If You Like Fantasy, or Love Language, You Should Read The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Don’t take my word for it. Read Jana’s review.

I’ll be adding my thoughts to hers in the next few days, but I wanted to leave a note about the book here because it is so beguiling and good.

The first thing of Leckie’s that I read was Ancillary Justice. I was caught up in the strange mindset of the unusual main character, intrigued by the world she inhabited, and challenged by the pronouns Leckie used. Leckie gave us an empire; the imperial language was gendered, with only one gender specified, the female one. If you don’t understand how this could work, remember back to when people in school told you that in English, words like “he,” or “man” or “mankind” were considered inclusive of women and were in effect gender neutral. Now, imagine a language where words like “she” or “daughter” encompassed both genders. Not confusing at all, right? Proves conclusively that the whole “‘he’ is gender-neutral” thing is true, right? Think again.

The Raven Tower does not have a conquering empire imposing its language on the colonized, but language, at least in the minds of the gods — and there are gods — can change reality, and gods speak with caution, and convolutions.

And that’s only part of the story. The two storylines, one in first person, one in second person, one covering millennia, one covering weeks, converge in an ending that is satisfying, startling and perfectly developed over the course of the book.

The biggest draw, of course, is not necessarily the elliptical language of the gods or the patient, careful plotting of the narrator, but the characters, and the intriguing nation– and world — Leckie creates.

Check out Jana’s review, and then go check out the book.

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NOS4A2: The TV Adaptation Commits the Cardinal Sin of Horror

Horror may scare you; it may disgust you. It may create a sense of creeping dread. There are many kinds of horror; psychological horror, morbid horror, splatter horror, post-apocalyptic horror, body horror (which is different from splatter). Whatever type of horror a book, a film or a TV show is, it mustn’t be boring. AMC’s adaptation of NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, is boring. I binge-watched it, and I’m tempted to whine and say that I wish I could get those ten hours back.

I hadn’t read the book, although I bought a copy and started it earlier this week. It’s already about fifty times less boring than the first season of NOS4A2.

Part of the problem is in that sentence –“first season.” Not having read or even looked closely at the book, I didn’t know it was 700 pages long. The joke’s on me. There is no way this story could be encapsulated in 10 episodes. Probably, it needs at least 3 seasons, and more likely 5. And I won’t be there for them.

I’ll say this; production values are good. The 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith which is the villain’s car (or maybe something more) is thing of beauty. Ashleigh Cummings, who plays Vic McQueen (short for Victoria), is an excellent young actor who is doing the best she can to keep this turgid drama afloat. Jakhara Smith who plays the psychic medium Maggie also does a fine job. Zachary Quinto plays Charlie Manx, the villain and CEO of Christmasland, a place where children who are stolen from their parents are spirited off to.

Like Charlie Manx, Vic is a “strong creative,” able to part the membrane between the “real world and the world of thought,” and to create “inscapes,” other realities. Christmasland is an inscape. Vic’s is an old covered bridge that was long ago torn down in “the real world;” the bridge also helps her find lost things. A strong creative needs a way to part the veil between worlds. Maggie calls this “a knife.” Vic’s is a motorcycle. Manx’s is the Wraith — except there’s a strong sense that the Wraith is something more.

So, really, it seems like there’s a lot here that should be scary: kidnapped children trapped in the backseat of the Wraith, who slowly turn into vampires; mothers drugged, raped and killed, and eerie Christmas images. Charlie Manx, a parasitic child-stealer, always offers his child victims a candy cane.

Other than a plodding approach to the story-telling, there are a couple of obvious problems with the adaptation. The first is the interpretation of Manx. Manx in the book is creepily fake-jolly, as befits a Christmas-themed demon. Quinto, obviously following direction, pays Manx as a Zachary Quinto Villain. He’s stern, menacing and intense. It’s hard to see how this villain became so enamored of Christmas.

Secondly, it seems as if, to compress the story (which in the books covers decades, with Vic maturing from an eight-year-old to a mother in her mid-thirties), the showrunners opt for a Chosen One trope, or at least a Special Girl. When Vic first uses her “knife” to find something lost, the Wraith reacts. Manx pulls out a magical map and a section lights up. At that point, he begins to search for Vic. This changes a vital dynamic from the book. In the book, an angry, rebellious, teenage Vic gets on her bike and goes, specifically, “looking for trouble.” Her knife takes her to Manx.

Turning Vic into an object of Manx’s desire, to a Special Girl, removes her self-determination and, to use a hackneyed expression, her agency. It turns supernaturally frightening Manx into a proficient sexual harasser and little more.

