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Marissa Lingen

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Short-short for your Monday morning [Oct. 20th, 2014|07:48 am]
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(It will not get longer if you read this later than Monday morning.)

Here is a new short story from me and Daily SF: Emma Goldman: A Biography for Space Aliens. As you will see at the top, this is in the Gronklorf and Fizzoom Notable Earthlings series. Gronklorf and Fizzoom’s Notable Earthlings! Buy the whole set for your spawn!

Or just read this one for free. Your call.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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It’s what you know that ain’t so: the high fantasy edition, volume 37 [Oct. 18th, 2014|12:46 pm]

I can’t count how many volumes of high fantasy I’ve read that get categorized as inspired by medieval Western Europe. By this I mean I don’t feel like trying to estimate, because I have a spreadsheet that goes back over a decade and marks things by genre (“speculative,” though, rather than “high fantasy”–so it would be incredibly tedious). Point being: lots. Many to most of them pre-gun. Many to most of them featuring, at least peripherally, soldiers and armies.

Almost all of them have the soldiers in some kind of uniform.

If the soldiers are a major part of the narrative rather than “I passed a soldier in the street” (recognized by uniform), learning to march in step is almost always a part of the story.

And yet. Here’s the passage from Essays in Swedish History, specifically “The Military Revolution”:

The demand for unanimity and precision of movement led naturally to the innovation of marching in step, which appears at some date impossible to establish about the middle of the seventeenth century. And the principle of mass-subordination, of the solution of the individual will in the will of the commander, received a last reinforcement with the slow adoption of uniforms: ‘without uniforms,’ said Frederick the Great, ‘there can be no discipline.’ The process was already observable in the 1620s; but it was scarcely complete by the end of the century. The long delay is easily explained. As long as body-armour remained general, uniforms were scarcely practical; and even when armour was abandoned, the common use of the sword-resisting buff-coat prevented for a time a general change.

So…yeah. It’s not that movement in unison was unheard-of (if you have spears or pikes, you pretty much have to coordinate the movement–although in those cases shuffling together is sometimes as good as marching in step), and it’s not that nobody ever had clothes alike. But “this section of the army is so-and-so’s guard” is very different from “the entire army has a uniform.” If you look up “Flemish painting soldiers” or “Dutch painting soldiers” or either of those two ethnicities with “siege of” instead of “soldiers,” you will get paintings of people not dressed alike. Because they are off duty? Not in the sieges! No, because uniforms were not standard. Because an armband or something in your hat was what you had, more or less.

Here’s the thing: you can do this if you want, in your secondary world, even though it was not at all standard in this world in that period. You can do it no problem. “In my world they got there sooner, as a standard.” Fine. It’s one of the benefits of making it up. It’s a little dicey that so many people seem to want to. But you can jump on that bandwagon if you wish. Here’s the thing, though. Yesterday I read a blog post by Mark Lawrence in which he was talking about some of the questions he gets asked about why fantasy–his in specific–is “conservative” in some particular ways. And one of his answers–one of the standard answers–is that if the world is not focused on (in his example) a world with six suns or a complex symbiosis with aliens, putting those things in will bog down the book. And sure, yes. I get that. We end up talking about this when we talk about ways to draw on history, especially at Fourth Street–that of the cool ideas we discuss, it will be hard for any one book to take on all of them, because they will all take word count. It sounds like some of the questions Mark Lawrence is getting are pretty unreasonable, and I don’t mean to say that he does this specific thing–haven’t read his stuff.

