Sleeps With Monsters: The Cold Blade’s Finger

A new column over at Tor.com:

I want to rave about Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull. Actually, it feels like I need to rave about it: a glorious, dramatic, lush and striking fantasy set in the same continuity as the Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and The Steles of the Sky), with a brilliant cast of characters and an opening that involves an ice wyrm attacking a caravan on its way up a frozen river. It’s no exaggeration to say I was hooked from the first page.

Links of interest!

Star Trek: Discovery:

At Lady Business:

One of the things I loved so, so much about The Vulcan Hello, and about Michael’s character, is that both show that Discovery is in love with space. Michael’s space walk scene is a really obvious, hearts over the ‘i’s,love letter to space (as well as a clever wink to the technique of shooting Star Trek in the early days) and it is glorious. Her early scenes among the sand dunes shout ‘Yes, space is unknown and can be scary but look how amazing it is out there’ and then throw chocolates at space’s feet. Michael’s practical, exposition drop of an opening speech quickly turns into ‘I remain optimistic. It’s hard not to be in the face of such beauty.’ and a discussion of a binary star system while looking out onto beautiful space vista. Star Trek: Discovery <3’s space. Hard.

 

At NoAward.net:

  • Liz is intensely amused that there was plot justification for heavy lens flare
  • There are Starfleet insignia on the boots. Like, these costumes were designed expressly to torture cosplayers, right?
  • We were so busy having feelings that we kind of overlooked the plot stuff. Liz is intrigued by Michael’s upbringing and the bombing of the Vulcan Learning Centre, and is reserving judgement on the Klingon stuff. Are Klingons inherently interesting when Worf’s not around? Look, they can’t help not being Romulans or Cardassians. No one’s perfect.
  • Liz was chatting to Tansy Rayner Roberts, who described the premiere as “emotionally intelligent”, and I think that’s a really good summary.

 

At The Mary Sue:

I’m looking forward to the far more gender-fluid future where gendered stereotypes lose ground, and anyone can be named anything that they damn well please, though we’ll still have to grapple with the cultural weight of names.

 

Books:

Elizabeth Bear on female characters and epic fantasy:

If women existed in the real world at the same ratios in which we exist in epic fantasy, the human race would be obliged to reproduce as do anglerfish. Which is to say, with one large female swimming along, going about her business, while a plethora of smaller males clamp their jaws onto her flanks, graft their bloodstreams to hers parasitically, and allow themselves to be dragged along with her wherever she happens to roam because it’s their best chance of having the opportunity to release a stream of milt over the eggs that she will inevitably deposit.

(Don’t read the comments.)

 

K. Arsenault Rivera on personal failure in fiction:

So often in epic stories the hero always makes the right decision, so often they act in the interest of the greater good. To me, it’s always been far more interesting—more human—when they choose to wallow a little instead. We might all like to imagine ourselves winning duels and pulling swords out of our loved ones, but we can all relate to making bad decisions.

 

Other:

A scientific study of cat personalities.

Call for Papers on classical receptions in speculative fiction.

 

Recently arrived review copies

Six of them! I think this is the second picture of the the Bardugo book.

Courtesy of Gollancz: Bradley Beaulieu’s TWELVE KINGS and ALiette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Ishbelle Bee’s THE SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF MIRROR AND GOLIATH. Courtesy of DAW Books, Seanan McGuire’s A RED-ROSE CHAIN. Courtesy of Henry Holt, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.

Books in brief: Bear, Clark, Scalzi, Lee, Dalrymple, Rediker

Elizabeth Bear, Karen Memory. Tor, 2015. ARC courtesy of the publisher.

This book. This book. I don’t even know how to talk about it. I need to read it again and again. It did everything right for me. It’s all my narrative kinks rolled up into one – including some I didn’t even know I had, and some things I would’ve thought I’d hate to see but they’re done so well – and wrapped up with a positive ending and it all just works.

Read it. Read it. READ IT I NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT WITH PEOPLE.

Except you can’t read it until next year. So I’m going to have to think about how to talk about it some more.

