Magic; Who Gets to Wield It?

Magic can stand in for a lot of things. It can symbolize trickery and deceit. It can represent art, healing, spectacle; it can be about loss, sacrifice, family and love. In epic fantasy, nearly always, the question about who has magic is nearly always a question of who wields power.

In the US, for the past sixty years most epic fantasies have been what my fellow reviewer Bill Capposere calls Restoration fantasies. Restoration in this case is a concept, not a time period in British history. In these stories, the political status quo is to be maintained or restored. There may be a usurper who needs to be overthrown, but the plucky young rebel with his rogue wizard mentor is not going to introduce a parliamentary system with democratic representation. No, he is going to be revealed as the True Heir. The system is just fine, thank you… we just need the right person at the top. Magic supports and enforces that system. It’s Maintenance mode.

Recently, fantasy writers have started exploring what Disruption fantasies might look like, They really do want to lose the monarchy and try a new system. Still the vast amount of stuff that’s out there is Maintenance mode fantasy and magic is complicit in maintaining the existing system.

Magic is often the weapon of the Good Kingdom, which is fighting an Evil Empire. Story tropes and language clue in-clue us quickly; the Good Kingdom’s practitioners are probably called “wizards,” not “sorcerers,” and they answer to the royal family. The Evil Empire has practitioners who probably sacrifice prisoners or hapless villagers as the source of their power. The power of the Good Kingdon wizards will probably not come from human sacrifice even no it is often exactly the same magic. The causes of the war are rarely addressed, or if they are, the Evil Empire has aggressed for no reason. The purpose of this plot is to allow the writer to engage in lots of battle magic.

Writers like N.K. Jemisin and Robert Jackson Bennett write great magical fantasies that put these old unquestioned assumptions under a bright light. Both question the aftermath of the “triumphant” final battle. How do you rebuild? How do you reassure a demoralized civilian population whose crops you’ve burned by mistake in your magical duel, whose businesses you’ve destroyed and whose families you’ve fractured? And make no mistake, that’s not the enemy’s population we’re talking about. Each of these writers in different ways uses magic to discuss exploitation, colonialism and trauma; trauma not only on a personal level but on a societal level as well.

These are some of the things magic is used for, but it’s nearly a universal that only certain people wield magic.

The Royal Wizard and the Hedge Witch

Wizards often represent a power elite and an educational elite; sometimes even a religious ruling class. There certainly are rogue wizards; “sorcerers” who decide to use their magic for selfish reasons, or who go over the evil for some reasons, and the more sympathetic rogue wizards who have a falling-out with the power elite and strike out on their own. A pretty common example is when the power structure is taken over by a usurper, (usually one with a quasi-legitimate claim, like a regent). The rogue wizard gets a bad feeling about this and heads out to the forest, a top of the mountain or a garret in the city, where he (almost always he) waits to find and assist the True Heir, or the True Heir comes to him for aid. This is still in service to the Maintenance model. Once again, we don’t see a lot of university-trained wizards becoming community organizers who help the dock-workers unionize for safety features and better wages.

If you’re self-taught or nearly self-taught, you are probably a hedge magician. Hedge witches and wizards are local practitioners, often attached to a village or some community. They do healing spells, protect the crops and generally help out. A hedge witch may (usually does in fantasy) choose a servant who really is the person they are initiating.  Just like wizards, hedge-witches can go bad; cursing people and extorting benefits from the townsfolk.

A variation on the hedge witch, nearly always female, is the old woman who lives in the woods. Often this character can wield as much power as a wizard, but she keeps to herself. She often doesn’t choose sides in a dispute, or it might be more accurate to say she’s on her own side.

One of these is homespun and somewhat egalitarian; the other is hierarchical, but they share many elements. One is simply the idea that not everyone is magical.

Everybody Sing!

The idea that magic is rare, limited and only available to the elite smells a little bit like capitalism to me. Or maybe marketing. I’m going to digress a minute. Diamonds are expensive gemstones. For years, diamond sellers have told us they are rare. In fact, they’re just not that rare. The diamond cartel decided in the 1940s to limit the diamond supply so they could drive the price up. Diamonds are so common in fact that millions of them a year are used industrially; no one frets about an industrial diamond shortage.

What if magic isn’t rare? What if you didn’t have to be a Chosen One to use it? What if, in your society, everyone had access to to some of it? It could be like music. You’ d have the rare genuine virtuoso. You’d have the passionate magician who has talent, maybe not a lot of it, but works and trains until by sheer strength of will they succeed; you’d have the charismatic, attractive, slightly talented practitioner who relies on a magic version of Autotune to advance. And you’d have millions of people who do karaoke, hum while they’re folding laundry and sing in the shower. People would get together and create magical experiences communally to commemorate weddings, births, milestones, or just for fun.  Old people would shake their head and say, “I can’t understand a thing they’re doing. I remember when magic was good.” Well, why not? Why wouldn’t that work?

The view of magic for a chosen few dovetails nicely with capitalism and colonialism, and it’s nice to see writers and readers starting to question that.

Lately I’ve come across several books that treat magic in yet a different way; as a dangerous intoxicant.

Just Say No

Since the 1990s, addiction and recovery have been huge themes in fiction, especially genre fiction. Magic is a natural drug. Think about it. It (theoretically) makes you powerful, or at least feel that way. Good magical systems in fiction require some kind of consequence; our general narrative about power is that people can’t handle it. What better metaphor than a practice that you become addicted to, that weakens you as it grows stronger? This has the side benefit of being a great plot device because you can create all kinds of suspense for your magical character.