But what I’m saying is: efficiency does not account for all of the conservatism of high/epic fantasy. sometimes the forms of “conservatism” that readers are noticing are historically inaccurate and bog down the book, and also are missing opportunities to be interesting. The books that I read that describe the soldiers’ uniforms, or describe soldiers learning to march in step: they are taking word count to make something simultaneously more generic and less historically accurate to the time period and general location that gets the credit for inspiring high/epic fantasy. It can be a phrase here and there, or it can be entire chapters. But in this case either historical inspiration or imagination would give you something more interesting than the blurred carbon copy of a misconception.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, early October [Oct. 17th, 2014|06:19 am]

Lauri Anderson, Children of the Kalevala: Contemporary American Finns Relive the Timeless Tales of the Kalevala. This…well, the connections to the Kalevala are less intense than a person might hope, if a person is a Kalevala groupie. On the other hand, there are a few things that are…pretty much on the nose, if you know Yoopers. And if you don’t know Yoopers and would like to, I can’t really come up with a better reference.

David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal. Too concise. I thought of leaving my commentary at that, because it amused me, but there really were some interesting bits–the windmill whistles, the women in North Portugal in 1846 revolting two years before the rest of Europe. I’m just glad we have another, less concise history of Portugal sitting around, because they’re not easy to come by, and this one skimmed many of the figures for whom I wanted a history of Portugal in the first place.

Steven Brust, Hawk. Discussed elsewhere.

A. S. Byatt, Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories. These are pretty patchy. The last story in the latter volume is tone-deaf on the topic of anorexia and really should be avoided, not just by people who find that topic personally difficult, but by people who are looking for interesting, well-written stories–this is a case where “trigger warning” is less applicable than “not worth being triggered by,” for those who are in that circumstance. Some of the others are differing degrees of charming and interesting, but on the whole Byatt’s stronger short stories are elsewhere.

Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, eds., War Stories. A fairly uniform type of war story despite the variations in trappings. Three stand-outs in high quality, in different sections, so that was pleasing: Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Radio,” Yoon Ha Lee’s “Warhosts,” and Karin Lowachee’s “Enemy States.”

Siri Hustvedt, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves. I am interested in neurological conditions, and I have seen them interestingly discussed in memoir form (Oliver Sacks, basically). This…is not that. This is very short, is what can be said for it. There are some good sentences in it. Meh. MEH.

Laurie R. King, A Grave Talent. Chaz reminded me that Laurie R. King exists and also that someone (Liza?) gave me a book in her non-Holmes series that I found quite readable lo these many moons ago, so I went to find another from the library. This one is a little sad from this historical vantage, because it’s so carefully working the reader up to being willing to read about a protagonist who is in a lesbian relationship (not gendering the protag’s partner, Lee, for half the book), and from here it’s like, oh, honey, we’re willing! I promise, just tell us about the murder she solves with the brilliant painter at the heart of it, her family life is fine, really. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this kind of easing the reader in King felt needed doing as the series went on, since this type of mystery series is sort of meant to be picked up at random, and yet history was marching on even as she has been writing them.

Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. I do like how Ross King talks about the details of doing things. In this case there are all sorts of bits and pieces about frescoes, what can go wrong with them, what can make them crumble and molder and generally misbehave, short-term and long-, what made for a more prestigious fresco painter, how it all worked. I like that sort of thing very much, and he does it well. He does it so well, in fact, that I went to my library list to go request another of his books, having been reminded of how much I liked this one.

