Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Grimdark with a smile: Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld

Grimdark fantasy existed long before the term; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is as grimdark as you can get and it’s decades old. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD, Jack Vance’s sequel to The Dying Earth, doesn’t initially read grimdark — it’s stylish, elegant and humorous — but it has a view of the world just as grim as Game of Thrones. The protagonist, Cugel the Clever, is an amoral antihero and rapist (I’ll come back to that last point) but most of the people he encounters are as greedy, corrupt and selfish as he is. Despite his nickname, Cugel isn’t all that clever;  when he thinks he’s scamming someone, his confidence in his own cunning blinds him that he’s the one being snared.

Like the first book, this is a collection of short stories, here linked by Cugel’s quest. In the opening, someone talkes Cugel into robbing Incounou, the Laughing Magician (if he’s laughing at you, you’re in for it) which doesn’t go well. Incounou extracts a promise from Cugel to hunt for one of the eponymous eyes, contact lenses that transform whatever you’re looking at into a world of beauty. Not being an idiot, the mage puts a tiny creature inside Cugel to gnaw his vitals if the thief runs off or in some fashion tries to double-deal. Then off we and Cugel go on a picaresque, black-humored journey across the dying future Earth.

This came out 16 years after the first book and Vance’s style has improved considerably. At one point a sorcerer says he can foretell Cugel’s future but it will require wrapping Cugel in the intestines of freshly killed owls, burning his little toe and dilating his nostrils to let an explorer beetle enter his body. Cugel passes. And Vance is very good on imaginary names: “The great cities Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand — all unheard of? What of the illustrious Sembers?” Exotic names, but believable ones, I think; they sound right.

The story is cynical as hell. Cugel lies, cheats and steals, and cons people with this voice of injured reason (under the circumstances, surely you can’t suggest that I pay for this meal!); his intended marks abuse him just as much. In one story he’s marked out as the sacrifice to the local bat-creatures; in another he’s tricked into serving as the town watchman (an important post) by being promised luxury, food and the woman of his choice; instead he ends up trapped in the watchtower with no luxury, crappy food and no sex. While I’m not a big fan of antiheroes — and Cugel’s the least heroic antihero I’ve read since Flashman — the results are entertaining and often funny. But then there’s the rapey stuff.

Dying Earth was sexist, but Eyes is a lot worse. In the watchman story, Cugel picks out one of the local women to be his mistress, then slowly (very slowly) realizes she’s just part of the con the town is playing on him. When he escapes, he takes her with him, rapes her and then she’s killed by a monster at the climax. In another story, Cugel’s bid to pass himself off as a rightful king fails spectacularly and he has to flee the city alongside Derwe Coreme, the former ruler. They become lovers but when Cugel needs help from a family of vagabonds they ask for his woman in return; he hands her over to be their sex slave without hesitation, then forgets about her. He has no qualms and neither does Vance seem to care about the women.

I don’t mean that this makes Vance pro-rape; he’s writing a dark, cynical story in a corrupt world so it’s not like the rape doesn’t fit the setting. Nor does Cugel show remorse about anything else. But nothing else he does is comparably vicious; okay, his revenge on Incounou might be, but that’s revenge, where his treatment of Derwe is gratuitous cruelty. And Vance treats it as no more consequential than stealing a character’s dinner in another chapter. Much as I liked the rest of the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by George Barr, bottom by Jack Gaughan; all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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So that’s what the fuss was about: Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

So last year Amelie Wen Zhao announced she was pulling her debut novel, Blood Heir because of criticism that it was racist and presented a distorted version of American slavery. After reading about the controversy, I had a feeling the critiques might have been unfair and resolved to read it.

The book is set in the Cyrilian Empire (alt.Russia), where mutants — oh, sorry, Affinites, but it’s an easy mistake to make — are demonized for their supernatural powers. Each Affinite has an affinity they’re able to control: flesh, marble, water, wind, fear, though the ordinary humans have ways to neutralize their powers. Demonized or not, Affinites are useful: the Empire has a massive human trafficking problem, mostly desperate people coerced or tricked into signing labor contracts that reduce them to slaves. Affinites, including those from other nations, are popular victims since their powers make them so useful.