John Scalzi, Lock In. US: Tor, 2014; UK: Gollancz, 2014. Copy courtesy of Gollancz.

The last time I was writing up my books, I asked myself, “Have I forgotten something?” And it turns out that I had, because the night beforehand I’d read Lock In and it had not made enough impression to last. This is in many ways a very forgettable book: competent, but of the stuff of which airport paperbacks are made. A whodunnit with a couple of Sufficiently Advanced Technology elements. I really don’t have very much at all to say about it, and I’m damned if I can even remember the characters’ names.

Sharon Lee, Carousel Sea. Baen, 2015. e-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Third installment in small-town fantasy series. Will include in future SWM column. Interesting, soothing, pulls all its punches.

Elizabeth May, The Falconer. Gollancz, 2013.

Debut novel. Fairies. Violence. Scotland. Steampunk. It is crack and it is terrible and it is actually quite a bit of fun.

nonfiction

William Dalrymple, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury, 2013.

New history of the first British Afghan war, and one that makes liberal use of sources in the local languages. A fascinating read.

Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: an Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. Verso, 2013.

Rediker writes good history. This one is relatively short, for him, and very accessible: an account of the Amistad slave mutiny and the long struggle of the survivors to return to their West African homes. Solid, informative, compelling.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Penguin, 2013.

A weighty (500+ pages excluding index, notes and bibliography, at 10pt-type) volume, but a deeply fascinating and extraordinarily well-written piece of history, that is astonishingly clear in its presentation of the complex factors and personalities on the European scene, and routes by which the decisions of the European powers ultimately narrowed down to war. A really excellent history book.

A collection of links for your entertainment

The making of Pacific Rim – 30 minute documentary.

Re-making the Real Middle Ages.

“Fists in the Mouth of the Beast”: On Irish Folklore. I don’t agree with the author completely, but on the folklore and the Other Ireland? Oh, yeah. That thing right there.

xkcd: Future Self. Oh, I love this one. (Dear past self: why did you leave so many square brackets? Why?)

Roman fort uncovered at Gernsheim. Via Bread and Circuses.

“We need citizens, not just taxpayers and bookkeepers.” Canadian, but widely applicable.

Reviews department reorganisation at Strange Horizons.

“What We’re Afraid To Say About Ebola.” Sobering editorial.

The One-Sex Body On Trial reviewed at the BMCR.

Elizabeth Bear on her Least Favorite Trope. Yeah, that’s one of mine, too.

And here’s a random kitten picture, via @fadeaccompli:

Books in brief: Bear, King, Galenorn, Redwine

Yasmine Galenorn, Bone Magic and Harvest Hunting. Berkley, 2010.

Oh, the terribleness of these books. Such terribleness. Such angst. Such faerie/werewolf/magic/vampire/poly/queer sex. It’s kind of glorious, in an utterly terrible all-the-urban-fantasy-clichés way.

C.J. Redwine, Defiance. Atom, 2012.

Can’t remember who told me I should read this. They weren’t exactly right. Bog-standard YA dystopia narrative, clearly drawing on John’s Apocalypse/millenarian reified symbols for its setting (not as imaginatively as Faith Hunter’s debut trilogy, alas), with a little too much illogical specialness thrown in. Not my sort of book, but probably appeals to the Divergent readership.

Elizabeth Bear, One-Eyed Jack. Prime, 2014.

An excellent urban fantasy set in 2002 Las Vegas, that plays with metafictionality while never breaking the fourth wall. Well recommended.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, On the Segregation of the Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 1994. This edition Picador 2014.

Why did no one ever hit me over the head with the amazingness that is this book before? IT IS BRILLIANT GIVE ME ALL THE SEQUELS NOW.


In conclusion, Elizabeth Bear and Laurie R. King write damn good books.

Review copies since last we spoke

Tor Books’ publicity department has sent me unexpected bounty – half of which I already have in ARC, and at least one of which I have no desire to read at all. (Benford and Niven’s Shipstar.)

Supervised by an interested Vladimir...