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932-1940. Well. There was plenty of Winston Churchill in this, which means plenty of entertaining anecdote, plenty of quip and plenty of perfect zinger, many a line well growled or intoned, many a jaw-dropping upper-class English situation. But I had to put the book down several times not only because it is such a brick that it hurt my neck to read it, but also because William Manchester is such a hideous jerk that he found all sorts of opportunities to make me gasp at how awful, how very very awful he was. And note: this is a bit like the Heinlein bio in that Winston Churchill was not a perfect sweet little angel who could never have offended a soul, and yet his biographer! His biographer could not just leave it at the places where his subject was actually offensive! No no no no! He had to do things like saying staggeringly offensive things about German war widows who were driven to prostitution to survive, repeating the German slander about the Polish cavalry (pop quiz: is it the same to be cornered and slaughtered when you are with your horses as to be so stupid as to think your horses will be great against tanks?), sympathizing with the Russians for of course invading Finland I mean who wouldn’t, and comparing Norway to–I am not kidding–a woman who was available to everyone once she’d been raped. (Note: using a mythological reference for that last comparison does not actually make it less offensive THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.) And as in the Heinlein bio, it is done gratuitously. Certainly, a biography of Churchill of this period will require some sense of what’s going on in the war (or, more broadly, in politics at the time–but really, 1932-1940, politics at the time mostly means the war). But Manchester really does a terrible job of staying focused on Churchill. He wanders off and does a crappy history of this era of WWII instead, complete with tons of unsubstantiated Manchester opinions and random placements of his soapbox. Whenever he returns to Churchill, it’s fascinating and well worth reading, and I expect I will want to read the rest; there’s a reason I stuck with this one through 700 pages of YOU SAID WHAT ABOUT INVADING FINLAND. I just…will want to be well-braced before I take up with any further volume. Uff da. Wow.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Olympians: Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess, Olympians: Hades, Lord of the Dead, Olympians: Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory, Olympians: Poseidon, Earth-Shaker, and Olympians: Zeus, King of the Gods. Discussed elsewhere.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Black Hound. Not quite as good as the giant one, but still a fun children’s book/comic with nifty art and solid relations between the humans and the spirit creatures of their area. Will keep reading this series and recommending to small people of my acquaintance.

Greg Rucka, Lazarus One. Graphic novel. An interesting beginning to a post-apocalyptic setting, but very much only the beginning, so if you want more than set-up, wait around a few more volumes. Already starting to explore loyalty questions, though, so–yeah, it’s a Rucka, says so on the spine.

Alison Sinclair, Breakpoint: Nereis. A lovely short-ish novel of re-contact that has several elements we talk about wanting to see more of–disabled characters with depth and agency, among other major things. I like re-contact novels (lost colony, human divergence, themes like that) and would like to see more of them, particularly from Alison, but others too.

Jonathan Spence, Treason by the Book. An interesting short study of alleged treason in eighteenth century China. One of the things that I felt was worth noting is that the people who were trying to demonstrate their own innocence had very modern concepts of how to go about proving it–so the whole “they didn’t think of it the same way as we do” really doesn’t apply to the entirety of the system, just the people who were doing the prosecuting/persecuting. And I think that whether that’s true relies on a carefully selected value of “we,” because if you just mean modern people, there’s an alarming percentage of “us” who do go with “some jerk mumbled about it, must be true, off with his head.”

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Hawk, by Steven Brust [Oct. 15th, 2014|11:20 pm]

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

So first things first: the direct, word for word, Burn Notice pastiche does not last more than about a page and a half, if you open this book and are worried. If you haven’t watched Burn Notice, it’s a perfectly sensible way to reintroduce the events of the series, a sort of Where We Are And Where We’re Going. If you have watched all of Burn Notice, however…there’s this moment of…”Oh, Steve, did you really want to associate your long-running series that does a bunch of cool stuff with a long-running series that did a bunch of cool stuff and then completely tanked its ending? You did your death-and-sarcastic-shenanigans first and better!”

But as I said, that only lasted a few pages, and then we are into the plot moving forward, really moving forward–giving Vlad progress on things he values, seeing old friends without it being a string of pointless cameos and without edging out room for new things, plotty new magic problems and a return to Vlad’s assassin roots without a return to Vlad’s assassin state of mind. There is, as one would hope for the book centered around the House of the Hawk, magic theory. There is Daymar and his (???) sense of humor. Hawk has, in short, all sorts of the things you would want it to have, and it has them in the right quick-beats moving-along setting-up-other-things sort of way.

This is clearly the latest in a long series, but you know what? It’s the one of the most recent entries I would feel best about handing people and saying, “ready set go.” They would miss a lot–who are these people? why is it such a big deal for Vlad to contact that person? why is she so terminally upset at that other person?–but y’know, sink or swim, kiddo, you want to start a series this late, you’re probably a person who’s okay with some hard knocks, and the crucial “why the heck should I care” is pretty neatly handed to you for this one. Here: care. Good. Onwards with the stabbing and the shenanigans with the improbable musical instruments.