Princess Anastacya never thought much about this, even though she’s an Affinite with the power over blood: she can make you bleed, move your body, torture you or simply TK your blood (and your body with it) across the room. Prior to the start of the book, she was framed for the murder of her father and imprisoned. Now she’s out, hunting the real killer. In the opening scenes, she has to penetrate one prison (reinforced with anti-Affinite shielding) to get information from Ramson Quicktongue, a mid-level crime boss. Ramson’s a tricky bastard and uses her to escape, but circumstances keep bringing them together. When Ramson realizes how powerful Ana is, he figures he can turn her over to Kerlan, the boss of bosses in the Empire underworld, and thereby get back into his good graces.

Zhao has said the novel drew on modern-day Asian human trafficking rather than antebellum slavery, and that’s how it comes across. I think she got a bum rap (YMMV obviously). Ditto the charges of plagiarism: even if she did lift one line “Don’t go where I can’t follow” from Tolkien (as note in the link above, it dates back to the Bible) that’s so minor it’s impossible to care.

I also think it avoids the “repentant racist” trope that got another Y/A fantasy, The Black Witch so much criticism (I haven’t read that book, so I don’t know if it was deserved or not). Neither Ana nor Ramson has any bigotry toward Affinites, but Ana is blind to how badly they’re treated and Ramson’s initially ruthless enough he doesn’t care. By the end of the book, they’re both committed to changing things, and even the possibility that systemic change has to go beyond replacing the Emperor with someone better (a lot of fantasies don’t push rebellion to that conclusion).

So aside from controversy, is the book actually good? I think so. It’s well-written, fast-paced, tense where it needs to be, and I like the characters. While I generally hate this kind of X-Men mages-as-persecuted-mutants set-up, I didn’t hate it here, which says a lot. Though given the big bad for the trilogy is a Magneto-style villain dedicated to Affinite supremacy, I’m less enthused about getting book two than I might have been. But I’ll at least check it out of the library and see.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Ruben Ireland, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Is our Writers Learning: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

ZERO SUM GAME by S.L. Huang is the first in an urban fantasy super-hero series — okay, reviews call it SF noir, but protagonist Cass Russell is just as much a metahuman as the cast of Heroine Complex, though with a pretense of being more realistic (a good pretense — this one worked for me). And yes, here there be smaller.

Cass is a precog who reminds me a lot of Marvel’s Mad Thinker. Just as he predicts events with his computer so as to manipulate and take down his enemies, so does Cass, though on a more limited level. She has a metahuman mathematical ability to calculate angles, vectors and force enables her to know where a bullet will go before it leaves the gun (Huang makes this believable enough to work). She also knows how to fire bullets or apply her own strength to gain maximum, John Woo-type physical effects.

Her friend Rio, a DEXTER-type serial killer/sadist (he’s got religion so he channels his lust for cruelty into targeting Bad People) acts as go-between for a woman named Dawna, hiring Cass to retrieve Dawna’s sister from her life as a drug mule. This, of course, proves much more complicated than expected. First, Rio didn’t send the message. Then there’s a PI, Arthur, who’s on the same case and doesn’t trust Cass (and justifiably despises Cass’s attitude toward collateral damage). Then it turns out Dawna isn’t the young woman’s sister after all.

She is, instead, the bad guy. A secret conspiracy has given her pseudo-realistic telepathy to match Cass’s pseudo-realistic precognition: Dawna can micro-analyze every twitch and expression you make, know exactly what you’re thinking and figure out exactly what to say to manipulate you. Even as Cass, Rio and Arthur start working against the conspiracy, they have to wonder if Dawna’s implanted them with commands to turn them into sleeper agents.