The addiction theme addresses three things, I think; addiction itself and the ruin it wreaks on the mind and spirit; exploitation; prohibitions against using your own power. If your magic comes from within, there’s a warning not to use too much of it. Whose need is being met by that? If magic comes from an external object of substance, they become ripe for exploitation, just as the practitioner becomes vulnerable to a person who controls a substance. Now we’re back to toxic capitalism. The magician is powerful, gifted, but forced to work for someone who uses their power and talent for their own wealth, while they dole out the magic juice of powder.

What if magic was just one more thing in the world, like persimmons, oxygen or magnetic fields? What if it weren’t carved out? How would that fantasy world look? If we think that you couldn’t write fantasy stories in that world because there is no conflict, I would say we aren’t stretching our imaginations enough. What would those stories be?

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | 1 Comment

The Working Rehearsal

Spouse and I listened went to the Sebastopol Library to hear the Santa Rosa Young People’s Chamber Orchestra.  The email notice I got called this event a Dress Rehearsal, but it wasn’t that, as least not by every definition I know. I’d call it working rehearsal, because the lead violin/conductor stopped them at several points, repeatedly, to have them perfect an polish a passage. It wasn’t a concert but it was pretty fascinating.

The first amazing thing was the transformation of this group of mostly teenagers who straggled in, checking their cell phones, sipping their coffee drinks and propping them up on their music stands, into a complex, coordinated music group.
The Young People's Chamber Orchestra

Some of the cellos

Some of the cellos

I don’t know much about the vocabulary of music, and this was like a seminar. Halfway through the first piece, by baroque composer Heinrich Biber. He focused on the first violins, discussing volume and phrasing. It was the first time I’d heard the term “chippy” for bow-work. “I want to sound more… chippy. Not like you’re just sawing with the bow.”

First Violins

First violins

He could tell when one violin came in one/sixteenth too late, or when the cellos were bowing too hard.

The Basses

The basses

I think the community room is not well-designed acoustically for this type of performance, but I could tell the difference between the cohesion and the flow of the sound before and after his tutorials.

The Conductor

The Conductor

We stayed until the first break– they’d made it through two complete pieces.

The performance is Sunday at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma.

Posted in View from the Road | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Running in Slow Motion; A Writing Exercise.

My husband and I have this thing we do sometimes where we run toward each other in fake slow motion* –true, silly, very, very dreadfully silly we have been and are, but why will you say that this is bad? — anyway, sometimes we walk together but sometimes we don’t walk together and that’s not a comment on the relationship but more an indication of separate errands and interests and okay, maybe that is about the relationship but not in a bad way because it means we’ve grown and sometimes when he goes out for a walk he turns north at the sidewalk and then later I go out for a walk and I turn south at the sidewalk and sometimes we see each other in the distance in the middle of this loop and we hold out our arms and lift each leg slowly, sloooowyyy and lean forward and set it doooowwnnn and then the other leg slooowly and lean forward and you get the drift; and sometimes we say in a high-pitched voice, “Blake! Blaaay-ke!” because even though we never actually watched this show that was on called Dynasty we did watch it this one time and there was a thunderstorm and the main guy was unconscious in the rain for some reason and his wife who was named Linda — no that’s the actress — it was Crystal, that’s right, Crystal Carrington, which now that I think about it sounds like it should be a company that makes window treatments like, “Valences and miniblinds by Crystal Carrington” anyway Crystal goes out on horse in the storm I don’t know why a horse but I’m sure there was  good reason – (was it a horse, hon?) (My husband says yes it was a horse) — yelling over the rain and the wind and stuff, “Blake! Blaaay-ke!” because that was the guy’s name, and even though unconscious people don’t usually answer you she finds him and they go home, so sometimes we yell “Blaayke” just because it’s funny and the other day my husband went out for a walk and turned north at the sidewalk and later I went out and I turned south at the sidewalk, only I went out a lot later and I was only about three doors down from our house and I could see my husband and the neighbor was out edging his lawn and I said, “Hi,” and he said, “Hi,” and then he looked down the sidewalk at my husband, looked at me, looked at my husband again and I said, “What?” and he said, “I wondered if you were going to run at each other in slow motion.”

[*Part of this account are fictionalized for entertainment purposes.]

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | Leave a comment

Magical Systems

I had a great conversation with Brandy this week about magical systems. It got me thinking.

I’ve loved fantasy since I can remember. I loved fairy tales as a child, particularly ones where girls went alone into a dark wood and met a figure of power. In the 1970s I read Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, LeGuin and McKillip. I loved them all for different reasons. I read a lot of bad fantasy and I loved a lot of it too, for a lot of different reasons.

Tolkien wasn’t particularly interested in magic. If there was a system he wanted to explore in Lord of the Rings, it was linguistics. There were ghost armies, undead ringwraiths, rings of power (one of which apparently had a mind of its own) crystals that allowed to you see and communicate long distances; there were talking dragons and huge magical eagles, but it was the poetry, the spells and the songs that drew most of his imagination and most of his attention.

Ursula LeGuin envisioned a magical system drawn from a number of sources. These included a spiritual practice or system; nature-based folklore, and study. LeGuin’s magic was often deep knowledge, symbolized by the ability to Name things. LeGuin’s magic required the practitioner to look deep within; far from being a white knights or all-knowing saviors, LeGuin’s magicians struggled with their own darker impulses. Magic practice had consequences in her world. Often, those consequences came from the actions of the protagonists, as they were forced to confront their own blind spots.