Please consider using our link to buy Hawk at Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Olympians box set (1-6), by George O’Connor [Oct. 13th, 2014|12:01 pm]

Review copies provided by First Second.

This box set includes the following Olympians titles: Zeus, King of the Gods, Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess, Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory, Hades, Lord of the Dead, Poseidon, Earth Shaker, and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. It looks like they intend to keep on with the series.

These are pretty straight-up comic book retellings of Greek myths for the young adult set. There are not graphically depicted rapes on the page, but on the other hand there is a great deal less glossing over than one might fear given the “for the young adult set” label: O’Connor understands that bowdlerizing the Greek myths takes a great deal out of them and sets young adults up to make references with undercurrents that they don’t mean, so while he isn’t drawing genitalia, he is drawing implications. In the last two volumes in particular, Hermes starts to develop as a character–his volume should be a lot of fun when it comes around–and to be one of the main sources of humor, but there are others. When I see discussion questions in the back of a book intended for young people, I wince, but some of these included gems like, “Zeus’s dad tried to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?” and, “Athena turned Aracne into a spider. Was this an appropriate way to resolve conflict? What other animals might she have turned her into?”

My twelve-year-old godson came over for supper when I was in the middle of reading these, and now he is in the middle of reading them too. He devoured four of them in an hour and a half, declined ice cream in order to keep on reading them, and was disappointed when his mother said it was time to go home. (I promised that they would still be here in a fortnight when they’re over for supper again.) So far there have been complete retellings of some of the major stories and bits and pieces on the edges of others; some of the stories in one volume will get called back in another, and there seems to be a lot of room for more. The characters reflect the wide variety of skin, hair, and eye colors, and to some extent body shapes, available in humans around the Mediterranean and the regions that would have migrated there. I particularly enjoyed the sea art in Poseidon’s volume, but the variety stayed fresh and interesting, and there’s plenty of room for more–Hestia, for example, has barely been touched on in these volumes, but she is portrayed as a sort of human flame, and we’ve hardly seen Artemis and Apollo either. The human heroes get a lot of time as the gods interact with them, but O’Connor doesn’t paint himself into the corner of trying to be exhaustive about any god or myth or story, just being interesting, which is a far better job to take on.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Not Our Kind [Oct. 9th, 2014|04:41 pm]
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I have been sitting on this good news, and now it can be told! My short story, “The Hanged Woman’s Portion,” will be included in the anthology Not Our Kind, along with other cool stories by other cool people, and you can see all the information about it here on the antho Kickstarter page.

Because yes! It is a Kickstarter! It needs kicking and starting, and the publisher asked if we could talk a little about our stories. So first of all, when Nayad asked me to be part of this project, I was thrilled, because for all the stories I have published, no one has ever invited me to be part of an anthology before this one. The theme is outsiders of various kinds, and I immediately thought of a human woman in an alien jail. It can be hard enough to navigate a criminal justice system in your own country, but as a foreigner, how much harder–and then a literal alien, a person of a different species from a different biosphere–how much more difficult would that be, trying to figure out the rules, the norms, the customs? Human assumptions about how we relate, how we gain sympathy or lose it, become even more important in that setting. I had a great deal of fun writing this story, and it was great working with Nayad on it. I haven’t read the others, but the experience of working on this one makes me expect great things of the rest.

In the Kickstarter rewards, there are critiques from me and brownies from me and many other cool things from other people, as well as the anthology itself. Go have a look! I hope you like what you see. I think you will.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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The slander of the time [Oct. 6th, 2014|03:12 pm]

I just permanently put down a book–sadly, no, this is not an “I can in fact quit you” post–because the historian writing it was taking every single period usage of a particular insult as though it was documented fact. He didn’t seem to have realized what the other historians of that period had: namely, that while some behaviors probably were well-supported, a single mention of a political enemy calling someone a witch, a sodomite, a cripple, or some other term assumed by contemporaries to be negative did not mean that they engaged in any particular concrete behavior whatsoever–except to disagree with the political enemy.