I almost gave up on this one early on because of the hard-boiled voice. Don’t get me wrong, I like that voice, and I’ve used it myself (here, for instance) but it’s used so much in urban fantasy it’s kind of a turnoff. Everyone from Harry Dresden and Anita Blake onwards sounds world-weary, snarky and cynical. It’s one reason I went out of my way to make the protagonist of No One Can Slay Her non-hard-boiled, and why I resisted writing Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person, for fear I’d adopt the same voice (but KC starts out the book upbeat and optimistic, which makes a surprising difference). I’m glad I stuck with it, because I enjoyed it. As I’ve said before, offbeat superhero stories are a weakness of mine, and Zero Sum Game fits the bill.

That said, I think the book really fell apart at the end. The final psi-battle with Dawna in Cass’s mind doesn’t make any sense given Dawna’s power set: I can’t see any way it works without Dawna having real telepathy, and she doesn’t.

And then there’s the morality. The big dilemma for the book is that Dawna’s employers are good guys, or at least antiheroes. They’re manipulating politicians to create a better world (no hunger, no poverty!), they’re eliminating drug cartels; in opposing them, is Cass on the right side? The possibility she isn’t really gnaws at her, especially when she learns the conspiracy funds itself by leaching money from crime syndicates and other bad guys. In crippling the conspiracy (I’d name it, but my mind’s gone completely blank), aren’t Cass and her crew making the world a worse place?

I suppose it’s possible that all these moral qualms are because Dawna’s still got a hook in Cass’s mind, but I think we’re supposed to take them seriously. I didn’t: much like Dawna’s powers in that final fight, Huang’s straining to keep the moral balls in the air. The conspiracy, whatever its goals, kills innocent people, which is kind of a huge red flag for me. Heck, it appears to be for Huang: a government official who had a couple of Cass’s friends killed in the name of the greater good dies in short order. Yeah, he’s a rat, by why is the conspiracy any better? At one point Dawna brags that a woman she mindwiped and reprogrammed is now completely free of the trauma she used to bear. Surely she could treat trauma without erasing her (a point nobody makes).

It would help, I think, if we knew more detail about the good deeds. What exactly is their political endgame? When Dawna manipulates politicians, what are they rewired to do? I don’t blame Huang for not getting too specific about politics — these days, things are changing at the drop of a hat — but something a little more specific (what if they got cops to drop the “blue wall of silence” about police misdeeds?) would have helped sellme.

Of course, as Arthur points out, Cass is pretty coldblooded about people. I’ll see what happens when I get to the second book in the series.

#SFWApro. All rights to image (I don’t know the artist) remain with current holder.

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Is our writers learning? The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz is very much a curate’s egg for me: parts of it are awesome, but I skimmed about half of it. Though that’s more from personal taste than finding flaws (caution: spoilers follow).

The setting is the present, but in a world where ginormous ancient time machines have been found around the world. For centuries people have been popping back and forth through time which has led to some changes: women got the vote in the 1800s, Harriet Tubman became a senator but thanks to the odious anti-sex activist Anthony Comstock, abortion has never been legal in the United States.

The protagonists, Tess, is one of the self-proclaimed Daughters of Harriet working to edit the timeline for women’s good. Early on they discover a group of men’s rights activists and Comstock admirers pushing in the other direction: they want to establish male supremacy (I don’t know if “Full reproductive access!” is actually an online misogynist phrase but it fits perfectly), then smash the machines so that their edits can’t be undone.

As you can tell, this book is decidedly political, which is its great strength. It’s what I thought Weighing Shadows would be and wasn’t. And I find the alternate timeline tends to be more complex than Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It’s an improvement in lots of ways, but not utopian, even for women (no abortion), nor are all the women on the side of good. And as they note at the end it’s always possible someone could edit their gains away (their win over the Comstockers is more muted than I’d have liked, though given our current politics I can understand the feeling). I do think a world where people are constantly making edits would be a lot weirder and more confused (much like R.A. Lafferty’s short story Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne), but that would probably get in the way of the story.