Supervised by an interested Vladimir…

So that’s Elizabeth Bear’s excellent STELES OF THE SKY; Rjurik Davidson’s certainly-not-to-my-taste UNWRAPPED SKY; Melanie Rawn’s THORNLOST, third book in a series; Tom Doyle’s military fantasy AMERICAN CRAFTSMEN; Sharon Lynn Fisher’s science fiction romance THE OPHELIA PROPHECY; and Benford and Niven’s SHIPSTAR.

Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy

I am talking about it over at Tor.com:

The trilogy opens with vultures, and it ends with them, too.

The prose is honed, lustrous, precise and pointed as a knife-blade. If it weren’t so sharply visceral, I’d call it “polished” or “elegant,” but it has violence as well as grace. Chiselled, perhaps, is one word for it: it draws me back and sweeps me along with it every time I open a page. It doesn’t efface itself, and I love it for its descriptive brilliance.

Books in brief: Bear, Elliott, Lin, Ross, Wells, Wright

Kate Elliott, Jaran, An Earthly Crown, and His Conquering Sword. Ebooks, Open Road Media, first published 1992-1993.

Read to cover in a later SWM column. It’s odd, sometimes, to come to a writer’s earlier work after their more mature stuff, and see the outlines of similar thematic concerns: much here is familiar, if in very different form, from the Crossroads trilogy. The through-line is more scattered, less developed, less well-defined – less, in all those respects that define a writer’s craft, mature – but these are still interesting novels, combining SFnal and fantastic sensibilities.

Ankaret Wells, Heavy Ice. Ebook, 2014, copy courtesy of the author.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. A lot of fun, set in the same universe (but many generations later) as The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. As with my previous experience of Wells’ books, the first half is very good and then the conclusion rather less good at pulling all the narrative threads together than one might wish.

But still, very fun. I want to read more like this.

Barbara Ann Wright, A Kingdom Lost. Ebook, Bold Strokes Books, 2014. Copy courtesy of publisher.

Third in series, after Pyramid Waltz and For Want of a Fiend. Wright has not developed any further as a prose stylist, but her grasp of narrative and tension, already solid, has here improved. I am decidedly pro Epic Fantasy With Lesbians, so I was already inclined to look favourably upon this novel – unfortunately, Wright and her publishers have chosen to hang a cliffhanger right in the middle of the climactic fight/chase sequence, which is a bit Bad Show, Chaps in my books.

I’m still looking forward to the next installment, though.

Jeannie Lin, The Jade Temptress. Ebook, Harlequin, 2014.

Romance set in Tang dynasty China. Rather weaker, I think, than Lin’s previous books.


Deborah J. Ross, The Seven-Petaled Shield and Shanivar. DAW, 2013. Copies courtesy of the publisher.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. I am a bit “meh” on these: they’re the first two novels in what seems like a not-particularly-imaginative epic fantasy series (trilogy?) but I can see how they might be more some other, less jaded reader’s cup of tea. However, I read three separate series in short order that featured clearly Mongol-inspired steppe nomads, and of these, Ross’s are the least convincing/interesting nomads. In some ways, reminiscent of a more consciously epic Mercedes Lackey – I think that is a good match for some of the sensibilities on display here.

Elizabeth Bear, Steles of the Sky. Tor, 2014. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. WOW. Masterpiece conclusion to an amazing trilogy. Bear’s books have only been in front of the public for about ten years: this may not mark the height of her potential powers. But wow. If she improves on this, if fate spares her to us for long enough? Forty years down the line, we may be talking of Elizabeth Bear as we talk today of Ursula K. LeGuin.

Hugo Award Nominations 2014. Part IV.

I’m attending the 2014 Worldcon, and that means I get to nominate for the Hugo Awards. And, because I’m the kind of shy retiring flower who hesitates to share her opinions, I’m going to tell you all about my nominations!

But I’ll do it in more than one blogpost, because the Hugo Awards have a lot of categories. And one may nominate up to five items in each category.

First post here. Second post here.

Now, let’s talk about the final category: Best Novel.

The sheer size of the field means it’s impossible for any single person to read every novel published in it, much less every novel and a good proportion of the short work, and the related work, and grasp at least some of the art – rather like Jonathan McCalmont and Martin Lewis and Ian Sales, I’m pretty convinced the Hugo Award has too many categories. (But we run with the award we have, not the one we wish we had.)