I was deeply disappointed in Manx’s human minion, the Gasmask Man, who is intellectually disabled. Played with virtuosity by Olafur Darri Olafsson, the character is a negative stereotype. To my surprise, the character in the book is a negative stereotype too. Part of the problem is that the show insists on making Gasmask Man a school custodian at Vic’s school, and they are friends. But he’s also a rapist and serial murderer, so the friendship is nasty — not scary, just nasty.

Those are the big problems. Smaller problems include the dismal pace and the constant argument between Vic’s troubled parents (it’s one argument over and over); the townie-versus-rich-kid-romance that goes nowhere, the art school application and desperately labored attempt to make it dramatic (everyone who thinks that Vic is going to graduate and go off to art school, raise your hand) and the overuse of symbols and lingering shots meant to convey Depth and Meaning. (I’m looking at you, pinwheel flowers in Gasmask Man’s front yard.)

Christmasland had the opportunity to be something crazy-wild, beautiful and frightening. Instead, it’s a tawdry amusement park. In a way, it’s the best example of what’s wrong here.

I’ll keep reading Joe Hill’s 700-page book because the troubled, damaged Vic is a compelling character; Manx of the book is a jovial, conniving horror and the Wraith is a powerful demon in its own right. Now this is horror.

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Almost Nearly Pretty Close to Done

Nope, not a work of fiction: the living-room-to-library process.

Today I sat in the converted room with my baby laptop, writing, pausing now and then to glance up at the bookshelves, listening to KDFC on an old-fashioned boombox. I could have listened through the laptop (I’ve done it before) but I liked the boombox better.

On the other side of the room, the east-facing window-wall, are two single book cases that used to hold only mass market paperbacks. One now holds the books I have designated as Giveaway books for Fantasy Literature, and my To Be Read (TBR) pile. (This is optimistic and misleading, since I’m not including the pile by the chair, the two books in my car, and the stack by the bed, all of which are To Be Read.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with the other case yet.

It doesn’t look like very many books, but admittedly this is after a several-week process of winnowing (and doesn’t include the books still on the other two cases). There is a rudimentary charging station at the lower left, which still looks unsightly. I haven’t quite figured out how to address that yet, but I will.

I’m surprised that of the fiction I’ve decided to keep so far, I only have about 200 books. That comprises about 96 authors. To my pleasant surprise, 55 of those authors are women (57%). I suspect that if I counted books by men versus books by women, that percentage would flip, though — more than flip. I still think I read more novels and short fiction by men than by women.

Not pictured is the section with poetry, where the Romantics are (lamentably) over-represented; and the measly little section containing My Works. I hope that grows with time.

I now await the infamous Comfy Chair, which should be delivered o June 11. I am debating getting two comfy chairs. It wouldn’t break the budget.

Updates will continue as needed.

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Living Room to Library; Phase Three

An update to the leisurely upgrade of our step-down living room into a library space. Phase Three has begun. The bookcases have arrived!

The four cases arrived on Saturday, May 25. The cabinet maker who made them said he was sure they’d be delivered by 1:30 pm that day. None of us was ready for the volume of holiday weekend traffic on Saturday, which oozed northward at the speed of sludge. I saw this firsthand as I drove down to Martinez to pick up a friend; NB 101 was a parking lot at 12:30, and there was no way a truck coming from San Francisco would be at our house by 1:30. Sure enough, when our friend and I got home at 4:30, Spouse informed us that the cases had beaten us by about half an hour.

The figurine, craft cart and rolls of paper have been relocated. I’d originally planned to put one of the new cases along the north wall but on reconsideration we’ve decided all four will go along this one. Spouse plans to cut out a rectangle from the bottom of the third from the left, so that the heat register is not blocked.

The horizontal piece across the top, which Spouse calls a cleat, is so that he can bolt the cases without risking splintering the backs.

Bookcases aren’t bookcases without shelves.

Anyone who has assembled bookcases probably recognizes these. I don’t know what the name for them is (brackets, maybe?) but they hold up the shelves.

Four of these go into the drilled holes along the walls (at the same height) to hold the shelf.

Arranging the various heights of the shelves will be my job. Shelving the books will also be my job. Figuring out where the lamps go, and making the final decisions on the Chair Question, are my jobs too.

Speaking of books, the two on the coffee table, left to right, are A Fire Story, by Brian Fies, and Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, and it is an advanced reader copy. You can preorder it here.

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Writing Updates

I thought the Kickstarter for the “Families and Magic” anthology was funded; yesterday we hit $501. Today, however, one of the other writers pointed out that one backer has withdrawn and we are below our $500 goal again. I’m assuming this project will not fund, but the crowdfunding runs until Tuesday, so it could happen.