Many fantasy novels from the 1970s/80s hewed closely to British Isles folklore and Greco-Roman (often called “classical”) mythology. Experimental writers in the 70s and 80s looked at Asian belief systems and Native American belief systems to inspire their magic. Those experimental writers got lost in the flood of three-book, epic War Against Evil, Got-to-Find-the-Magic-Stuff fantasy series of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, one clue that you were reading a bad fantasy was that magic had no limits. There were no consequences for the wielder; there was often no internal consistency and often no source for the magic. Robert E. Howard’s imaginary warrior Conan lived in a world with this kind of magic, and in the 1980s lots of people who weren’t writing Tolkien Lite were writing Howard Lite; more graphic sex, less sincerity, and endless gouts of magic, probably fueled by gory human sacrifice for reasons that are not explained except Evil Evil Evil.

Should magic have rules? Of course. Spells, rituals, magical artifacts and potions are part of the fun of the genre. One premise of a magical system is that magic is some form of energy. Energy has to be channeled. These are the ways we channel it.

“Rules” doesn’t mean magic is by the numbers. Good magic in a book is high-risk and contains an element of unpredictability. And most fantasy books have a premise that not everyone can do magic. If magic were just a formula, then anyone could do it. That’s a premise too, by the way; open-source versus controlled knowledge (throw open the libraries and share magic with everyone!)

So, what kinds of magic systems are there? Here are some:

Nature-Based Magic:

Here’s my personal favorite. Magic is portrayed as a force on the earth, often tied to “the four elements” (earth, air, fire, water). The elements may be anthropomorphized, with “elemental” beings related to one of the four. A magical human may have a particular affinity for one or more of the four. Some folkloric systems have five elements, some break out the elements differently, but they are based on observations of the natural world.

Herb-magic, plant magic and potions also go along with nature-based systems. In my opinion, blood-magic does too.

Who does it well? LeGuin and Noami Novik come to mind. A writer doing wonderful things with earth-based systems is Nnedi Okorafor, who is drawing from her Nigerian background to create characters who interact with the earth in ways that are new to me, internally consistent, and fascinating.

I’d have to say N.K. Jemisin’s recent trilogy The Broken Earth uses a form of earth magic. In Jemisin’s hands it becomes something completely new.

The Old Magic, The Dark Magic:

An offshoot of nature magic is the sense of older, darker magic, a force, or something, that may be awakened by superficial conjurations, and may not be happy. I think the old magic is a throwback to the times when we didn’t live in such a tech-bubble. Night was frightening, the forest was frightening, because we understood our place in the ecosystem better (in short, we could become prey). But the impulse to the old magic is deeper than just fear that the wolves’ll get you. I think it’s the remnants of reverence. It’s a spiritual impulse powered by the force of nature. In fact, knowing what we now know about trees and fungus and how they communicate, the idea of the dark forest as a place of magic suddenly doesn’t seem so old-fashioned.

The Magic of The Others:

Outsource your magical needs! Just be really careful when you do. Here are a few of magic’s best-known contractors.

The Fae: They were here before us, they aren’t like us, and they have powers that we do not. Interacting with them is highly risky, and can be highly rewarding.

The Devil, or demons: The magician makes a deal with a creature from an underworld, whatever underworld it is. Once again high-risk, high-reward. Deals with demons always read to me like dominance exercises. The magicians impose their will on a fierce creature with powers—or at least that’s what they think they’re doing.

An example of Magic from the The Others, with consequences, is the sword Stormbringer, wielded by Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero. Stormbringer eats the souls of those it kills and feeds the energy of that life force back into its wielder. It could be just a magical artifact, but Stormbringer isn’t. It’s sentient, with tragic consequences for Elric.

What about gods? Surely gods fall into this category. God become magical systems when they provide magically imbued weapons and when they procreate with humans, which is probably the most common god-based fantasy-magical system. A protagonist, or the villain (or both) is half-god. Gods are just as tricky as the Fae or demons. Don’t believe me? Ask the ancient Greeks.

Do gods stand in for a spiritual source of magic? I think rarely. In fantasy (and folklore) gods are super-powered Others. One fantasy writer who is taking a serious look at spirituality as a source of magic is Max Gladstone in his Craft series. Not too long ago, in this world (really far-future earth) human waged a war against the gods and won. They killed the gods, or so they think, anyway. They siphoned off the spiritual power of the gods into quantifiable units called thaums. Where before a priestess or priest used sacrifice or ritual to get a god to power the city, provide fresh water or heal the sick, now people offer units of thaums to get what they need, and larger agreements about the bodies of the dead (not-so-dead) gods is written up in contracts by people of the Craft, who look a lot like lawyers. Gladstone has a lot to say about secularism, spirituality, speaking truth to power and the nature of belief.

Magical Substances:

Drugs! Yes, one of the most reliable sources of magic.

I think maybe “blood magic” could go here as well, especially if the magical practitioner ingests it to get power. Many modern fantasies rely on a specific magical substance; the blood of a magical creature (or its meat or its bones); water from a somehow-magical spring, the leaves of a plant. Devon Monk has a substance called “glim” in her magical steampunk series; brave airship pilots take their ships way too high in order to harvest it. Glim is somehow connected to an age-old and very convenient substance called the ether.