We’ve had this in our own lifetimes. Of course we have. People get called gay, Muslims, Communists, terrorists, because the people using those terms think that those are negative things to be, not because they saw someone kissing someone of the same sex or praying to Mecca, much less anything that might in real terms constitute affiliation with any Communist (or communist) or terrorist group. And yet historians! Come on, historians! This is supposed to be your job! This kind of perspective: you’re supposed to know better!

But in terms of writing speculative fiction, I think this kind of culturally pervasive insult can rise above Princess Leia’s “scruffy-looking nerf-herder!” if it’s handled carefully, but only then, and it’s pretty tricky for exactly the reasons the historians had trouble with it. One of the main ways we learn things about characters in a novel is what the other characters say about them, so if Ana says that Bot is a filthy drum-sniffer–what’s a drum-sniffer? why shouldn’t you sniff drums? what do they smell like?–we, the readers, have to find out that there’s some reason not to believe her, or else we do go away with the thought that, well, that Bot, he’s a filthy drum-sniffer. And we have to know whether drum-sniffing is an actual thing that carries with it serious shame, whether it used to but has fallen into slang usage that no longer feels literal (as with “bastard” no longer carrying serious allegations of parental non-marriage), and so on. Whether something is potentially a literal truth and only some people find it insulting is one of the hardest ones to pull off–the speculative world equivalent of allegations that President Obama is a secret Muslim, for example. It’s hard enough to navigate the thickets of “He isn’t, but it wouldn’t be an insult if he was” in this world, where there is an actual President Obama whose external religious behavior can be observed, and where people can look up external definitions of what “Christian” and “Muslim” mean to various parties.

It’s another piece of worldbuilding that can add richness and depth to the culture(s) and personalities you’re building, or it can bog a story down and confuse readers needlessly. If it happens to actual historians, it can certainly happen to fantasy readers. But that’s not a reason not to try, it’s a reason to be careful and run things past test-readers. Like most of the things worldbuilding nerds talk about wanting to see more of, it shouldn’t be required in every story, as a checklist, just as one of the cultural touchstones that can spark implications and ideas.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, late September [Oct. 2nd, 2014|04:37 pm]

Daniel Abraham, The Widow’s House. Best read quickly so that one can focus on the dragon and the banking and not on saying, “Ugh, Geder, shut up.” I mean, dragon! Banking! But: Geder, shut up. This is the fourth book in the series, and I really think it would be completely incomprehensible if you hadn’t read the others. There are spiders where? The spiders and the dragons relate how? What? What? So really, don’t start here. Dragons and banking, go to the back of the line. The start of the series. Whatever. And don’t read too slowly, or you may need to smack some characters.

Tina Connolly, Silverblind. Discussed elsewhere.

Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night. I am grateful to Marie Brennan for pointing this out to me, because its marketing hits some of my bad buttons, but the book itself is not like that. (Basically I don’t like it when people pat themselves on the back about how their chosen profession is the really great amazing one that is better than all the others, and writers are not exempt from that. The cover and blurbs of this book suggested, wrongly, that it might fall into that category.) Anyway, there are times when Hardinge is trying a bit too hard for the whimsy for my tastes, but there are conspiracies and coffee shops and things, and it is good fun. There is much rushing about, and if you want much rushing about and many secret signals, it is that kind of book. I did have a bit of difficulty with the goose feathers being white, because that’s just not what we have here, but I did eventually get my brain to behave.

Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870. Very much what it says on the tin. This is an old book I picked up used, and it goes over the basics of the Italian unification–if it was breezier it would have been called “Garibaldi and All That,” but that would have misled a person into thinking it was breezy, and it wasn’t. It laid out the straight path. The obvious background. What Pius IX was doing. What Victor Emmanuel was doing. What the Sicilians were doing. It is useful, and I will keep filling in bits of this, because I am left with plenty of questions. But that’s how this sort of thing works.

Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata, Hikaru no Go, Volumes 4-8. Several more volumes of melodramatic teenage Go manga. Do you want melodramatic comics about Go, wherein stones are placed with a ringing “KLAK”? Because this is that. Yep. It sure is.

Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire. This book is vast and contains multitudes and multitudes of people. So many multitudes. There are cool things going on with plants and parallel worlds; Kameron has given herself room, with the large cast, to ring changes, to be an epic fantasy that is really epic, and yet she hardly goes any of the same places that other epic fantasies go. I will flag that there is a domestically violent relationship fairly close on here, and I didn’t find it less distasteful for being in directions less expected in our culture–that wasn’t the point, one wasn’t supposed to find it any less distasteful, if you think Kameron was endorsing it, go back and read again, but if your background is such that close views of domestic violence will upset you, this one is vivid enough that it should probably be flagged, even though it’s a fairly small component of the book.

Emmi Itaranta, Memory of Water. This worked best for me as an exploration of emotions and symbols and not really as a work of science fiction. It’s Finnish post-apocalyptic stuff, and I just didn’t believe in the future Finland in the book, in a pure physical sense. Socially, possibly, once you had the postulates. But scientifically, eh, no, not really. But there was a lot of water and tea and hiding, and I liked those things. I liked the experience of reading the sentences, when I could stop thinking about the hydrology.

Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshopper’s Child. Kindle. This is a YA with a substantially local/domestic focus, in the world of her Bold as Love series. If you want this book, you really want this book. Oh my did I want this book. (Pamela, I’m pretty sure you want this book!) The protag is a teen who has to care for old folks, as most teens in her culture do, and I would be interested to see how it works for someone who doesn’t have the previous five books. It’s an entirely different set of main characters, with cameos by the protags of the previous five books, but many of the worldbuilding implications and their importance–which are crucial to the mystery plot, I suspect–are sketched in as reminders rather than filled in thoroughly. But having had the previous five books and loved them, I was very fond of this, both for more of the world and for Heidi herself and her friends.

Sebastian Junger, War. The account–largely a psychological analysis–of front line American troops in Afghanistan, by a journalist embedded with them. Junger talked about how this kind of war changes young men, what it asks of them and by extension what we as a country are asking of them if we send them to this kind of war. I felt that he neglected to account for how much the particular front-line troops he was writing about were self-selecting, though, which doesn’t mean that we should be asking them to self-select into those situations, but it does raise questions about what we do with young men of the backgrounds some of them described and the extreme combinations of hormone balance and reaction time some of them seemed to have if we, as a society, are not throwing them into combat situations. Junger was acknowledging that the front line troops he was dealing with were in many ways different from the armed forces as a whole. He wanted to talk about the bravery and intelligence of the men he was dealing with, which is valid, and I think that he felt he needed to elide the ways that their specific kinds of bravery and intelligence are not necessarily transferable even to other jobs within their own branch of the military, much less other jobs outside it. And he wanted to talk about how combat and even life in the combat zone had broken them for other things, which is again a reasonable point to make, as long as he did not elide the point that in a conflict of this size, these specific people were also pretty broken going in, and that is something we can’t really ignore as a culture, either. We’re struggling with how to handle what football does to young men, what hockey fights do, what all the modes of violence do to the bodies of those who participate in them, what it does to shape their minds and personalities and their expectations of the people around them who are not participants, and war is that writ much, much larger. But what we don’t want to talk about, I think, is that sometimes the people we are feeding into our dark machines have been through them already when they were small. Junger writes that whatever a society asks its young men as a group to do, they will become good at, and that might be true (and is worth thinking about what it implies in reverse, and also about young women); but his is not a book about the generation that fought World War II, when somewhat larger percentages of America’s young men were asked to become good at the front lines of combat. For the most part–and Junger doesn’t really want to talk about this–we are asking our young men not to get good at combat. And the ones in his book are the ones who hear our culture, our government, when we say, “Except for perhaps a tiny sliver of you. A tiny, tiny fraction of a percent, we still need to have doing this,” and they say, “I think that means me.” That doesn’t mean they’re horrible people. It doesn’t mean they’re not polite to waitresses or fond of their sisters or any of the redeeming things Junger shows. But it does mean that pretending that they’re identical to the people who signed the enlistment papers next to them and said, “Maybe I could learn to fix airplanes,” or, “I’d be a good quartermaster I bet,” or, “I dunno, Sarge, whatever Uncle Sam wants I guess,” is more than a little disingenuous. Still worth reading about the details, though. Still very much worth reading about the details.