So when it comes to the novels I read that were published in 2013, let’s not pretend it isn’t a more limited field than the field as a whole. And while I’m going to be picking the best of that, let’s not pretend that technically-best isn’t going to be playing up against favourite-things-best.

So, caveats aside, what novels did I find best of 2013?

Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE tops the list. A debut novel, it is polished, powerful, doing interesting things with space opera, and kicked me in all the narrative squids.

Elizabeth Bear’s SHATTERED PILLARS comes second. It is an incredibly well-written book, and I really think its predecessor, Range of Ghosts, should have made more award lists last year.

Marie Brennan’s A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS is also on the list. I really like the world, the voice, and the narrative conceit of it, even if the pacing can be up-and-down.

Nicola Griffith’s HILD. I don’t care if it is fantasy, magical realism, or “merely” straight historical fiction. It is ON THIS LIST, because it belongs here.

I am torn over fifth place on the list. Nalo Hopkinson’s SISTER MINE? Roz Kaveney’s REFLECTIONS? Something else I haven’t got to read yet? Feel free to convince me in comments.

Linky hates the world (because it’s still cold)

Ex Urbe: Why We Kept Asking “Was Machiavelli An Atheist?”

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself. This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on. At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.

Elizabeth Bear: The map is not the territory:

The point here, inasmuch as I have one, is that the media we consume produces our map of the world. We process our understanding of reality through those filters: the human brain deals with a world of unrelenting complexity by finding patterns and filtering out input deemed to be irrelevant. Our bodies are optimized for this process, in fact: thus, as opportunistic omnivores, we readily taste salt, sugar, protein, acid, possibly fat–and certain classes of toxins!–but cats and chickens cannot taste sugar. (Some cats may have a limited ability to do so.) Cats, however, appear to be able to taste adenosine triphosphate: they’re obligate carnivores, and that is the taste of meat.

The Guardian: Why ebooks are a different genre from print:

There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.

PC Gamer: Bioware’s David Gaider asks: “How about we just decide how not to repel women?”

The problem, says Gaider, comes from falsely held industry standards and the phenomenon of privilege. Regarding the former, Gaider made no concessions for “conventional industry wisdom.” It’s “bull****,” he said, after ridiculing the idea that games with female protagonists aren’t marketable.

“Are we supposed to accept the opposite, that a game which has a male protagonist and sells well, sells well because it has a male protagonist?” asked Gaider. “What about the ones with male protagonists that don’t sell well? Are those for other reasons? What would be the bar at which the industry would change its mind about female protagonists? Would we need a title to sell 10 million copies? Is that the bar?”

On privilege, Gaider recognized that it’s a sensitive claim, but explained that’s it’s not about being sexist or racist—it’s intrinsic ignorance.

“Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally,” he said. “If you’re part of a group that’s being catered to, you believe that’s the way it should be. ‘It’s always been that way, why would that be a problem for anyone?’”

And this? This, for all the flaws of their games, is why I really rather like Bioware’s stuff. At least they’re trying.

Comic Book Characters In The Style Of Greek Art by Nicholas Hyde.

Books: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

My copy of Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars arrived today from the Book Depo, and to celebrate its shiny, shiny cover, I thought I’d share a Review I Made Earlier, when I received an ARC. (I do not believe the persons to whom I submitted this review are going to use it, so I feel free sharing it here.)

Elizabeth Bear, Shattered Pillars. Tor, 2013.

Shattered Pillars is the second volume of Hugo-Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear’s Central Asia-inspired Eternal Sky trilogy, after 2012’s Range of Ghosts. My love for Range of Ghosts is passionate and exceeds all rational bounds. It’s possible that nothing could have lived up to my expectations for its sequel – so when I say Shattered Pillars is something of a disappointment, it falls short of a very high bar.

And there’s still plenty of awesome here.