And I really like the academic dickering over just how much change is possible: is the great man theory of history just a myth (you kill Genghis Khan or Comstock and nothing changes)? Is gradual social change the only option? One character notes that these academic theories seem to go in and out of fashion in cycles. Newitz herself seems to be advocating for both individual action and collective movements; happily the politics never feels like it’s turning the book into a Western Union.

So what didn’t I like? Well, the sections set back in the 19th century dragged for me; I’m not much of a fan of historical fiction and this got much more into that vein than “time traveler in the past” (possibly I’m parsing too finely but that’s how my taste runs). And then there was … Beth.

Beth is the other half of the book, a rebellious 1990s teen with a psycho best friend, Lizzy, who kills people (which felt like a bad knockoff of the film River’s Edge). Tess shows up and tries to walk Beth away from the madness but Beth doesn’t want to give up her friends. It looks like Tess is Future Beth but it turns out she’s Future Lizzy: Beth killed herself after getting an abortion which radically changed Lizzy’s perspective on everything. Tess came back to steer her away from suicide and succeeds, but as a consequence finds her mind snapping under the weight of new, radically different memories (something handled better here than in most time-travel films).

This bored me silly. I was in my thirties in the 1990s; I have no nostalgia for the era’s teen life and teen life is something I get less interested in as I get older. So it may just be a mismatch with my personal taste — I don’t think a 1990s teen setting is any worse an idea than me putting Southern Discomfort in the 1970s for instance. Though that said, I pegged that Beth’s father molested her at least 100 pages before the big reveal (any time someone refers to that Terrible Unstated Thing Daddy Did, it’s a safe bet).

Despite my lack of interest in Beth, the good stuff made this a satisfying read.

#SFWApro. Cover design Will Staehle, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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Is Our Writer’s Learning? The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

As I’ve mentioned before, I love introducing one change and watching how it ripples through society. So THE PHILOSOPHER’S FLIGHT by Tom Miller was a great pleasure to read.

The premise is that “natural philos0phy” (magic, but it’s implied to have some kind of quantum physics rationale) took major strides in the 19th century, becoming a weapon in the war until one philosopher ended it by the equivalent of a magical Hiroshima strike on Vicksburg. As the average woman is way more qualified than the average man, and the best women are far above the best men, women played a role on the front lines in the war using magic; Abraham Lincoln gave them the suffrage in ’64; and by the time the book starts (1917) we’ve had had a century of women in combat roles (though after Vicksburg, everyone’s agreed not to use direct philosophical attacks on their enemies) and at the cutting edge of philosophical research. It’s a woman’s field.

Other changes include the death of the transcontinental railroad (teleportation, while it has risks, is much more cost effective) and easy availability of birth-control magic. And of course there’s an opposition movement, the Trenchers, combined of a mix of religious anti-magic zeal and sexist backlash against women getting above their place. There’s also a backlash to the backlash — a lot of philosophers are willing to retaliate against violent Trencher attacks with equal violence.

Protagonist Robert Weekes grew up in Montana with an army veteran mother (Hawaiian Uprising, Spanish-American War) who knows handles the various rescue and other missions needed in the county. He’s trained by her, he’s good, and he wants to follow in her footsteps working as a Rescue and Evac philosopher for the military in Europe. The trouble is, R&E doesn’t take women. Nobody would even think he has the right stuff. Eventually, though, he’s able to attend Radcliffe as a natural philosophy student to train himself further. He finds friendship, and love, among the female students, but a lot of skepticism he’s good enough as a philosopher, and a lot of resentment he’s entering woman’s domain.

This kind of gender-flip could easily have gone horribly wrong — if say, Robert turned out to be the best of the best, that would come off ultra-sexist. But Miller threads the needle: Tom’s very good, but he’s not the best. Plus there are many varieties of philosophy, and he’s specializing primarily in flight. It’s not like he’s instantly mastering teleportation and smokecarving (magic with gases) as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of witch/mutant hunters, and at times I did get more than I wanted of the Trenchers. But it works here overall, for the same reason it works in Black Lightning: it plays right into pre-existing prejudices, in this case sexism. It wouldn’t be such a big movement if philosophers were predominantly male. And showing some philosophers are willing to be just as militant fighting back makes them more believable than Marvel’s nobly suffering mutants.

