic fantasy debut (it’s probably closer to a fantasy adventure novel than anything else).

Decisions, decisions…

Anyway, A Month of Books will return February.