UPDATE: The crowdfunded project is now, again, fully funded as of May 26. 2019.

I finished the rough draft of the indirect sequel to “Tea and Vengeance.” “Tea and Vengeance,” which, as objectively speaking as I can speak, is the best thing I’ve ever written, is still couch-surfing at Tor.com, waiting to find out if Tor.com will be its forever home.

Wow, that reads really maudlin.

I’m excited that I’ve got a working draft of the sequel (working title “Knight of Cups”). I call it “indirect” because it is set in the same world as “Tea and Vengeance,” with two secondary characters from that story becoming the MCs of this one.

I’m worried that it’s not a novella since it’s currently 71,000 words long. That’s 11,000 over the top word count for most novellas. So, it’s in novel category… admittedly, a fairly short novel. The thing needs work, though, and doing that work might change the length in either direction. I don’t know what will happen at this point.

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Television Tuesday: Mortal Engines, Beautiful and Dumb.

I paid $7.99 to watch Mortal Engines at home on my TV. The film is like some people you may have met. It’s beautiful. It’s as dumb as a box of rocks.

It was a Saturday night and I enjoyed a nice vodka drink while I was watching, which is how I recommend anyone who wants to see this steampunk fantasy watch it. Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, both closely associated with The Lord of the Rings films, were heavily involved (Jackson bought the rights to the book and was a producer; he and Boyens cowrote the screenplay.) The film runs over two and a half hours, but be thankful; this is Jackson – it could have dieseled on for another hour. And frankly “dieseling” would not be the wrong verb.

It starts, as many bad movies do, with voice-over narration. Okay, that’s unfair. Many fantasy films have to start with a screen-crawl or narration to set the scene for the alternate world. In this alternate world, a thousand years ago, the Ancients created the 60-minute war, destroyed their civilization and ruptured the earth’s crust. Yikes! Evidence later presented strongly indicates that “the Ancients” were us. Now, in a supposedly altered world, cities mounted on huge tank-treads roam the countryside, harpooning and “ingesting” smaller wheeled settlements. Picture giant cannibalistic parade floats.

Hester is on a “small Bavarian mining town” on treads that gets eaten by the city of London – yes, that’s right, London. London “crossed the land bridge” and is now rolling around greater Europe (I guess?) wreaking havoc. I assume Parade Float London wouldn’t fit through the chunnel. Anyway, London harpoons the cute little wheeled stage-set thing she’s on, reels it in, pulls off all the people and starts breaking down the town as fuel for the thing that powers London. Thaddeus Valentine, who’s a London bigwig (and the villain) comes down to the lower levels to scavenge for “ancient tech,” and Hester tries to stab him. Which was her plan all along! She meant to get captured! Valentine killed her mother and she wants revenge!

Meanwhile, on rolling London we meet Katherine Valentine, the villain’s scholarly daughter, and the handsome Tom, the co-hero… and some swarmy upper-class guy who’s name I don’t know. Kind of a minion, anyway. Tom also goes to the lower levels to scavenge tech. He saves Valentine from being killed (which—drat! Because then the movie would have been over.) He chases Hester through a series of weird CGI tunnels that Spouse and I thought at first were part of the processing plant for fuel. Turns out they’re not. Hester tells him that Valentine murdered her mother, then jumps to her death. Valentine shows up. Tom tells him what Hester said, and Valentine shoves Tom off the balcony down into the gaping maw that Hester leaped into, to his death. Only we know they aren’t really dead because it’s only the first ten minutes of the movie.

From there we get a series of adventures that want to be connected. On London, we learn more about Valentine’s dastardly plan, not to power the city of London as he has said, but to go invade a bunch of “tractionless cities” behind a great wall – or should I write,  a Great Wall –with a re-created Ancient doomsday weapon called Medusa, because what could possibly go wrong? Katherine starts to get suspicious and partners with a lower-class guy whose name I don’t know either who was a friend of Tom’s, and they suss out the weapon.

Meanwhile, Hester and Tom slog through the giant tread tracks, escape one group of slavers from the south (“the south” being a clue for a sequel, I think) only to fall into the hands of another batch of slavers. By the way, the slavers make fun of Hester’s looks because she has a scar on her face.