Blair MacGregor, Sand of Bone. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Sarah Moss, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland. I spent this book rolling my eyes. Sarah Moss appears to have gone to Iceland for a year with two small children and a husband in tow without thinking for even a second that it would be substantially different from the UK. Did you know! Iceland is not the UK! And then even when she figures out what’s going on, she takes forever to figure out why, and sometimes she just never manages it. There are some interesting things about modern Icelandic culture that I slogged through this book to get to, but basically, ugh, sometimes a memoir can make you think, “I…really dislike this memoirist personally.” (Do not put a preschooler in a preschool for three weeks before checking out whether it is a preschool you approve of. Just: no. Don’t do that. Especially when your husband is otherwise a stay-at-home parent and presumably could…go have a look? Maybe? Either you’re so easy-going you don’t care, in which case, fine, be that easy-going, don’t fly into a tizzy when you can finally be bothered to look into things–or else go have a look to start with. It was just this horrible half-assed mix throughout. Ugh.)

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant. My friend Shannon poked me about this, and I requested it from the library right away, and I brought it home from the library and read it in about fifteen minutes, because it is a kids’ graphic novel. It is a charming and lovely kids’ graphic novel. It has three different scales of action and trying to treat people decently when they are very different from you and bureaucracy. And giants. And a mother who is in some ways very like Lisa from Ponyo. Do want.

Ekaterina Sedia, Moscow But Dreaming. Collection of short stories with a fabulist twist and mostly a Russian twist but not always. Different strengths in the Russian and non-Russian stories. All quite readable, very much Sedia’s vividness shining through.

Peter Watts, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes. A shorter collection of short stories, and a very different kind of vivid. I didn’t find them all readable, not for lack of skill, but because Watts’s level of dark sometimes goes over the line into too nasty for my tastes at that moment. However. That thing I was saying above, about Junger not wanting to talk about what we do with the people who have already been fed into the dark machines when they reach adulthood? Peter Watts is willing to talk about that. Peter Watts is by no means going to flinch from that, or pretend that those people don’t need useful places to fit in, don’t need to find happiness and productive things to do with their time. And that’s why I keep returning to Watts’s work even when there are some stories that make me go “oh ick no.” Watts doesn’t worry that people will not be able to see bravery and brokenness at once. He trusts his readers for that, and to see that situations may change who is the functional one in a situation in the blink of an eye.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Raw seafood, Mary, just imagine! [Sep. 30th, 2014|10:39 pm]

Jo Walton has a blog post about the Decameron and ravioli, A Kind of Rissole, and it got me thinking about how we handle this sort of explanation in fantasy for effect, because Alec and I talk about it in terms of East Asian-inspired fantasy kind of a lot. It especially comes up with names, but I’m going to start with food and go from there.