Brandon Sanderson’s popular Mistborn series probably took the “drink some stuff, get magic” system the farthest, with the most detail. For certain magical people, ingesting small amount of metal powder gives them powers. Specific metals provide specific powers, and Sanderson’s book include the tables and appendices that will give RPG-type fantasy readers shivers of joy.

Greg van Eekhout created one of the most innovative “magic by substance” systems in his Osteomancy series, where bones hold the magical essence of creatures.

We can take magical substances a little bit further if we look at the superhero genre. Gamma rays, exploding reactors, and spider bites are all examples of magic being imposed by substance.

What’s your favorite drug magic?

Ceremonial/formulaic Magic:

I’m cheating by lumping these two together. Ceremonial magic relies entirely on the accuracy of each word, each gesture, each glyh. It requires study and drilling, and it’s hierarchical. I think it works based on the idea of affinities, but ceremonial magic is coercive. The magician or wizard is forcing the universe to do their will.

It’s very popular in movies because you can have a great scene at the end where people are shooting at you and the scary monster is also there but no matter what you really have to concentrate and get the spell exactly right! It’s also popular with the people who like magical duels and magical battles, because it seems to be about power. To me, it also seems like, logically, anyone who studied and committed themselves to it could do it. (That concept will become Part Two of this very long post.)

I think it’s possible to put potion magic in this category because a potion uses a formula, but I think potion magic can fit more than one place.

Magic of Whimsy:

Brandy coined that phrase and I like it, so I stole it.

I think the magic of whimsy relies on affinity. Even though the results of magic of whimsy are serious, there is an always an element of play. One fun example is Matthew Swift, the character in Kate Griffin’s books. If I remember it right, Matthew once faces down a magical adversary in the Tube in London by flashing his Oyster card and reading off the back. An Oyster card gives its holder access to the Tube. Big deal, right? Except that Matthew knows that the city of London is 2000 years old, and he confronts his adversary with the moral right, bestowed by the city, to have access. It sounds silly, but it’s good magic. Matthew can evoke creatures out of gutter litter. The city can also inflict creatures of shadow, of paint, of electricity, on its residents because London is almost a living being of great power.

Nobody does the magic of Whimsy better, in many books, than Sir Terry Pratchett.

The magic of whimsy works, I think, because the wielder has, if not respect, at least understanding and affection for the system they are drawing on. That may not be a traditional  magical system. It might be the city you grew up on and have come to love. It might be the folks songs you and your band play. It might be the little vegetable patch you planted with your grandma when you were a kid, that you still maintain. All these things, these things that root your in your live, can become sources of magic.

Magic of Sound:

Word magic. Spells, curses, chants. Words that mustn’t be spoken. Names of things. Humanity’s most powerful tool is probably the most common source of magic.

Sometimes spells must rhyme or scan. Sometimes they must be spoken in a language not known by the common folk; sometimes a dead, or forbidden language. Sometimes they must be sung. Clearly, the idea of vibration hums around the thought of word magic.

LeGuin had the idea of Naming magic; that to know someone or something’s true name connected you with it. It might mean that you have power over it, but in some cases that “knowing” is a lifeline. Naming is about intimacy and trust, powerful things we don’t really understand. A perfect matrix for magic.

The Magic of Numbers:

From numerology to physics, numbers and math are the perfect seedbed for magic. It’s nearly always ordered and structured, but once in a while a writer like Charles Stross gets hold of it and makes it wild, scary and incredibly fun. That’s about all I’m going to say.

What is the purpose of magic? What is the meaning of magic? Who gets it use it? I think I’ll do a second post, about who is in the magic club, and who is out.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | 2 Comments

Annihilation the Movie; That One Scene

Warning; Spoilers probably.

This isn’t a complete review, so here’s a link to the cast and crew, if you’re interested.

I saw the movie Annihilation. I liked it, and I think I will be in the minority.

There were five other people in the theater with me (a weekday matinee).During the movie two people got up and left and did not come back. They weren’t together and they left at different times. Plainly, they weren’t engaged by the film. I understand that.

The film is inspired by JeffVanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The book excels at creating a serious sense of dislocation from reality. The characters, five women on an expedition into a quarantined area, don’t know what they can trust. They begin to lose time, and memory. Directions don’t seem to match what their senses (and their equipment) tells them, and all around them, the wildlife is changing in breathtaking and terrifying ways. Frankly, I wasn’t sure a film could convey the sense of dislocation. Otherness, yes… but genuinely not knowing what you are seeing, feeling, hearing? Growing to doubt the most fundamental sense of yourself? Hard to see how you do that in a film.

I’m not sure writer/director Alex Garland did do it. He did, however, make the quarantined land, Area X, convincing as a landscape unto itself, bound by no earthly rules of physics or biology, in which humans are merely raw material.

One scene sold me on this film. It was terrifying to me – and no, it isn’t the disgusting scene you may have heard about. (Quasi-spoiler: for those of you planning to see Annihilation, if you are squeamish, in the scene that begins, “For those who come after,” be prepared to cover your eyes. Seriously.) No, shortly after that scene, Lena, the biologist main character and two of her colleagues are gagged and tied to chairs by the fourth one, Thorensen, who is not-so-quietly going crazy. The fifth member, Shepherd, was already carried off by a mutated bear-boar-monster. Lena saw her remains. On the verge of eviscerating Lena, Thorensen suddenly hears Shepherd screaming for help. They all hear it. It’s not an hallucination. Thorensen runs outside and vanishes. And then, into the darkened room with the bound and gagged women comes the mutated bear. It roars, and when it roars it also screams from help in Shepherd’s voice.