While Hester is being auctioned off, she and Tom are rescued by Anna “Wind-flower” Fong, a “tractionless city” activist. Rather than discuss Anna, well-played by K-pop star Jihai, I’ll just quote some dialogue between Spouse and me:

Spouse: Isn’t this a steampunk movie?
Me: Kinda, yeah.
Spouse: She’s totally cyberpunk. Look at those glasses. She’s in the wrong movie.
Me: Shhhh! Don’t say that! She’ll go away and then there will be no one interesting to watch.

Only! They aren’t completely rescued because there’s this android guy called “Shrike” who lurches around yelling “Hester,” only it’s “Hesss-tarrrr!” like he’s a leftover from Talk Like a Pirate Day.

By the way, now might be a good time to insert one of many, many world-building problems. Theoretically, the earth’s crust is badly damaged and there are no resources, which is why cities roll around on tractor treads (disregarding how much energy that expends). While Hester and Tom are on the run, we see several shots of forests, snow-capped peaks and oceans. The earth’s surface actually looks pretty good except for those gigantic tread marks bollixing everything up.

Somehow, Parade Float London has fuel for a bunch of long-and-short-range flyers along with everything else. London also has a prison that walks on stilts and follows them around (I guess?) which had been holding Shrike, only Valentine let Shrike out and then destroyed the prison for no good reason except he’s the villain.

Valentine did kill Hester’s mother Pandora, who discovered a box of ancient tech (get it? Pandora? Box?), but before she died she managed to give Hester a necklace that’s Very Important. Hester tried to fight Valentine and he slashed her face, giving her the scar; she ran into the marshes (because water, like oxygen, arable land and vegetation, is not a problem) where Shrike found her and raised her. Shrike’s hobby, if androids or “resurrected men,” can have hobbies, is refurbishing creepy doll heads that are amazingly undamaged after a thousand years. He wanted to turn Hester into an android, but she said “no” and ran away; hence, the Shrike subplot.

Another snippet of dialogue will demonstrate some of the world-building problems:

Me: How come London’s the only city rampaging around? We don’t see Paris behaving badly. Or Madrid.
Spouse: Madrid can’t make it over the Pyrenees.

Honestly, the Shrike subplot probably worked out well in the book. Probably lots of things in this unbelievable world worked better in the book. For instance, an actual relationship probably really does develop between Hester and Tom. Back on the parade float, Katherine probably really does struggle as her discoveries make her question her loyalty to her father. Possibly even the concept of parade float cities is explained in a way that is mildly plausible.

Anyway, if I tell you the story is about Valentine building the weapon and rolling London right up to the Great Wall of the East, and that Wind-flower has a flying machine and Hester has a magical necklace that is connected to the weapon, you can probably figure out what happens.

If I tell you that Pandora Shaw, Hester’s mother, worked for Valentine, and then tell you there’s a secret about who Hester’s father is that is saved until very late in the movie, can you guess what it is? Can you?

The “surface” of the film – plotting, characterization, world-building – is so skimpy that it doesn’t even leave time for some of the deeper, unsettling problems; the whiteness of the population; the Good Asians behind the wall, the refugee questions. Maybe these are addressed in the books.

A film about rolling cities that actually had a story, a plot and character motivations would open the way for a discussion about privilege and complicity, and might even leave us wondering why the people behind the wall are Good Asians and why there are so few people of color aboard Parade Float London… but this movie too thin to get us there. If you want a compelling actioner about rolling societies, watch Mad Mad; Fury Road and then the parade scene in the comic classic Animal House.

Oh, here’s a weird problem; the soundtrack was actually intrusive!

Is anything good about the movie? Yes. See my first paragraph. The sets and the CGI are gorgeous. It is an effects-aganza. If you like Big FX films, and you have a large screen TV, get the adult beverage of your choice and settle in. Performances aren’t terrible although they can’t save it. Hugo Weaving, who plays Valentine, doesn’t really start chowing down on the scenery until the final quarter of the film. The film cast Very Pretty People (they don’t get much prettier than the guy who plays Tom). Anna, or Wind-flower, has a beautiful flying device.

For this film, the way to watch it is with zero expectations, a fellow watcher who loves to mock bad movies, and a drink in your hand. Maybe make it a double.

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The Copy-editing Experience

I’ve always had copy-edits from editors who had published my stories. Usually they were small (these were short pieces). No matter how carefully I think I’ve reviewed a manuscript, or how many times, I can never get beyond ten pages without, months later, finding a dropped word, or the same work used twice ( “she reached for her her keys,”) or completely the wrong word, like “any” for “and.” And when I say, “Ten pages,” I probably mean “two.”

I often find typos on this blog, even when I’ve read every post more than once, so there you have it.