The translator telling the reader that ravioli was a kind of rissoles, in Jo’s example, was trying not to make the reader trip on ravioli. (Slippery stuff. You could fall and hurt something.) It looks to me like he was trying to reassure his audience that, no, this is not important, this is mildly exotic but not upsetting, go on with this other thing I’m saying. He could have gone the other way. He could have described it in exoticizing detail, describing pasta in as distant a way as possible and then the fillings too, choosing the least familiar possible thing to fill ravioli with rather than going, look, it’s sort of like the thing you know with a starchy thing on the outside and a meat on the inside, right? When I was a little kid in the early ’80s, sushi was not a thing most older middle-class white Midwesterners ate, but oysters on the half-shell were a known thing, at least, a rich person food but a white rich person food, so if you were trying to explain sushi to someone’s white Midwestern great-grandmother, you could say, “It’s like oysters on the half shell, Gran, with a bit of rice,” if you wanted it to sound a little bit familiar, if you wanted her to say, “Oh, right, okay.” Or you could say, “They take tiny bits of carefully cut raw fish and seaweed and try to arrange them to look pretty, and then they eat them with long sticks,” if you wanted to make her go, “They what, I never.”

The same thing happens with names. If you’re trying to tell a story about someone’s daughter and you’re talking about, say, Japan to an 18th century English audience, you can think, oh, hell, well, the important thing is that Yuki was somebody’s daughter; what do people name their daughters? Fine, her name was Mary or Jane or Anne, one of the things people named their daughters. And the audience who needed to hear that ravioli was just like rissoles will think, oh right, it’s just someone’s daughter, carry on. Or you can decide that the important thing is the Flavor of Abroad, and you can carefully phoneticize: her name was Yoo-Kee, that’s what I think I heard! Yoo-Kee, your audience will savor, what a curious sound! how exotic! Or you can take a middle ground and translate. You can say, well, they named their daughter Snow. Snow! says your audience. What a pretty custom. And their other daughter was named Bitterness. Don’t think much of women there, do they? says your audience.

Oh wait. I slipped. That was Mary again.

Things have changed since the eighteenth century and even since the early 1980s; now Yuki is just an ordinary person’s name for most of us, thank heavens, and “oh, eat it, it’s fine, it’s basically like sushi!” is a way to make a food familiar and comfortable. Again, for most of us. For some…not so much. “Everyone” knows ravioli now. But my point is: fantasy authors sometimes want to invoke each of these effects in fantasy settings. The distancing, the familiarizing, the pieces in between. And that’s pretty value-neutral!…except for the assumptions behind what’s distant, what’s familiar, and which components of your audience will find them to go which directions. Writing is communication, and if you have giant chunks of your audience with opposite assumptions about what’s familiar and what’s distancing, that’s a pretty tricky balancing act for something as simple as a name. It’s very easy to overthink, but that’s because it’s a genuinely hard problem, and at a certain point you just have to do what you’re going to do and let it fall out as it may with different groups of readers.

Some of whom might end up thinking a rissole is a lot more similar to ravioli than it actually is, if you’re not careful with how you translate the Decameron.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Silverblind, by Tina Connolly [Sep. 26th, 2014|06:55 am]

Review copy provided by Tor.

Tina Connolly’s previous books, Ironskin and Copperhead, both earned her popular attention and critical acclaim, and rightly so. Silverblind is better. Much better. Silverblind is the book where everything starts really working, where I sit up and take notice and start poking people so that they do the same.

Silverblind takes the story begun in Ironskin and moves on the better part of two decades, to Adora–Dorie–as a young woman, half-fey and trying to make her own way in a world that has changed drastically, but not drastically enough for bright young women (half-fey or not). She has mostly set her fey powers aside in favor of pursuing a career as a naturalist, but when her society’s attitudes keep shutting doors in her face, she turns back to those powers to try to wedge those doors back open.

This book features baby wyverns (that sometimes behave quite inconveniently), Edwardian-equivalent social justice crusaders (ALL THE LOVE), underrated young lady artists who have to worry about rent (some love, it turns out, was left over from the social justice set after all), shapechanging in ways that actually uses possibilities, and trust questions that go beyond “I just met you and this is crazy.” I raced through it, and then I was sorry I did, because I got it in a very advanced ARC and there will not be more for even longer–I have no idea when there will be more–and this. This is such a big step, the book where Tina Connolly goes from “sure, reliably readable, will pick up the next one and it will be fun” to “OH HOW EXCITING IT IS A TINA CONNOLLY BOOK.”

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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