The scene is shot very dark with weird angles and strong shadowing as the beast paces around them, roaring and screaming. Each growl and roar is a cry from Shepherd, who they couldn’t help, begging for help. It’s surreal. It’s painful. It’s sad. I was hunched down in my seat with my arms crossed over my midriff.

I don’t know whether Garland knows it, but this effect pays homage to a terrifying creature Gene Wolfe created in The Books of the New Sun — the alzabo. The alzabo apparently was brought to earth from another planet. It is a predator, and when it eats a human, it absorbs the memories, yearnings and loves of that human. It is still an alien animal, but its hunger is now mixed with the love of its last prey, so it will come to the house of the loved ones on the person it just devoured and call their names in the dead person’s voice. Hunger and love are inextricably mixed, and the purest emotions of a person’s life become the greatest dangers to the ones they loved.

That’s what the mutant bear was; a mix of the most terrible and most sad. The scene grabbed me, and it’s mostly what I remember about the movie.

Generally, I thought the visuals were gorgeous and while some critics complain that the characters aren’t deeply developed, some of that is straight from the source material (in VanderMeer’s book the characters don’t even have names, just occupations). Yes, the fairly long ending did look like somebody’s idea of an acid trip, but it was a well done acid trip. As I left the cinema it’s that scene, with Shepherd’s voice crying “help me” out of the mouth of the beast that devoured her, that I remember of Annihilation.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Auburn in Winter

I named this “Auburn in Winter” but it is mostly about Nevada City, where, last week, Sharon and I spent a day window shopping and taking pictures.

If you are headed for Reno or the snow, and need a stopover, the Best Western Golden Key Hotel in Auburn is an excellent place. It’s not a Victorianesque B&B, just a good hotel with clean, comfortable rooms, nice amenities including a varied breakfast buffet, and helpful, cheerful, friendly staff. From highway 80 northbound, take exit 121, turn left on Lincoln Way. It’s on your right.

Inside the Alehouse his figure greets you. The week we were there it wore gold Olympic medals.

Inside the Alehouse this figure greets you. The week we were there it wore gold Olympic medals.

Tuesday evening/late afternoon, Sharon and I had dinner at the Auburn Alehouse Brewery and Restaurant. Our server, Jessica, made the meal a delight. Sharon had the Mayan martini; vodka, jalapeno, elderflower liqueur and cucumber. I had a sip. The kick of the jalapeno cuts the floral quality of the elderflower, and the cucumber makes it refreshing.

She had the fish and chips and I had the fried chicken. It’s marinated in a buttermilk marinade, so the two large breast pieces they served were moist and tender, and the batter was crisp, loaded with spices and flavor. I took one whole piece of chicken back to the hotel. The chicken came with sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes.

An elaborate gate... to the past? Or maybe just an alley.

An elaborate gate… to the past? Or maybe just an alley.

Wednesday we went to Nevada City. The sky was blue enough to hurt, and we could see all the way east to the radiant snow-drenched foothills. Many shops in Nevada City close Tuesday and Wednesday, but several of them had pen and paper signs on the door that they would be closed Thursday too, and I assumed this was because of the snow they were expecting.

Fancy door handles on the building that houses several shops...

Fancy door handles on the building that houses several shops…

Nevada City hugs the hills at about 2500 feet. It is the county seat of Nevada County, with a population of about 3,000 people according to the last census. It was settled by immigrants (white people) starting in 1849, the gold rush.

The town has a number of import shops and gift shops; at least three chocolatiers including See’s Candy; an herbal shop; several galleries, and at least two bookstores. We stopped at Toad Hall Used Books first where I found some excellent Jon McPhee books. While we were browsing a woman came in asking for A Wrinkle in Time. The woman behind the counter said they didn’t have it, but recommended Harmony Books, which is down by the river in the old assay building.

...including this carpet and import shop.

…including this carpet and import shop.

The gold rush era buildings are largely stone or brick. Floors can be uneven. Like Grass Valley, the town has a new-agey vibe with crystal shops and gift stores that sell mood rings and meditation aids, and quite a few young people of color, which seems odd to me until I pause and think that this is part of the new age thing. And lots of dogs on leads, most of whom are friendly.

Sharon and I went to Harmony Books, where I found Josh Weil’s latest story collection. The door opened and a woman walked up to the counter and said, “I called a little while ago, about A Wrinkle in Time.” The counter worker said, “Yep, I have it right here.” It was the same woman, searching out the book for her grandson. She wants him to read the book before he sees the movie.

Quan Yin. The Chinese influence is clear in the gold rush towns.

Quan Yin. The Chinese influence is clear in the gold rush towns.

Nevada City Assay Office, home of Harmony Books

Nevada City Assay Office, home of Harmony Books

The Transcript Printing Building. I guess they printed transcripts here.

The Transcript Printing Building. I guess they printed transcripts here.

Walking back, we stopped at the botanica, where the woman behind the counter was getting ready to provide a lesson to a group of first-graders. I wanted to tag along! She took them outside to talk about some of the herbs that she had cultivated along the border, and then they were going to make a salve. I was envious.