Wednesday morning I sent back the manuscript with my changes and comments. I think I had a good copy-editor. Her name is Alisha. I didn’t agree with everything she suggested, but I appreciated her keen eye. And, by the way, let me just say, “I hate Track Changes.”

Some of Alisha’s Deletions/Insertions and Comments had to do with Falstaff’s house style. For instance, I have breaks within chapters that designate shifts in point of view. I separate these sections with one asterisk. Falstaff uses three. Alisha had to find every one of my single asterisks and add two more. Every. Single. Time. And I had to accept them. Every. Single. Time. I could not figure out a way to do something like “Accept All.”

I had a similar experience with a thundering herd of commas. I have been changing my style around commas, and Alisha changed it back. I accepted all those Comma-inserts. And there were lots. Lots.

Yes, I do think that I could have argued about the commas, cited some grammar resource and left them out, but, honestly, I didn’t care that much. It was the tedium that got to me. And if it was tedious for me, think about how it must have been for her.

There were places where she felt a passage was not clear or was badly sequenced. Here, she did not make a change herself, but simply wrote the polite and neutral, “consider revising.” In 90% of those situations I agreed with her and made some sort of change

That left the other 10%, which were often choices of my personal voice and style. In one place, she wrote, “A phrase like [SOMETHING SOMETHING] might go well here,” and I replied, “Not my style.”

In a couple of places I fumed a bit because I was using language to highlight culture differences between my two main characters and I had taken some pains to do that. For instance, in one scene, Trevian, who is not from around here, sees a picture of Erin and her family at a picnic. The tables are festooned with streamers of blue, white and red. I intentionally scrambled the old “red, white and blue” to show the readers that the color order had no real significance for Trevian. Alisha: “This is not the usual order here. Is this intentional?” Me: “YES!!” (Okay, no caps and no exclamation points.)

In one specific place she used a word that is not the acceptable past tense. It isn’t modern, it isn’t second place but acceptable, it’s just wrong. I didn’t accept her change. Since I had about twenty places with erratic spacing between words (two spaces instead of one), several dropped words and the ravening horde of commas, I think she’s entitled to one mistake.

When I didn’t want to accept a change, I wrote “Stet” in the Reply to the Comment. “Stet” means “let it stand.”

I’m not sure what happens when I write “Stet.” It could be that the manuscript comes back with me with a more persuasive argument for change. I suppose, absolute, extreme worst case scenario, the publisher could refuse to publish the piece if I didn’t make a change. (“We like this books, but we really want the phrase, ‘she simpered’ instead of ‘she said,’ here, and we won’t publish until you fix it.”) Somehow I doubt it though.

So, off it went, Wednesday, May 8. And sometimes after this date, we’ll see what we see.

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Kickstarter Update

On Monday, May 6, my interview appeared on the crowdfunding site for The Wand That Rocks the Cradle, and on Tuesday the site shared an excerpt from one of the stories scheduled for the book.

Check it all out here!

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A Positive Review

Chris Fried reviewed Beyond the Stars; Unimagined Realms. He gave the entire anthology five out of five stars, but then he singled out three stories he liked a lot, and mine, “Adagio for Tiamat Station” was one of those three.

Chris not only liked the story, he understood the story. That’s so gratifying. A few folks in places like Goodreads have mentioned the story in nice ways, and some of them didn’t really understand it. In one case, a reviewer described the genesis of the piece of music referenced in the title as “a humble servant girl inspires a composer to create a song…” and I was pounding my head on my desk saying “Nonononono…”

It was nice to read Chris’s take, who understood the origins of the music and why the piece keep reoccurring, and why it matters to the character at the end. His review reassures me that I did my job; I communicated what I meant to communicate.

Anyway, it’s a nice note to end a week on!

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Kickstarter! Or, an Exercise in Self-Promotion

I had a short story called “Bellwethers Know Best” accepted for the anthology The Wand That Rocks the Cradle. The theme, as you might have intuited, is “families and magic.”

LeGrange Press has a Kickstarter to raise the final bit of money to publish the anthology, and here’s the link.

I hope you keep checking out the Kickstarter site even if you don’t want to donate, because our publisher will be adding some great material. Bonus stories, including my flash piece “Location, Location, Location” (which appeared originally in Daily SF), will appear in the updates, along with some interviews with the authors (including me!). Keep checking back for those updates.

Bonus! Our first interview, Joanna Hoyt, provided a goat kid photo. Baby goats, you guys!

“Bellwethers Know Best” is one of my more lighthearted stories, even though it deals with sibling rivalry and the struggle you can have with a powerful, charismatic parent… especially when that parent, a former reality TV star, is a ghost.

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