One thing I didn’t like was the use of little reference paragraphs at the start of each chapter. Not that I object on principle, but as I went through the book, I started to wish there was a connection between paragraph and chapter (if there was, I didn’t see it). And the ones set in the future (showing what looks like a rising tide of sexism/anti-philosophy) felt annoying (even given the book is Robert’s memoir from around 1940.

Overall, though a really great job. I look forward to Philosopher’s War which just came out.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jim Tierney, all rights remain with current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, mug by the Philosophers Guild. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning? A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard

Howard says in the introduction that she wrote A CATHEDRAL OF MYTH AND BONE as a way to reinvent the stories she grew up with — myth, fairytale and saints’ lives — for a new era. Howard says hagiographies fascinated her with their “glorious impossibility” and their ties into something bigger and more cosmic; at the same time she didn’t want to replicate the moral preaching that came with them. So we get stories in which ..

  • A woman gets written into her lover’s fiction to the point she stops existing outside it (A Life in Fictions)
  • A woman becomes a saint only to discover it’s damn hard work (The Saint of the Sidewalks).
  • The legend of Camelot is re-enacted on a college campus, with Vivian and Morgan both trying to change the outcome in different ways (Once, Future).
  • Getting answers from oracles requires a painful sacrifice (The Speaking Bone).
  • The Green Knight’s wife gets tired of her husband using her as a pain in his game (The Green Knight’s Wife)
  • In a world where science is part of religious faith, a duelist fights to defend them (The Calendar of Saints).

Speaking Bone was particularly instructive because there really isn’t a plot or a central character; it’s just telling us how this strange, grotesque oracle works. I’ve written stories that were similarly unfocused, but they didn’t sell, so it’s encouraging to see someone do it and sell it (that Howard has a lot more style to her writing than I do didn’t hurt I’m sure).

More generally I find it inspiring to read a story where the magic is believable without making logical sense. As I’ve said before, I hate magical systems so it’s good to see stories where the magic is wild and irrational, without much explanation. It makes me want to write more of them.

The flip side is that sometimes I wanted explanations. Saints Tide is an absorbing story about a dying girl and the way the sea creates saints, but the magical logic of the other stories was lacking; the ending left me feeling there was no connection between the magical events. Which is instructive too.

Overall, though, an excellent collection.

#SFWApro. Cover by Amy Haslehurst, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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Taking it to the limit: Unleash by Lauren Harris

I’m always nervous about reading books by people I know in case they suck. Fortunately I really enjoyed UNLEASH: Spellhounds Book One by Lauren Harris, which I picked up back at Illogicon in January. Harris works with a lot of familiar urban fantasy tropes but she pushes them beyond most of the stories I see.

The book opens with protagonist Helena slitting throats in a sacrifice. Not her choice: the magical tat on her shoulder lets the book’s villain, Gwydian, control her and he gets off on making her kill (plus, he draws power from the blood). The symbol also enables Helena and Gwydian’s other slaves to turn into dog form (which gives them some immunity to magic), or astrally project as dog-spirits. Hence the “spellhound” moniker.

Fortunately Helena and her mother have contacted the mages’ guild for help. The mages bust in and try to take Gwydian down, but when he uses Mom as a human shield, one of the mages shoots right through her. Helena, horrified, goes on the run. She ends up staying over a canine rescue operation outside Chicago with Jaesun and Krista, who run it. Helena’s PTSDed and she’s never had anything that qualifies as a normal life; Jaesun and Krista’s openness and friendliness makes her suspicious. Nevertheless, she likes it, and finds her petrified heart slowly thawing out. But of course neither the mages nor Gwydian are quite done with her.