I brought my small Canon camera, not the T3i. While it was a beautiful clear day, and comfortable in the sun, the time of day meant it was the worst time for photos, and that certainly shows. Also, the little point-and-shoot doesn’t have a view-finder (a view-finder! How old-fashioned!) so I wasn’t able to frame the photos as well as I would have liked. Still, these might be of some interest.

Office of the Independent. Oh, for the old days of local dailies with cantankerous editors.

Office of the Independent. Oh, for the old days of local dailies with cantankerous editors.

We headed back toward Lincoln Thursday morning. I asked at the front desk if it was snowing in Nevada city, and she said yes, they’d heard it had already started.

We made a detour through Newcastle, where I bought snacks at Newcastle Produce. Sharon recommended them; they have a wonderful deli and I picked up a jar of anchovies for Spouse.

Posted in View from the Road | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Do Second Hand Bookstores Help Writers?

“Used bookstores don’t help writers.”

I bristled when I saw this remark on Twitter. Fortunately this was one of those rare times when, before I fired off a response, I looked around a little, and realized that this stark statement was a response to a specific question.  Someone had asked, “Do writers get any kind of residual royalties when a book is sold as used?”

When that’s the question, the answer is no. Authors make no money off the resale of a particular copy of a particular book, and it doesn’t enter into the tracking the publishers do when they determine if they want to offer a writer a new contract.

Libraries are different. (This was part of the Twitter discussion.) Libraries react to demand, which means they will order — and pay for– additional copies of new books, and those sales do produce royalties and sales number counts.

But used bookstores help writers in other ways. The biggest way is by introducing a curious reader to a previously unknown writer. Let’s imagine a browser picks up Author A’s  2106 book at a second hand bookstore. They pay $5.50 for it, not one penny of which reaches the publisher or the writer. They read it, they love it. Now they are first in line to pay for the 2018 hardcover new book (probably with a 20% discount)– or to pre-order it from Amazon which helps Author A’s sales count numbers. Plus, they probably tell their friends about this great new writer they discovered. In between, they may even track down the 2017 book and pay full price for that one. If they buy it new (full price) that will generate royalties. Admittedly, this is the best-case scenario, but I know people who have done it. I’ve done it.

The tweeter who opined that used bookstores didn’t help writers tweeted again to say that “writing reviews helps writers.” I’m guessing “writing reviews” in this case means on Amazon or Goodreads, not on a review site, the way I do. I’m not sure I see a direct link between reviews and sales. Then again, there is no easy way for us at Fantasy Literature to gather data on reviews and previous sales. It’s safe to say that new books by popular authors that we review do well –whether our review is positive or negative– but those are the rare books that have a marketing budget and a publicity plan from the publisher. Reviews on Amazon, in particular, have become so transparently artificial now that it’s sad to believe they carry weight. (I say that, and I’ve been known to post my thoughts on Amazon.) An enthusiastic review will probably usually help a book, and by extension the writer.

Reviews aren’t the only place to learn about books though. You know where else you can learn about books? At a used bookstore. Used bookstores are gathering places, places of book-related conversation they way new bookstores used to be in the old days. An adventurous reader can hear about all kinds of new stories and writers, and because the price is right, they can choose the adventure without shelling out $25 or more. It is easier to “try out” a new genre, a new writer, when you’re paying less than $10. And I maintain it is easier to browse a book in paper than it is on your Kindle, even if you “only paid 99-cents for it.”

(And if your concern is for “helping the author,” think for a minute about that 99 cents and how it translates, or doesn’t, to royalties.)

Ultimately, second hand books stores are there for readers and people who love books. Many of those people happen to be writers, but it is for readers that these shops exist. Second hand stores nurture and encourage reading. That can’t do anything but help writers.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Television Tuesday; Falling Water, Season Two

Welcome to Television Tuesday; the Wednesday edition. I got behind on blogging this week.


Falling Water returned for a second season, airing Saturdays at 10:00 pm on USA. It’s also available On Demand. I was pleasantly surprised the show got renewed. The second season does not have quite the same level of artistic production values as Season One, and it seems to be playing it safer. It also borrowed some horror tropes in the early episodes, which adds to a general feeling of a loss of confidence in the material.

Mary McCormack joins the cast as Taylor Bennett. I don't think we want to mess with her.

Mary McCormack joins the cast as Taylor Bennett. I don’t think we want to mess with her.

Still, our three principle players, Lizzie Brochere, David Ajala and Will Yun Lee, continue to deliver compelling, layered performances, and this season has added Mary McCormack, and that was a stroke of brilliance.

When Season One ended, Burton (Ajala) had information that would cripple the brokerage firm that was trafficking dreamers, the mysterious Icelandic billionaire Bill Boerd had slipped away, and  Tess (Brochere) was driving out of the city with her son James at her side. Taka (Lee) and Tess’s sister Sabine were tentatively healing their relationship. I know some stuff happened with the Green Tennis Shoe folks (I like to call them the Green Tennies) but I don’t remember what.

Alex. "Are you kidding me right now?"

Alex. “Are you kidding me right now?”

As Season Two opens, Tess and James are living in Connecticut under assumed names. Burton’s legal assault on the brokerage firm has faltered as they circle the wagons. Taka has a new partner, a passionate straight-arrow named Alex who tells him early on that “she knew all the stories about him, but she thought she could work with him.” Things with Sabine take a terrible turn right about Episode Two I think, and it’s hard to see how our dreamers will be able to make things right.