Temur, grandson of the Khagan of the steppe, and Samarkar, wizard of Tsarepheth and once a princess, have come to the city of Asitaneh to seek aid in Temur’s quest to find and rescue Edene, the woman he promised to marry, from the Cult of the Nameless in the Uthman Caliphate. Unbeknownst to them, Edene has already left the Nameless’s fortress, carrying a ring of power and Temur’s child, to raise an army of ghulim in the desert of ancient, deadly Erem.

But the forces of darkness are still at work in the Uthman Caliphate, on the steppe, and in Samarkar’s home. A plague has struck in Tsarepheth, for the city’s magical defences have been compromised by the politics of its rulers. We see the depredations of the plague of demons – demons that infest the lungs, and hatch out fatally after weeks of suffering – through the eyes of Han, the wizard who takes point on trying to find a cure, who also works closely with arriving refugees from the steppe, people who have left the lands controlled by Temur’s usurping uncle. Meanwhile, on the steppe, a servant of the Cult of the Nameless has become close in the counsels of the usurper Khagan, and in Asitaneh and parts west, Temur and Samarkar, accompanied by the tiger-woman Hrahima and the silent monk Hsiung, run into trouble when the Nameless engage in a spot of regime change in the Uthman Caliphate, making life difficult for our heroes. Eventually Temur and our heroes discover Edene’s already done a runner from the Nameless cult’s impregnable fortress, and Temur feels the time is right to raise his banner as a claimant to the Khagan’s seat.

Shattered Pillars is beautifully written, with Bear’s usual clean, precise prose, and fully-fleshed characters. Understated emotional beats and political intrigue, rooftop chases and burning cities, occasional stunning turns of description. The lung demon plague is horrifying, disgusting, and a marvellously inventive use of a fantasy setting, as is the gradual changes of the world’s sky, and the descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of Erem. As a book, I enjoyed it. But it’s very much a middle book of a trilogy, and has a number of classic middle book problems: more diffusion of focus, more confusion of characters, much that feels as though it’s setting up for an ultimate payoff in the final volume rather than paying off emotional or thematically before the end of this particular book. And I confess, I’m confused about what’s happening with Edene, and have been since the end of Range of Ghosts: Bear writes books that reward detailed attention and re-reading, and I suspect I’ll have to wait until the end of the final volume of the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, before I can be sure I understand what’s going on.

Shattered Pillars doesn’t quite live up to the awesome that was Range of Ghosts. That’d be hard, since Range of Ghosts hit what felt like every single one of my narrative kinks for epic fantasy and did it in new and intriguing ways. But despite its middle-book unevenness, it’s still a damn good novel, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

Linky brings tidings of tragedy and cheer

Elizabeth Bear on “I Love A Good Tragedy As Much As The Next Guy”:

I mean, we’ve all been fifteen and in love with death. Yours truly was a Goth before that was a thing; we were still adjectives back in my day, not even having graduated yet to nouns. That nihilistic view of the world is essentially a juvenile, sociopathic, self-justifying fetish, and most of us eventually grow out of it. We grow into a little responsibility, at least—the understanding that the only thing likely to make the world a more endurable place for the bulk of humanity is collective action. Even when we’re spending a significant amount of time selfishly looking out for number one.

Joe Abercrombie follows up his “Value of Grit” post with “Gritty Washback”:

Doubtless gritty fantasy (and I’d include my own) has not always covered itself in glory in its treatment of race and gender. Though I don’t see any reason why grit can’t be a powerful tool to investigate those issues, if wielded with skill, thought and responsibility (not by me, in other words).

Elizabeth Bear, again, with “I pity the fool”:

Every damned time the topic of diversity in SFF comes up, somebody says something about “Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that’s one thing. But if you’re just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you’re bound by ideology, and that’s bad art.”


… …
… … …

…because able Western white cis het male is the default. Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn’t inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that’s the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text.

Sofia Samatar interviews Nalo Hopkinson at Strange Horizons.

Also at Strange Horizons, the results of the 2012 Readers’ Poll. Very personally flattering, and congratulations to everyone else who made the lists.

@fidelioscabinet has provided a transcript of a Twitter conversation about anthropology in SFF between Rose Lemberg, Kate Elliott, me, and a couple of others.