What I think I liked about Unleash is that it pushes a lot of urban fantasy tropes into grimmer territory (note that as I don’t read a lot in the genre, I may be missing lots of counter-examples. Sorry). Lots of protagonists are burned out and traumatized; Helena’s in an even worse state when we meet her. Compared to her, Anita Blake’s positively sunny. And while she’s improving, it’s slow enough not to be improbable (in contrast to the “OK I’ve dealt with my rape let’s have sex!” character in The Warded Man).

It’s pretty much a staple in the urban fantasies I’ve seen that whatever council the good mages (or were creatures or whatever) belongs to is not so much good as not-evil. Flawed. Morally compromised. At a minimum, it has lousy judgment. But often the group still poses as the wise Gandalf types they’re supposed to be. In Unleash, they’re just plain nasty. They have no qualms about playing hardball and they’re way more interested in the spellhound slave spells than decent people ought to be.

I also liked the magic here. Wizards cast spells by drawing elaborate mandala-patterns; the designs are simple, but drawing them out in the proper order makes the difference between casting a spell and frying yourself. It’s visually appealing, and easy to understand (though the spellhound glyph’s power seems far more complicated than the effects of most of the spells), and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely enjoy elaborate magic systems and this one wasn’t overly elaborate.

My only real complaint is that the proofreading or typesetting was a mess. Most of the errors were minor, but there’s a key scene between Helena and a guild sorcerer where chunks of conversation got dropped.

I still enjoyed the book. I look forward to picking up the sequel eventually (though knowing me, it’ll be a while).

#SFWApro. Cover by Starla Hughton, all rights to image remain with current holder.

 

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The Bird King and the power of setting

I like G. Willow Wilson’s comic books, and I really liked her first non-graphic novel, Alif the Unseen. I was confident I’d like her second novel, THE BIRD KING, but while it had its moments, I was overall disappointed. And I think the setting is a big part of that.

I don’t think articles about writing, particularly specfic, discuss setting quite as much as we discuss world-building, the ways we create and establish the setting. One’s a matter of craft and skill, the other’s a matter of judgment and taste. Perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed as much: it’s one thing to thumb down “as you know, Steve, our occult research project is devoted to mastering the laws of magic” as objectively bad writing (telling people what they already know) but the merits of setting are more subjective.

As noted at the Alif link, I liked that book partly because it had a setting I rarely see, inside a modern Middle Eastern nation (and focused on the country and its people rather than how they relate to the US). The mash-up of computer hacking with Islamic mysticism and folklore made the setting even weirder. And as someone who’s read several IT/fantasy mash-ups, I think it’s much harder to mix the two than it looks.

Wilson’s opening setting is great: 1491 Granada, a Muslim stronghold about to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella, creating a united Spain. Not that the ancient Muslim world is that unusual a setting but Wilson’s a Muslim and makes it feel fresher than most portrayals. The core characters are good, too: Fatima, a slave concubine serving the sultan and Hassan, a gay mapmaker whose maps can alter the world they portray. Like Lucy in The Twelfth Enchantment, Fatima is a formidable, capable protagonist without being at all anachronistic. She resents being a slave (Wilson discusses this in an interview) but at first it’s the best she can do. After she and Hassan go on the run, she’s determined not to be anyone’s property again.

They have to run because the sultan’s negotiating surrender terms. Luz, a point woman for the Inquisition, makes it clear that Fatima and other Muslims will have to convert or die; Hassan, as both a “sodomite” and a sorcerer of some sort, won’t be that lucky. They have to run.