The scary new element is the Shadowman, introduced to us by James, who sees him in his dreams, and in a gruesome and inexplicable murder Taka and Alex investigate. The Shadowman is Freddy Kruger with Cockroaches. I don’t think this was the best choice for the show, although now we are beginning to see the waking persona of this character and it’s getting slightly better. I never watched Falling Water for the gore, though, I watched it for the weirdness, and this season is hewing pretty close to literal and linear.

Tess and Burton, looking skeptical.

Tess and Burton, looking skeptical.

There is still lots to love. Mary McCormack adds a rich layer of suspense and danger, even when the show’s direction of her character isn’t helping her. Alex fully emerges as a character, not just a contrarian, as the season continues. James is now a living breathing boy, and the show wrestles with a common TV problem; you got the kid back (yaay!) and now you have a kid – in a good way. It’s tempting to send James off to his room every time the show needs to deliver exposition and so on… and, to be fair, they do that a lot. But James is not just a boy who has only met his mother in waking life six months ago, he is a dreamer, and probably the most powerful one of all of them. The show has taken the time to have one or two negotiations with him, when he’s wanted to tag along on an adventure that was going to involve chase scenes and guns. Tess desperately wants to keep him safe, but she also needs his abilities. They are walking this tightrope well, so far.

I love Boerd’s futuristic dream-couches with the tube lighting accents. I want one – not for dreaming, just for the family room.

Who wouldn't want a slipper couch?

Who wouldn’t want a slipper couch?

Woody (Kai Lennox), who works for the firm, is a trickster, a shades-of-gray character, who, in a recent episode, took a stand. We’re proud of him for it; we’re worried about him. Clearly, he has endangered himself.

Woody always looked like such a nice boy.

Woody always looked like such a nice boy.

The show has eliminated all of its beautiful water imagery except for an obligatory falling-backward-into-a-pool scene each time one our dreams enters another person’s dreams. It’s unnecessary and a little insulting.

Taka: "I have a bad feeling about my relationship."

Taka: “I have a bad feeling about my relationship.”

This season has added an additional danger for Tess in the form of a follower/stalker who looks like he might be from the Green Tennies group, although we haven’t seen him for a while. Burton finally met the Woman in Red in real life. Her story may be resolved… but I hope not. And they’ve introduced a new dreamer, a woman whose experience mirrors Tess’s in terrifying ways.

I’m happy it’s back and I’m watching it faithfully… I’m not confident there will be a Season Three, but a girl can dream.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Hugos: Let’s Get Ready to Nominate!

It’s award season! Currently, the Hugo committee is accepting nominations, from eligible voters, for the finalist list of the 2018 Hugos. I’m an eligible voter.

The Hugos are complicated! Seriously, there is a voting system that employs ranking rather than “one person, one vote.” Nominating has changed this year, too, although not in a way that’s complicated at this end. I can nominate five works in each category. However, the final ballot will hold six finalists. This difference is built it to slow down the kind of ballot-loading that went on in 2015 and 2016.

During the final vote, I don’t just vote for my favorite one each category; I rank them from one to six. “No Award” is a choice. I can say, “Nope, nothing in this category is worth a Hugo this year,” and vote for No Award as number one. No Award can, and has, taken the most votes in a category in the past.

Right now, though, is the nomination phase. There are so many categories, including television shows, movies, “best related work” in the field of science fiction and fantasy, best short story editor, best novel editor, best pro artist, best fan artist, best fanzine (FanLit’s category), and this year Best Series. Whew! And I left off the most obvious ones; best novel, best novella, best novelette and best short story.

I don’t read a lot of shorter works, although I do read some. I have a pretty good idea what my Five Best Novels published in 2017 are going to be, so I’ll start there. (In some cases I’m linking to my reviews at Fantasy Literature because I don’t want to repeat myself.)

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett. I will also nominate this trilogy, The Divine Cities for best series, even though he’s up against N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.

The Divine Cities is a different take on so-called “second world” fantasy. From the first book, City of Stairs, we were in a newly industrialized world facing issues of racism, colonialism, war, aftermath, and deicide. City of Miracles is, in many ways, the hardest one to read. It’s slower, we share the deep grief of a character who has been a secondary character in the previous two, as he comes to grips with how the trauma of loss in his life has played out. We watch characters treat children like commodities, and we see families crumble, to reassemble based less on blood and more on affinity. And we see miracles. There is no way this is a standalone book, but it is a great book. If you start now you could finished all three before August, when the Hugos will be announced.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno Garcia, is a lovely, sweet romantic fantasy with telekinesis. It has the feel of an early nineteenth century French novel, with a villain we completely understand, even if we dislike her intensely. Moreno Garcia has a gift for tone and she nails it here; the magic is important, but she uses it at the end in a way I did not expect.  This is not my kind of book at all. I picked it up because I like the author. I was delighted by this book and it remains one of my best reads of 2017.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gergory. The biggest stumbling block to recommending Spoonbenders is describing it. It’s a period piece; a comedy about a family of psychics in the late 1990s; it’s about astral projection and telekinesis and psychic powers; it’s a caper book with a coming of age story and a couple of love stories. You see the problem. It’s one of the best books I read in 2017.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle. LaValle created a contemporary dark fairytale horror story that encompasses so much. New parents, the fear and exhilaration of parenthood, racism, social media, trolls, giants, witches, books… I could go on. It’s a no-brainer for a nomination.