And that’s where the book turned me off. Hassan and Fatima’s desperate flight isn’t as fresh as the scenes in Granada. They could just as easily have been Protestants fleeing Catholics, Catholics fleeing Muslims, or refugees fleeing a conqueror; the landscape wouldn’t change much. And despite the presence of a jinn, it’s a very low-level magical setting, close to a straight historical story. And I’m not fond of those (see what I mean about taste). The long slow journey across Spain to the Island of Birds drained the interest out of me. (It didn’t help that religious fanatics creep me out to the point reading about them makes me genuinely uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the result of living in the Bible belt much of my life. Maybe not). I also wish Wilson had played around more with the power of maps (I have an interest in maps), like the opening scene in which a general gloats that Granada is already part of Spain on the maps.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that setting is important because it shapes our expectations about the story. An attack by a knife-wielding Martian, a knife wielding Gold Rush claim jumper or a knife-wielding killer in a Los Angeles alley can all offer the same level of danger, but they engage us (or don’t) in different ways.  We can use setting to put a fish out of water, or to contrast with the story we tell; Peyton Place became a best-seller in the 1950s partly because it’s sex-and-scandal plot contrasted with the New England small town setting (I’ve discussed other angles of setting here and here). Even an old, familiar setting can be fresh with the right take. But Bird King‘s setting just wasn’t right for me.

#SFWApro. Cover by studiohelen.co.uk, all rights remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Coming of the Terrans

Leigh Brackett’s THE COMING OF THE TERRANS collects five of her Martian stories written from 1948 (Beast Jewel of Mars) to the early 1960s (The Road to Sinharat and the luridly titled Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon). They suit my love of pulp perfectly, and I think there’s enough of interest to make them worth a blog post of its own (obviously)

The stories are set on Brackett’s decadent, dying Mars, starting in 1998 with Beast Jewel (the story doesn’t include a date so I’m guessing either Brackett or the editor assigned dates for the book). Said jewel is part of the ritual of Shanga, which a Martian cult uses to regress humans, allowing them the chance to slip the bonds of civilized behavior and act out their fantasies of sex or violence without inhibition. Burk’s lover became addicted to Shanga and vanished into the cult; Burk now follows her. This has its risks because he’s experienced the addiction himself. And after a certain point, Shanga followers begin to devolve into their ancestral forms. The Martians, an ancient race who despise their human occupiers, take great joy in this.

The final story, set 40 years later, is Road to Sinharat. While the title lost city is certainly a great pulp invention, the story itself seems more in tune with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when colonies were declaring independence right and left. Earth is determined to take over Mars’ slim water resources for the Martians’ own good, bringing the best of Earth’s technology to bear. As the protagonist struggles to prove, this has happened before, and it didn’t work well.

Brackett’s Mars is a good example of how to borrow from another writer without ripping them off. Her Mars is clearly shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary adventures, which Brackett freely acknowledged. Like Burroughs’ Barsoom, Brackett’s Mars is a once great world, now dried up and dying. But ERB’s Martians were stoic, proud, passionate warriors. While Brackett’s Martian barbarians fit that mold, city dwellers are corrupt, decadent, frequently malicious but in small petty ways (rather than duel, they’d knife you in the back). Coupled with Brackett’s lusher style of writing (she’s definitely the better wordsmith)it feels very different.

The stories also show that amazing worldbuilding isn’t necessarily necessary for a good story (I include the modifier because I know a lot of readers value detailed worldbuilding more than I do). Brackett’s Mars isn’t all that alien; the stories of sinister cults, lost cities and ancient super-science aren’t that different from the stories other pulp writers told about the Third World. Mars could almost be Egypt under British imperial control: we have the sinister ancient cults, the angry resentment of the natives, the decadence, the secret ancient wisdom — standard pulp portrayals of far-off lands. But that doesn’t bother me much (YMMV of course); the stories are still good, and Brackett doesn’t make it feel as if it’s “just” the colonized Middle East (the dead seas, the dwindling canals, they all give it an alien feel).

But I think that also shows why so many people do find specfic from the olden days so distasteful. Mars isn’t the British Empire but the tropes are there; I know some people who don’t like them used for the Third World don’t feel they’re improved by giving other planets the same treatment. The hero of Sinharat is a “white savior” doing for the natives what they can’t do for themselves. I still like the stories, but I can understand if someone else took issue with them. But for me, the charms outweigh the flaws.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, all rights remain with current holder.

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