Of course I’ll nominate The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. The final book of her Broken Earth trilogy delivered the backstory we needed, the resolution we craved and, probably broke our hearts (it broke mine a couple of times). Her world-building is wonderful in this series, but it is her characters I remember. There are no easy ways out from the problems created in this civilization; there is going to be pain, but at the end there might be justice and love.

The Broken Earth is also eligible to be nominated in the Best Series category, but Jemisin has asked that people not do that. She points out that the first two books each won a Hugo for best novel; she doesn’t feel that she needs the trilogy to get a second bite at the apple. I see her point; if The Stone Sky wins, it wins on its own merits, so to speak, but if the series wins, then two of those books will have two Hugos for what is, basically, the same story. It’s something the Hugo committee is going to have to work on as Best Series evolves.

As much as I loved Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti: Home,” I probably won’t be nominating it for Best Novella. Binti: Home is the middle novella of three linked stories. Binti: “The Night Masquerade” which came out in 2018 is brilliant. I liked “Binti: Home” a lot; I just didn’t think it was as good. I haven’t read many other 2017 novellas this year, so I’ll wait and see what the final ballot brings us. I’m making a private bet with myself that “River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey will be on there, and a strong favorite.

The October 2017 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had a melancholy short story I loved. It was called “On Highway 18” by Rebecca Campbell. There is a supernatural element to the story, but it isn’t cutting edge SF. Instead, it is a thoughtful character study about being a teenager, about freedom and fear, and nostalgia. I will be nominating it. It’s kind of a “manifesto” gesture, but it’s also true that I loved the story.

I will comb through the stories we reviewed to see if anything stands out. I read a lot of shot fiction this year, more than previous years. Almost none of them stay with me.

So much more! “Best show, short form,” means a single episode of a series. “Long form” means a movie, but I will have to see The Shape of Water before I nominate it. As for editors… I simply don’t know.

If you know of any great artists, pro or fan, please let me know. I will probably nominate Brian Fies for “A Fire Story.” (Artists don’t have to be connected with a work to be nominated). Other than that… send me your recommendations.

Posted in Hugos, Thoughts about Writing | Leave a comment

Three French Islands

About twelve miles off Canada’s eastern shores (Newfoundland and Labrador) there are three islands that are still part of France. St Pierre, Miguelone and Langlade sit at the entrance to Fortune Bay. The islands are a French Territory.

As you might expect, the islands have bounced around somewhat in nationality, belonging to France, to England, and then, through the Treaty of Paris, to France again. During World War II they were part of the Vichy government and after that part of Free France. The official language is French, although according to a couple of travel articles, they are bombarded with Western Canadian tourists and students, so they tend to be more patient with non-French-speaking foreigners than the rest of France is. They have fine dining restaurants, bistros and some nightlife.

Probably the islands’ best economic period, though, was during the USA Prohibition period.

Canada had various temperance movements and various types of prohibition itself, mostly province by province. Certainly, during the 1920s it was illegal to ship alcohol to the USA. It was not illegal at all to ship it to France, which, conveniently, was about twelve miles away. Al Capone was apparently a frequent, and welcome, visitor to St Pierre and Miguelone. One article joked that every basement in every house on the islands was turned into keg storage, and while that is probably an exaggeration it may be only a slight one.

My great-aunt Ella lived with us when I was a child. She died at the age of 93, when I was fourteen. In her youth, she and her husband ran a hotel in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. During the 1920s Uncle Frank (I never met him) made trips to Canada to “stretch his legs” about every two months, Ella said. He’d drive most of the way.

She did not go with him usually. Someone had to keep an eye on the hotel when Frank was gone. He would often get home late at night, Ella said, come into her room, because they had separate rooms, and leave a token on her bedside table, a small bottle of Canadian whisky. For the next several weeks, the hotel lounge would be quite popular.

She did go on some motorcar trips during this time period and later. Here she is with three women, probably in the 1940s or late 30s. There is no notation on the back of the photo. I’m looking at that saloon in which they are traveling, and even though it’s a later model than would have been around during Prohibition I think, I’m imaging how easy it would have been to tuck away a few forbidden bottles here and there.


Ella is on the far right in the pale coat.

Ella is on the far right in the pale coat.

Ella never talked about this aspect of her marriage but my father and I both thought that Frank had a woman on the side up there in Canada, and furthermore, that if Ella knew about her, she didn’t care very much.

I wonder if Frank made the occasional short trip to France while he was “stretching his legs” in Canada. I don’t think he was a dedicated rum-runner. I think he was a hotelier with a commitment to good customer service. And if he was able to sell a few other merchants in Mattapoisett some liquor along the way, well, it’s good to get along, isn’t it?

An aside; motorcar travel was high-risk in the 1920s, as you can see here. And are they standing on train tracks?

Two roadsters wrecked while spectators stand by. Cars have always been a risky business, even on Oct 29, 1922.

Cars have always been a risky business, even on Oct 29, 1922.

This entire rambling blog post exists because I think having France in such close proximity during Prohibition is a great tidbit for fantasy world-building. Everyone is writing about Prohibition right now. (Actually, everyone wrote about Prohibition two years ago and it is getting published now.) Still, with the states decriminalizing marijuana and the feds refusing to accept those laws, Prohibition is a good fictional model for certain things that are happening now. Imagine a rum-running hotel owner and his wife (perhaps magical?) … and three French islands off the coast of Canada.

Much later in her life, Ella (front right) on a Holland America cruise ship.

Much later in her life, Ella (front right) on a Holland America cruise ship.


Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment