Friday, December 22, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 7: Machineries of Empire Series, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have seen this series called space-opera or space fantasy. I don’t really know how to define the first, and I fear the second is often used to belittle science fiction that isn’t written by and for physics majors. To me, Machineries of Empire reads very much as science fiction, some of the most novel and exciting science fiction I have read in years. These are books about war and intrigue in a complex, rigidly organized society whose aristocrats have strange, psychic/magical powers. They spend a huge portion of their prose on exposition, description, and backstory. It is tense, engaging, beautiful, and difficult to put down. Here are some of my thoughts on the really important elements of that apparent contradiction, which I am hurriedly stuffing into this bag for my own use.

Big ideas really can be fascinating. Idea fiction is hard, like super hard, and I am particularly hard ground for many flavors of that particular seed. I did philosophy in college, and I bounce off a lot of work grounded in philosophical ideas from my own preference for rigor. Machineries of Empire is all about big ideas, about the nature of trust, of government, about the purpose of civilization on a galactic scale, and it is fascinating. The characters care so deeply about these questions that we as readers must as well. Lee’s characters care so deeply about these questions, about the potential for individuals to change and influence their fate in the great system, about the religious/political constitution of the empire and what it means. Machineries of Empire was able to make me care about big ideas that I did not come into the story looking for in way I am still barely beginning to understand as a matter of technique.

You can world-build forever if your world is cool enough. Lee spends a lot of time just teaching the reader about the world of the Hexarchate and its neighbors, how the government, and the religion, and the technology work, how it all came to be and how it evolved over centuries. Those long dives into history and science/magic mechanics and technology are some of the best parts, because the history and technology and magic/religion/government are incredibly cool, surprising, exciting ideas. These books have exotic (as in exotic physics) technologies that only function in those parts of space where everyone on the relevant space stations and planets follows/believes in/conforms to the appropriate calendar, and a vast government/religion whose raison d’être is enforcing that conformity. There are soldiers who voluntarily take on a compulsion to obey superior officers so strong refusal is fatal. The world is so rich and interesting that I never resented a long dive into it, away from the theoretically more proximate action of the main plot.

Awesome names do work. A huge part of the world building and delicious immersion of Machineries of Empire is done with names, evocative, strange names that are either never explained or only explained much later. When I read “ninefox crowned with eyes,” or “Kniferose” or “The Fortress of Spinshot Coins,” or hear of the terrible “threshold winnower,” I am immediately placed in a fascinating, alien world. Names do so much for the world of Machineries of Empire. They put you immediately in the flood of a new world and invite you to swim after brilliant, unknown fish. (more on my love of deep-end first world-building in a forthcoming blog on China Mieville; more on my love of complicated names in literally everything I manage to publish.) Lee claims not to be a visual writer, but the names do more work than most descriptions, and give readers (at least me) an endless succession of vivid images, or the sensation of having an image even if it is hazy, which is just as good.

Caring about individuals when dealing with conflict on a galactic scale is revolutionary and difficult. A society that encompasses hundreds of planets, that is united by faster than light travel and the strange contortions of a religious/calendrical system that enables that travel, necessarily contains a vast amount of human suffering, of people overlooked and neglected, or ground in the uncaring wheels of a vast bureaucracy. The Hexarchate of Lee’s novels contains quite a bit more, since the calendar that permits the technology that maintains the empire to function requires regular public torture and execution of heretics. In such a large, cruel world, it is revolutionary to have power and to care about the powerless as individuals. Lee’s heroes do that, and it makes them special beyond the power of brilliance or strength to do so. To have a novel of vast conflict and intrigue and make its heart one of care is powerful, and it reinforces the importance of care for the constitution of government and the personalities of those few who can move the levers of power. It is always worth remembering the power of care, especially when the size of the world and its troubles seems to dwarf our individual complaints.

Machineries of Empire encompasses the already released Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, with the forthcoming Revenant Gun.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 6: Hunger Makes the Wolf, By Alex Wells

Full disclosure to begin: Alex bought my first story sale. The goodwill I have for them, for that, and for how lovely they were during editing, is hard to overstate. It’s a major reason I got this book to read the first time. It is very much not why I am writing this article now.

I read Hunger Makes the Wolf in one day. I did nothing else. I had not planned to spend my Saturday doing nothing but reading, but I opened the book, and then I had no choice but to continue. Be warned; it is difficult to stop this train once it leaves the station. Be sure you have set aside the time you need to make the journey, but do make sure to take it. Hunger Makes the Wolf is entirely worth whatever space you can make for it. Here are some fumbles at why, as I try to find a way to distill a little of the same pulse-pounding pull into my own work.

Visceral description makes everything realer and more compelling. From the first sentence of Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can taste the grit of Tanegawa’s World between your teeth, feel the heat of the desert and the sweat under your leathers. The powerfully present physicality of the characters’ experience transports you into the setting on a bedrock level. Even now, months after my last reading, I can conjure the heat and dust and sound of the story in a moment. I strive for viscerality, for that closeness, in my own writing, and I have no idea if I achieve it, but Wells never lets you down. From start to finish, you can place yourself right under the skin of the world and the immersion gives the story weight.

Solidarity is the foundation of resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf is, at its heart, a union story. The villain is the corporate overlord, and the heroines are the core of a resistance. Wells understands, very well if you follow their real-world social media presence, the nature and history of corporate violence and oppression and the need for solidarity on all levels, to resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf showcases the quest for a broad union, between communities, between workers of different industries, but also at the personal level. It is the strength of personal bonds that lets the heroes of this story be heroic. Hob and Mags trust each other, and they are the hinges of a power that can fight a corporation bigger than the interstellar government and win, at least for a little while. Hob trusts her gang, and they trust her to lead. They don’t think each other perfect; they understand the foibles and weaknesses and bad decisions that their friends have made and will continue to make, but they build something together. That core of trust and action together is a worthwhile lesson, for society and for writing. Friendship can move mountains. Solidarity can re-shape the world. It takes the small to build the large, and together the poor and insignificant can shake the thrones of the mighty.

Fear also build coalitions. Hunger Makes the Wolf is a story about solidarity, but it is also a story about witch hunts, quite literal ones. The corporation preys on fear of the other, and on fear of being labelled among the undesirable, to make the people of Tanegawa’s world police themselves and purge people suspected of having power the corporation fears, and it works, sometimes extremely well. Even people who know what the right thing will be do the wrong thing when it will keep them safe. From the outside, a mob and a community coming together look very similar, and Hunger Makes the Wolf has both, and makes you understand how people who are not particular evil by nature become so when they are pushed toward it.

There are different kinds of strength, and they are all important. Hob is a biker and a fighter and witch, and she does violence and rides the desert, and that matters. Mags is a miner’s daughter and a talker and an organizer. She builds networks and reads people and convinces them, and that matters. It takes a clever hand to make space for fire-magic and reckless gunplay, and careful building of a half-secret network of solidarity to feel important as part of the same larger puzzle, and Wells does an amazing job with it.

Heavy subjects don’t mean a heavy book. This all sounds really serious doesn’t it? I have not managed to approximate the tone of Hunger Makes the Wolf in this blog about it. The book is a fast-driving good time, full of perfect action and occasional tenderness, with delightful humor and plenty of stand and pump your fist moments. When I try to learn from Hunger Makes the Wolf, that’s the heart of what I’m aiming at: something that deals with weighty, topical things without reading like a tract or an epic. Hunger Makes the Wolf is fun, so much fun, and there is still more to come back and enjoy once all the twists and plunges of the rollercoaster are familiar. It’s an alchemy of prose and concept and humor and joy that makes a book that is satisfying in a single huge gulp or a long savoring. Definitely give it a look.

Once you’ve enjoyed Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can pre-order the sequel, Blood Binds the Pack at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part Five: Persons Non Grata, by Cassandra Khaw

Persons Non Grata is currently two linked, but entirely stand-alone horror novellas by the delightful Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. The books are beautifully short and driven, perfect for reading in a single sitting. I read Hammers on Bone in an hour on the train, and was extremely sad to have no more to read when I was done. These books are worth devouring, sharp and dangerous and richly sweet and broken glass made from honey and butter. They are my absolute favorite pieces of modern Lovecraftian horror, preserving the power of cosmic horror better than anything else I’ve read. I want to steal almost everything about these books, perhaps enough that I should consider simply consuming them whole, to absorb the entirety of their power. Until I work up the jaw strength and gastric fortitude for that, here are some of the pieces I think are most important.

There is vast terror, and there are small, personal hurts, and both are needed to sharpen the other. Cosmic horror, the horror of a vast and peopled universe filled with intelligences that waver between utter indifference and active malice towards the life of individuals and of humanity as a whole can, and in Persons Non Grata does, create a pall of dread that heightens the emotion of reading. But this play on the strings of anxiety cannot become proximate and sudden without a certain diminishment. In Khaw’s stories, the dread is sharpened by the pricks of smaller, more ordinary horrors, by neglect, loss, hunger, poverty, and the pain of lonely, frightened child. These small hurts twist the knife in skin that universal dread has sensitized, and the confluence is delicious and terrible. The dread too is made more with these little barbs to pull it closer. The end of the world is more real when you can see why someone would desire it, why the building of little pains could make the end of everything seem like a panacea.

Pain hurts, and you feel every second. Cassandra Khaw is the finest writer I have read for describing the experience of physical pain. She makes it hurt, but spins just enough art into the pain that I don’t white-out and stop imagining the whole sensation. That’s often how it goes for me. I note that pain is part of the scenario, but it drifts to the back of my imagination of the scene, because it’s quite unpleasant. Khaw keeps the pain close and real and hurting just the right amount. It works so well in these horrors, to make success cost enough. Even when the heroes win, you can feel the damage, and it keeps building up. That feeling of pain that stays, victory that costs for more than scene, is something I am trying hard to learn from Persons Non Grata.

Gorgeous prose can keep the sharpest edge. Very often, our reflex is to associate elaborate prose with distancing, with slowness or absurdity. The tortured thesaurus diving of Lovecraft and his imitators brings a jarring note of unintended humor to the horror. If purple prose is prose that jars or calls unnecessary attention to itself with its elaboration, then there is nothing purple about Khaw’s writing. Her language shines dark and rich and smooth as molasses pouring from the jar, cuts sharp and raw as a frozen knife breaking your skin. There is more than enough weight to take it between your teeth and grind the last drop of flavor out by slow savoring, but the pace of the story pulls you on faster than that, even through the luxury of language. Not a bit of Khaw’s prose erodes the horror of her narrative. If anything, it reinforces it. The lush, vibrant prose reveals more details to disturb, just enough to make your imagination form a more vivid picture than fainter brushstrokes could reveal. As you may be able to tell, I have a love for elegant and expansive writing, and perhaps aspirations to match Khaw’s command of such.

Even in the impossible darkness between uncaring stars, there is reason for hope. Both of these novellas are horror, unequivocally, and they deal with both the cosmic terror of a monstrous universe, and the smaller horror of monstrous societies, but both, in my reading, end with hope. Even in the face of flesh and teeth and huge inhuman hungers, the world does not end. Even in the face of pain and poverty and prejudice, the battered, broken heroes do not want it to. There is a delicate art to horror on the larger scale that does not lead to nihilism, but still preserves the balance of terror, and Khaw strikes a perfect note. I am taking notes on it. The power of hope prevailing, if only for a brief reprieve, after the touch of more than human darkness is worth all of our attention, and so is the strength of Khaw’s protagonists, especially in A Song for Quiet, to embrace hope after the smaller, sharper horrors of their lives.

I will make no secret here that this entry in the Stolen Ideas series is particularly special for me. I have discovered Cassandra Khaw only recently, and she has risen already to be among my very favorite authors. Her prose is spectacular and engaging and very much like what I imagine my own best work to be. Of all the authors mentioned and to-be-mentioned here, she is the one I most imagine a collaboration with, because there is a harmony between her words and my dreams that I have found with nothing else. Her work, and her delightful twitter microfictions are well worth everyone’s attention.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I, Also, am Eligible for Awards

Four of my stories were published this year. This is the first year that this has happened. This means that in 2018, I and my works will be eligible for some awards. I am kind of excited about this, everyone. I’m sure everyone who keeps up with authors has seen a bunch of these posts lately, but here’s what I’ve got:

Incursion was my first sale and my first publication, in the No Shit, There I Was anthology. It’s a mythos adjacent story built around an extremely annoying interrogation. If you like frustrated magical cop-equivalents and unreliable stoners, try it out. If you like fun SFF, try out the anthology. At 4,650 words, it’s eligible in the short story category for things like the Hugo and Nebula.

The House of Guan is a story about family and philosophy and the perils of equating financial success with virtue, packed with wuxia action and bad poetry. I wrote it after a week in which I watched both Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and you can tell. It appeared in the May issue of Phantaxis magazine. At 9,400 words, it's eligible in the Novelette category.

The Best Busker in the World is a little fairy story, by which I mean (and always mean) something inspired by the fairy myths of Ireland, England, Scotland, rather than a general European wonder-tale. It has music and longing and the ache of losing a magical place and not knowing how to get back. It appeared in episode 264 of Cast of Wonders, and it is worth a listen just for amazing job Katherine Inskip and Jeremy Carter did telling it. Their work has certainly elevated mine past anything I expected when I wrote it. At 1,700 words The Best Busker in the World is eligible in the short story category.

Salt Town is a story about a witch, and a town with salt walls to keep the monsters out, and the kind of monster that those walls can’t keep out. The idea began with my complete misunderstanding of what the Wieliczka salt mine cathedral looked like, and my imagination ran from there. Salt Town appears in the current issue of Body Parts magazine. At 4,200 words, it is also eligible in the short story category.

Because two of those stories (Incursion and The Best Busker in the World) were bought at a professional pay rate, 2018 will also be my first year of eligibility for the Campbell Award for new writers, so think of me if you liked my stories and are a Worldcon member.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 4: The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone

We’re through my fairy story touchstones now, so as NaNoWriMo winds down, let’s look more broadly at the stuff that is super exciting and worth your reading and thinking, and that I am trying to plunder as I write. Max Gladstone’s craft sequence is not the easiest to explain. He’s provided a help page on how to pitch the books. I’d say they were post-industrial fantasy with flavors of the new weird, and that the plots are legal/financial thrillers similar to John Grisham, if lawyers were necromancers, money was souls, and cops were terrible divine avatars. What they certainly are is smart, exciting, tightly-plotted, lushly-described, completely-original, and stunningly enjoyable fantasy books. You should read them. Go ahead, this blog will keep.

Okay, here’s what I think I can make off with before he gets back to the shop and calls the cops:

Important victories can’t be won in a fistfight. Fantasy can very often be said to have a violence problem. I’m far too steeped in the depiction of violence in fiction to have detached take on that big picture, but I certainly think fantasy has a problem with the idea that violence is a frequently useful and successful problem-solving method. Gladstone really, really doesn’t fall into that trap. Like real people in a real society, his characters often don’t like resorting to violence; they often face consequences for doing so; they always want things that can’t be gotten by punching or stabbing the people in their way. (while it may be possible in Gladstone’s world to stab the concept of the panopticon, that really doesn’t address the issue in a useful fashion.) That’s not to say that Gladstone’s books don’t have wonderful fights in them: they do, and he knows how to make a fight emotional and character driven, it’s just that the scenes of careful negotiation and fraught legal argument wind up being as compelling as the flash of swords and scent of magic. Gladstone’s books are a primer on how to build tension and emotion over office work and coffee.

Issues that seem dry and boring can be thrilling, and certainly are important to the heart of people’s lives. In rough order, the central conflicts of Gladstone’s books revolve around: zoning, utilities/watershed management, bankruptcy court, hostile takeover, offshore tax-havens, and living in the surveillance state. I read the watershed one in three days and hated every time I had to put it down. Gladstone makes what seem like dull minutia present and exciting and real. He shows the high stakes these things have for people’s lives. Magic just makes it a little faster, demonic invasion as the failure state instead of a major city slowly sinking into drought. There is a brilliance and power to these stories that center things which most fantasy world-building completely ignores, and Gladstone has a boundless compassion for the people caught in the uncaring wheels of government and business. He takes the legal and the erudite and makes it personal and potent.

Institutions and the individuals that make them up both matter terribly. The Craft Sequence spends a lot of time on institutions: law firms, church-governments, water-utility-governments, police forces, investment banks. Gladstone spends time on the construction of those institutions, their idiosyncrasies, obligations, ethics, and rules. He shows how the structure matters. I know it’s made me think much more carefully about the governments and businesses of my own settings. He shows with flair and tenderness the ways institutions hurt, and how they could be better. Both good and harm can come from the structures, but also from the individuals who direct and shape them. Even when the police are shadow-monsters possessed by the lobotomized revenant of a fallen god, the personalities of individual officers matter. The prejudices of a ruby-eyed skeleton CEO/king can’t help but infect the business he runs, even when they’re not written into any contract. I may have trouble fitting Gladstone’s brilliant balance between big ideas and personal stakes out the door, but I’m giving it a shot. It’s too nice to leave sitting here.

Knowledge is power, and not just for magical secrets. The idea of knowledge a power is pretty-much omnipresent in fiction with wizards: if the knowledge is how to shooting lightning with your mind, there’s no question it’s very practical and direct power. Gladstone goes farther than that, and shows how, even in a fantasy world, quite mundane knowledge is so often the key to success: details of legal procedure, the best shortcut through the alleyways, The history of a neighborhood, where the poets come to read and drink, game theory, risk management. It all matters, and even when magic permeates the world, everything else is still important. Gladstone doesn’t let the magic run away with story, or paper-over any of incredible complexity of human experience and society.

Late capitalism is devouring hell-scape which we must all fight to escape. Gladstone’s work is unapologetically allegorical for many of the worst parts of our globalized, finance-driven political and economic system, and he is not shy about pointing out how terrible all of it is: how unethical professors and debt can trap students in servitude; how the most basic necessities of life become commodities; how business uproots and displaces the poor and marginalized to make more room for the wealthy and privileged; how finance is stained by complicity with the criminals who abuse it, how the police serve the state and not the people. Gladstone’s characters do not shy from fighting these injustices, and his work inspires me each time to think more about what I can do in my personal life, and how I can better use my writing to aim at the issues of today, no matter how fantastical or distant the setting.

The Craft Sequence novels, in order of publication, are Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow, Four Roads Cross, and Ruin of Angels. They are, in any order, well worth your reading time.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 3: The Tufa Novels, by Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels (there are five out, I have read three, I believe the final total is to be six) are contemporary fantasy that places fairies in mountains of Tennessee, in the fictional Cloud County, and they are filled with humor, compassion, and the magic of music, traditional music of the British Isles and the Bluegrass it became in America. Anyone who has heard me talk about any of these things will know at once how much I love these books. I love the music especially. I love music, mostly folk music of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and also some bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music. I spend a lot of time listening to music, and while I cannot play, I love to think about it, and I love to read and to write about it. Books that center a complex and novel interpretation of fairy lore along with beautiful description of traditional music, are about as far into my wheelhouse as anything can get, so these are very much books for me. So, what am I stealing from them?

Fairies come in courts, or something like them, and the division is about internal politics, intra-fairy rivalries, and different relationships with humans. The idea of different fairy courts came up the Promethean Age, but it doesn’t loom as large in my idea of those books as it does for Bledsoe’s books. I think he gets to the heart of what I want to matter about the different kinds of fairy. It isn’t good fairies and bad fairies, that’s a very important start. If there are fairies that can be easily labelled good, I’m ready to get off the bus right there. The core division is between the fairies who leave us benevolently alone, and the one who take at will, the hungry ones; not a distinction between good and evil, but between foreign and monstrous. Bledsoe nails the dynamic, and his fairy flavors are distinct and interesting. The ‘good’ ones are content to keep to themselves and their traditions, built around strong families and a memory that stretches back over the Atlantic; the bad ones are specters of abuse, seducers who take one night of passion and leave you with an addiction you can never shake, the products and recapitulators of abusive families and toxic gender-politics. Bledsoe does pitch-perfect work making two kinds of fairies that are both part of the same whole, two sides of a coin with only a narrow edge between them.

Music is the magic, and it reaches as deep as the soul. Bledsoe’s fairies are all about music, not as a side element or one of many things, but at the center of all their magic and all that makes them different from the humans around them. I take the Tufa novels as my guide for writing about the uses and power of music and poetry: how a song can be made to fit a need, how music can command the heart and mind, how the stories songs tell are so important. It is possible that people who do not primarily listen to ballads won’t connect with this the way I do, but I’m writing a second novel this month that relies on the hope there are enough people who care about this to sustain a stable market.

There is power in rules and traditions, whether you follow them or break them. Old traditions and old memory define the Tufa community, with immortals and keepers of immortal memory to keep them alive. You can see the deep thought Bledsoe puts into the nature of these traditions as the series unfolds, and his characters begin to manipulate the old rules and break them for maximum strategic effect. I think old laws and traditions belong in a fairy story, but it’s equally important to remember that magical laws are more judicial than the laws of physics. They can be bent and twisted and broken at need.

There is a power in community, in gathering, in ritual, beyond the strength of the individuals who come together. Bledsoe’s fairies gather to make music and work magic and order their lives, and the gathering places and knots of people that fill them are places and patterns of power. This is an idea with no need to be confined to fairy stories, but Bledsoe’s books make me think about the strength and the importance of gathering together, especially for small communities, more strongly than any other books I can bring to mind. It is a lesson I can always do with remembering, as someone who grew up and lives in a big city, and pays more attention to intentional communities and intellectual ones in my private life. Bledsoe is an excellent teacher about communities that are a place filled by a people.

Morality and goodness matter and can prevail, even in the face of fairy weirdness and magic. Bledsoe’s books are full of good people who try to do the right thing, and sometimes it works, and that’s important. I have a tendency to complicate motives and fill the world with shades of grey, but it is always worth remembering that there are good people, and that people do good, and sometimes that’s what matters, and sometimes the fallen world doesn’t throw it back into their faces.

The Tufa Novels so far released are The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and Gather Her Round.

Also, as you read, look up The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which is a real painting that has a very important fictional life in these novels. In the interest of full disclosure, I first read about the painting in these books and thought it was made up until earlier this year, when I listened to the audiobook of View from the Cheap Seats and heard Neil Gaiman talking about it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 2 “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, available in Gaiman’s third short story collection, Trigger Warning, is my single favorite piece of writing. It is true and hard and painful like peeling off a scab too soon. It is a story that feels written precisely for me in its tone, content, concept, and conclusion. I am still uncertain whether I prefer reading the words myself, or listening to Gaiman’s reading from the audiobook.

Gaiman is difficult for me, in the particular context of this series of articles (his books appear more than once in my list of things to write about). I love his work as much as anything I read, and I almost always want to achieve the same feeling for my readers that I get from Gaiman, but our styles are so different it is hard to know what to take. His prose is elegant and spare, and mine too ornamented to properly emulate him. Still, there is too much I love not to try and find something I can carry off in “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.”

Fairy magic cannot return what you have lost, no matter what they promise. This is a story about seeking a fairy cave filled with uncounted wealth, but it is really about loss and what comes after, and no magic can un-lose the people we miss most. Of course this idea is not original or unique to Gaiman’s story, but his juxtaposition of inescapable loss with a world where fairies are real and magic waits for those who seek is masterful and poignant.

There is a space between desire and need, and sorrow and hurt lies there. The cost of seeking what is desired but not needed is as close to an overarching theme of this story as I can articulate, and it is an endlessly important idea to remember for a fairy story. When there are bargains to be made with powers that can give you just what you ask for, the space between what you will ask for and what you should ask is vast, and the whole of your life may turn on the mistake. Gaiman writes the rueful understanding that you have made the wrong choice better than anyone.

There is a wonder in empty, wild places, and magic lives where we are not. Neil Gaiman makes me want to travel like no other author. This story will send me to Skye one day, just as “In Relig Oran” will send me to Iona when time and money allow. The beauty and the power of lonely black mountains where people come seldom fills the story from start to finish. Someday I will wring as much wonder from ordinary world as Neil Gaiman; for now, I get half as much from the fantastical as he does from rocks and clouds and rain on the slate ocean.

Old wives’ tales and folk wisdom remain for a reason. The people who live a day’s walk from the cave filled with fairy gold do not go in, do not take the riches that wait for the taking. They know the cost is more than the worth of the money. When magic is near, it leaves a memory, and the old wisdom of people who live at the edge of the commonplace and the fantastic is old for a reason. It lasts because it is needed.

Revenge is not righteous, nor does it liberate. Gaiman knows that killing is still evil when it feels righteous, that it leaves a scar even when we could not do otherwise. Even when we have assured ourselves to a nicety that all we do is justified, the killing stays, and it does not erase a bit of the pain that drove us to begin with.

I look back over this blog as I outlined and as I have written it, and it is full of platitudes and banalities, and I do not know how to say better what I want to mean. I do not fully understand what I am trying to take from “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.” I cannot say it clearly. I am trying to steal a twist of comfortable pain under my breast-bone, a warmth in my belly, a shiver in my bones. I am trying to recreate the feeling of almost tears that never flow, brought on not by a sadness but by a perfect weight of emotion, by the rightness of feeling just so as I hear the words pronounced.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is my favorite story, and I do not understand it, not enough to explain what is so perfect and so painful about it. Not enough to say why is has made a home in the heart of me and will not leave. All I can really say is that you should read it, if you love stories, or words, or beautiful things. Read it, and if you someday read something of mine and think you see the smallest echo of what you find in Gaiman’s story, tell me, and I will count it as a great success.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 1: The Promethean Age Novels, by Elizabeth Bear

Here we begin a new series for this blog. The next few months will be about books I unreservedly love, authors who are doing things I find interesting and expanding and challenging, and, as the title suggests, books with ideas, styles, elegance of prose and tone, or other excellences that I am actively trying to incorporate into my own work. I intend this series to give some insight, for the very few who may be interested (hi dad), into my creative thought process, but more importantly to highlight exciting authors, many of them relatively current, and direct readers to the people who have already done the things I am trying to emulate, generally better than I can.

It is not particularly hyperbolic to say that these novels are some of the most important books in my life. They are the fairy books to which I compare all others in that niche, my gold standard for modern literary treatment of the old stories, and I take the ideas I will highlight in this blog as a good checklist of elements that make a fairy story whole for me. The books come in two pairs, one pair set in the modern day as fairy struggles to reclaim a place in the human imagination and deals with the consequences of doing so; the second a sort prequel, set in Elizabethan England and starring delightfully imagined Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. The ideas I want to talk about thread through all four novels. By the time you read this, I will have begun work on the second book of a planned trilogy that counts these books as its most direct inspiration. So, let’s get right into why these books are so excellent, and what ideas I am tearing out of them to spruce up the unruly nest of my own writing.

Fairy takes. That comes first and fundamental to a story about fairies and the immortal West. Fairyland and its fairies are hungry, and everything they give costs dear. There is always an exchange, but a good bargain is not one that costs less; it is one where the mortal has reckoned the cost beforehand and resolved that what they can get is worth the price. More often, the reward is gone in an instant, and the price lasts a lifetime: ruined limbs and a mind filled only with the memory for one night of dancing on the green while fairy music played, your freedom and your choice for the chance to claim a fairy birthright and live a little longer than mortal span. Sometimes, you do not make the choice; it is made for you, and you pay the price for a gift you never wanted. I think the idea of fairy as a hungry place is at the core of work that gives proper respect to the old myths that long preceded the fairy-dust and little wings of Victorian corruption.

Magic costs too, the getting and the using of it. There can be magic in a bloodline, as there is for the changeling main character of the first pair of novels, but birth to power is birth to obligation, perhaps even to destiny, and those chains bind tight and take their price in heartache. Another character is a witch, and that power comes quite literally from congress with the devil. Blood or gift, knowledge or skill, magic is not a wand and a smile in place of work. It is another bargain, with a price in time or pain or something harder. Using the power gained is just as expensive, or worse. Will and secret knowledge and knot in your hair may let you bind a fairy by its name and hold it at your service, but tying the knot changes you, and each one after does the same. Bear shows the power the first binding, and the weight of the choice to give it up, and she shows us a fairy queen with countless servants knotted into her hair, and how those knots breed fear and hate and isolation, and how they chain the queen’s choices down to a narrow course. Witchcraft is more expensive still, if one wishes to be rid of the Devil’s company, when each act of that power presses the memory of a blasphemous kiss against your skin. Anyone who has read any of my stories knows I take care to make my magic cost, and the Promethean Age is as good a treatise as any on this point.

Stories matter. An oft repeated refrain in the Promethean Age is that “all stories are true.” Bear’s fairies (and many other creatures of magic and myth) are shaped by the stories people tell or once told about them. Bear fills her novels with a wealth of literature and mythology beyond the core of fairy stories, and I adore all of it. (It’s not a focus here because I can’t steal most of it for my secondary-world novels.) I adore the intentional use of story by characters, and Bear is no less adept than Terry Pratchett at writing characters who understand the power of narrative and manipulate it to their own ends, nor at showing the way a story can trap someone and carrying them along like an irresistible flood. The war between fairy and the iron world is waged over centuries, and stories and poetry are the weapons that scar human minds to one side or the other. Prophecy and destiny are recurrent themes in the Promethean Age, and what is destiny but a story the protagonist cannot escape? I have prophecies to deal with in my new novel, and intentional use of stories. I hope I can achieve an echo of the power Bear takes from them in her work.

Music, all art really, is a magic and power all its own. Music and magic go together so tightly in fairy stories that light between the two is likely a weakness in the writer’s weave, and Bear has no chinks. She takes the idea more broadly, and in a wonderful direction. In the Elizabethan novels, the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Ben Johnson are grand sorceries, fighting back the plague and auguring the stability or fall of kings. When The Fairy Queen is published, the black hair of fairy queens turns red, and all queens are Elizabeth. I love poetry, and I love writing about music, and I adore any excuse to commit both things to the core of my narrative.

Fairy stories are really about people. Fairies are inhuman, immortal, magical, inscrutable, powerful creatures, and they are not the center of a good fairy story. Fairies need things; they trick, bind, aid, hunger, and demand of mortals. They are an inciting incident and a monster and an enticement, but the heart of a good fairy story is a human, a flawed, damaged mortal, or a collection of them. Bear delivers on this masterfully, masterfully enough that her work broke me out of deeply-carved youthful rut that kept my focus too much on the fairies, the their detriment and my stories’. I have made a choice to have no full fairies as points of view in my own fairy novels, to not offer a look inside their heads, and Bear’s brilliantly human characters are a large part of that decision. She reminds me every time I read that fairies are beautiful monsters, but the real weight comes from how they touch us, ordinary, human, vulnerable readers.

Here closes my first hectic, confused attempt at this kind of article. I hope I will have moved some of you to check out Elizabeth Bear’s writing, which is brilliant, and perhaps you’ll be intrigued by some of the same ideas that grabbed me by the throat and pulled. For those searching, the Promethean Age novels are Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Heaven and Earth. May you love them as much as I do.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 12: Neuromancer and Various Short Stories, By William Gibson

I had a distinct cyberpunk period (of reading and imagining), and it began with Neuromancer before expanding into Bruce Sterling and Lucuis Shepard and Neal Stephenson. For a sheltered child, Neuromancer, and cyberpunk in general, were something like drugs: raw, transgressive, mind expanding, filled with drugs. The cyberpunk aesthetic, especially early work like Gibson’s sprawl, seemed designed to shock, and I was appropriately shocked by the dirt, the smog, the pettiness of criminals and the godlike remove of the zaibatsus (huge corporations are all Japanese, or at least referred to that way, in early cyberpunk.) There was an almost sickening glorification of the violated and degraded in cyberpunk, the obsession with invasive body-modification, with the spiral of addiction, with the invigilating nature of poverty in the future. I had never met anything like it, and it was fascinating.

I came to cyberpunk from a slightly younger period steeped in classic science fiction, the technological optimism of the golden age, and cyberpunk was a splash of cold water collected in a rusted bucket from acid rain filtered through a slowly dying neon sign that advertised a virtual escape from the grind of life in a slum. The drastic transition from optimism to cynicism heightened, I think, the impression that Neuromancer made on me.

Another of the fascinating parts of Neuromancer that I now understand had a serious effect on me was the matter-of-factness of the transhumanism presented. I do not know that Gibson would have used the term then, but Neuromancer, and his short stories, were filled unproblematic human augmentation: implanted organs to prevent drug abuse, fingernail razors and sunglass eyeshades, an implanted holographic projection system. All of it is treated as unremarkable, exceptional for cost and elegance perhaps, but the concept of enhancing body and mind with implanted metal and silicon is not problematized. Stories that spend more time wondering about the nature of humanity and where it breaks down under augmentation have often landed poorly with me, perhaps in consequence of Neuromancer as an introduction.

There is a lot for a kid to not get in Neuromancer, when they haven’t read much similar fiction, or been to a regular school, or learned about the world of current events and recent history in anything approaching a systematic fashion. There are both a character and a backstory subplot that strongly evoke the Vietnam war, which I am not sure I had heard of when I first read Neuromancer. There are multiple cultures of recreational drug use, addiction, dependence and attendant troubles, which I certainly did not fully grasp at the time. There are space Rastafarians. I am certain I did not, when I first read Neuromancer, know what a Rastafarian was.

Despite some things going right over my head, Neuromancer punched hard and settled in. I read a lot of William Gibson after that. I do not remember the novels I read then very well (more about other novels, which I read later, in another blog.) Some of them were perhaps forgettable, others were likely brilliant, but at the time confusing, without the core of straightforward adventure that dragged me through the strangeness of Neuromancer. The short stories were different. Many of those dug in very hard. I still return to the first collection I bought, titled for the story I will begin with.

“Burning Chrome” is the quintessential Gibson, the quintessential cyberpunk short story. When I first read it, it was an action story, full of thrilling crime, colorfully sinister supliers, culminating a heist pulled off with flair and skill and luck to punish the guilty and reward the virtuously criminal. I loved the vivid strangeness of the matrix with its geometries of colored light and shifting identities. Now on my return, the flavor is more melancholy. The success is only part of a larger failure, the victory wins no prize, and the damage of poverty against ambition is done long before stolen wealth can soften the blow.

That, I think is a fair example of my reading of William Gibson then and now. When I was young, it was a grit and the flash that excited me, the thrill of heists and narrow escapes, or failed ones. On returning, the stories are an education in melancholy, in the failure of technology to improve mankind’s morality, society, or soul. Cyberpunk was a shock, and I mainlined the stuff for years. I still remember the smell of smog and ozone, the flash of chrome, and the glow of a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel.

And with that, dear reader, we come to the end of this series on books and authors that shaped my young reading, at a nice round dozen. Next up, since I’ve finally figured out how to write about books in a way I enjoy, and have reasonable hope others may enjoy, is a series on the books and authors whose ideas I am currently trying to steal for my own work. So, read about the hot new (and not particularly new) stuff that’s got me the most excited to read and emulate.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 11: Roman Britain Novels, By Rosemary Sutcliff

This week, we bounce back in the timeline a little to books that were first read to me and then re-read a few times on my own. I hadn’t originally thought of writing about Rosemary Sutcliff for this series, but a recent conversation with my parents reminded me of her books, and how much I enjoyed them, and how worthwhile telling people about them is.

Each of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels of Roman Britain stands alone, with small references to earlier books for the enjoyment of careful readers. They are vividly world-built in both the physical environment and the culture. Much history is mentioned, but much less is explained. Exposition stays well confined to the perspective of the characters, even when what is common knowledge for them is mysterious to the young reader. The immersion is well-maintained and the characters feel authentically of their time, never turning toward the fourth wall for historical expositions. When I first read these books, I did not approach them differently than fantasy novels. I had no other historical reference to the times they were set with which to orient myself, so the world depicted was new and strange

I have only come to love these novels more as I return with much greater historical context. I find the interplay of solid history with legend and imagination enchanting, and I appreciate the effort Sutcliff puts on depicting the culture of the past without judgment, but also without excessive bowdlerizing. These books are satisfying to an amateur student of Roman history, both in the hints of larger social and political moves that drift into the narrative, and in their joyful examination of the details of daily life, hypocausts, and bath-houses, and legion careers. Beyond those details, the novels are united by repeated themes of legacy, loyalty, and the harmony and tension of blood family and found families.

The first of the series in The Eagle of the Ninth, set in golden age of empire, after the building of Hadrian’s wall. Our adventure is the search for a lost legionary eagle, vanished along with its legion in the mists of Caledonia beyond the wall, along with the main character’s father and an entire legion. After injury derails his career in the legions, our hero finds a second path in trying to redeem his family’s, and the empire’s, failure in the north. If there is a highlight beyond the lush description and enjoyable adventure, it is the clear-eyed view of the immense privilege that even a lower-level member of the Roman aristocracy enjoys. If there is a weakness, it the sensationalized savagery of the Celts beyond the wall, but it did not jar me when I was young, and I cannot now read past the veil of nostalgia to assess how deeply problematic it may be.

The next entry in the series is The Silver Branch, set a couple hundred years later, during Carausius’ rule of a semi-independent Britain. The issue of loyalties is immediately complicated in this book, as the legionary heroes must weigh loyalty to the distant and abstract Rome with duty to the nearby Carausius, a strong and effective steward of Britain, which they love. In the end of course, the question is resolved by Carausius’ murder by his treacherous minister Allectus, but not before much plot is wrung from investigation and skullduggery. Allectus allies with the Saxons, providing the series’ first glimpse of the blonde barbarians who will be the major antagonists of the last two books. In the end Rome, in the person of Re-conquering tetrarch Constantius, returns to its position as the light of order and civilization in Britain.

Rome is represented by a literal light in The Lantern Bearers, the lighthouse kindled by our protagonist as he watches the legions sail away from Britain, forever. Immediately after that melancholy symbol of defiance, our hero is captured by Saxons who look very much like proto-Vikings and taken as a thrall. The second half of the book, after his escape back in Britain, is an Arthurian story, with Vortigern, Hengest, and Aurelius Ambrosius, the sometimes Arthur, sometimes Merlin semi-historical last of the Romans in Britain. This was my first introduction to the Arthur as bearer of the Roman flame take on that mythology, and I have continued to be partial to that spin on Arthurian legend.

The Lantern Bearers technically closes a trilogy of related works, but I will also talk about a spiritual successor that I read along with the rest and enjoyed greatly. The Shining Company is an entirely British story, after the Romans and before Anglo-Saxon and British came to mean the same thing. It is in fact an imagining of a story told in a Welsh epic, preserved in fragments, called Y Gododdin. The poem and the novel tell of a picked force of 300 warriors, gathered by the wealthy king of what is now Edinburgh, and sent into doomed battle with the expanding Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. (Fun trivia, if not a later interpolation in the manuscript, Y Gododdin contains the earliest known reference to king Arthur.) The style of The Shining Company is distinct from that of the Roman Britain novels, more lyrical, more epic, and more tragic, but it shows the same superb attention to the details of life in the past. It is particularly dear to me for portraying a world in which magic is believed in and magic is done without requiring any suspension of disbelief from the reader. Magic is done without anything necessarily fantastic occurring.

The lesson that the mundane must be explained and is worth spending exposition on no less than the fantastic is a quite important one, and that idea is perhaps the lasting legacy of these books for me. Also a deep fascination with Roman History. That may have started here too, or possible that was Asterix & Obelix. Either way, I loved Sutcliff when I was young, and I still find it worth returning.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 10: Sabriel, by Garth Nix

I bounced off Sabriel when I first encountered it, in one of many loads brought back from the library for my mother to read to me, something about it, the setting or the style or the age of the protagonist didn’t catch me just right, and we didn’t go very far. I found Sabriel again a few years later, when I was reading for myself, and it was perfect, delightfully dark and magical with a core of adventure and learning about a new world. Speaking of creepy and Garth Nix, allow me a brief digression on another of his books: Shade’s Children is genuinely terrifying and filled with vivid horror imagery. It is the only book that I clearly remember making it hard to sleep and giving me nightmares when I did. Give Shade’s Children to the young readers in your life with caution. It is not for the nervous.

Returning to Sabriel, one of the interesting things about it is that, for a moment, it seems to be a different sort of book than it is. The first chapter, discounting the prologue, suggests a magical-school kind of narrative. Our titular heroine is a prefect, with all the immediate cultural suggestions that entails, there are ivy covered buildings and illicit magic and school uniforms, but the expected structure is immediately undermined; Sabriel knows more than her teacher about magic and monsters, and the same scene that reveals that detail incites the real quest of the novel. After the initial tease, Sabriel become a journey book, an adventure of rescue of discovery, as Sabriel travels to a land she barely remembers and we, the reader, understand not at all.

Sabriel is simply full of things I loved and continue to love, so the form of the rest of this blog is going to be me talking about why those things were wonderful.

I loved Sabriel herself. Unlike very many YA heroes I have not enjoyed, she is powerful and competent and magical. Sabriel is young, and she is thrown into many situations she doesn’t know how to deal with, but she knows a great deal more about important magical workings than almost anyone else in the world. I loved then, and continue to love now, protagonists who are allowed to be powerful from the beginning of the book, not only at the end, and Sabriel’s magic and knowledge satisfied on that score.

I loved the Old Kingdom, the realm of magic and the walking dead where most of the story takes place, sealed off from the rest of the world by its ancient spell-mortared wall. In Sabriel, we meet the Old Kingdom as a ruin. Its are borderlands haunted by the dead; its remaining communities are closed in and harried into hardscrabble accommodation; its brilliant past of secret magic and grandeur is half-forgotten. But the bones remain. The Old Kingdom is one of the finest pieces of fantasy world-building I have read, because the society truly respects the magic. In a kingdom where the dead rise, unattended or at the will of a necromancer, the people have found defenses and ways to deal with the shambling corpses. The ordered magic of the Charter has a place in every community. The dead are burned. I love fantasy worldbuilding that integrates magic into the development of culture and convention, and Sabriel gave me that.

I loved the magic. There are two kinds of magic in Sabriel: Charter magic, the magic of order, healing, cleansing, and safety, and free magic, the magic of necromancy, of corruption, pain, and wild, destructive freedom. I adore the visceral feel of each. Charter magic is cool, soothing, precise and patient. Using it is like dipping into a universe of symbols that connects you to the whole of charter, a magical framework that connects all things and people bound to the charter. Free magic is hot, it burns and smells of hot metal. It is black-red flames with oily smoke. It buzzes in the head. It was so easy to feel the magic in Sabriel, more vivid than any other part of the book.

I loved the toys: the seven bells of a necromancer, Charter-spelled blades, armor of ancient porcelain-metal, forged with magic now forgotten, half-sentient gliders made from paper and magic with the personality of hawk. I enjoyed collections of carefully described magical or historically significant artifacts, and I loved it even more as a child, when I didn’t really bother with the emotional arc nonsense. Sabriel is chock full of magical toys and gewgaws and I loved them all.

I loved the Perimeter, the no-man’s land between the world where technology works and has advanced, and the regressive magic of the Old Kingdom. It is a place of the restless dead, where soldiers of an enlightened and post-superstition society must confront the reality of magic and the breakdown of their technology, where the dead rise, guns and telephones break down when the wind blows from the north, and experience soldiers wear mail over their khaki and carry a sword that only polite convention lists as a ‘bayonet’.

The world of Sabriel drew me in hard, and I have stayed invested and intrigued. The story managed to be serious, dark, dangerous, and adult, but still worked as YA, never losing a core of hopeful uncertainty/discovery, never becoming grim despite the death and danger. I read the sequels that complete Nix’s original Abhorsen trilogy, but later. I enjoyed them greatly, but I don’t count them as formative. I realized as I was writing this blog, how much the visceral description of magic in Nix’s books continues to inform my own writing. Clearly, these books have stayed with me, and I think that is very much to my benefit.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 9: Everworld, by K. A. Applegate

The Everworld series were books I certainly should not have, but did, read as child, when I between ten and twelve years old. I never read Animorphs, Applegate’s larger, better known series, but I have heard that it becomes quite heavy and dark by the end. Everworld started out dark and got rougher from there. I do not think these books belonged in the scholastic catalogue, from which I acquired all twelve as they became available.

Everworld is a story of four teenagers thrown into a magical realm by the schemes of their classmate/girlfriend/ex-girlfriend/sibling, Senna, who is a witch. Everworld, where they are sent, is the place where all the old gods and mythical heroes and monsters retreated, with a stock of mortals to serve and worship them, at the point they abandoned the ‘real’ world. Put another way, this is a world filled with sanity bending monsters that demand humans bow to them, and people with an unreconstructed dark-ages parody of a moral sense regarding violence, gender politics and slavery. The characters rubber-band between worlds as the series goes on, but the real action, in their and my minds, is in Everworld. The first book, which by publication dates I would have been 10 when I read, contains several scenes of graphic violence, including gory dismemberment and masochism, scenes of grim despair, torture, and heavily implied off-screen sexual violence. It also contained unexpected and intriguing world building, an interesting plot, and teen protagonists who I disliked with moderate intensity from the beginning.

I was not ready for these books. I will go farther and say I was unprepared (by life or by previous reading), shocked, and repulsed by them. The violence, fear, and suffering were more than enough to put me off the books, and I was made uncomfortable by a lot of what I read, but I was also uncomfortably fascinated, and it drew me back. Each time the next entry in the series appeared in the scholastic catalogue, I had to debate whether to acquire it. (When I was homeschooled, my father was registered as a teacher with scholastic. We got the catalogue each month, I circled what I wanted, the books appeared. I was given very little supervision in choosing the books.) I am not sure my parents were ever aware of the content of Everworld, or whether they would have done anything if they were. It was an internal debate, whether I wanted to continue the series each time, but each time I chose to order the books.

Reading Everworld never really stopped being frustrating, disturbing, or emotionally unpleasant, but it also continued to be fascinating and horizon-expanding. The content continued as disturbing as it began, and indeed escalated enough to keep the visceral unpleasantness fairly constant. It also continued to expose me to bits of mythology and legend that I had never seen before, and to aim at the things I was familiar with from odd angles that I had never considered. I was drawn to it the way one is drawn to peel off a scab, or to look at pornography when it is first discovered.

I was seriously unready for these books, and they were not written to ease the age-group they were marketed to into considering more adult issues. They were the literary equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of an icy pool in terms of teaching young readers how to think about the serious issues they presented. The books were full of sex: not graphic, but constant references, many of them tinged with violence. They dealt with depression, addiction, homophobia and white-supremacy, all through the lens of one character, who became depressed after a heroic sacrifice forced him to confront his own unthinking homophobia. He carried on a cross-universe bender that seems to be an acceleration of incipient alcoholism. In his real-world return segments, he discovers the copy shop he works at is run by neo-nazis, who invite him to their meetings. My hand was not held through any of this, and my articulation of what those parts of the books were about is very much hindsight. At the time, I found them uncomfortable. I did not enjoy reading them. I think this portion of Everworld is strongly implicated in an aversion to ‘real-world’ problems in fantasy that I carried for a long time, and am only now really examining and trying to discard.

The Everworld books were deeply difficult for me, and my reaction to them was complex, and is, perhaps, ongoing. I am not sure I would recommend them to anyone. I certainly would not recommend them to a precocious ten year old, but they did leave a real mark on me. The visceral imagery and emotion continues to shape how I think about horror in particular, and I remember them, much more than many books I simply enjoyed at the same time in my life. I was not looking for strange an disturbing fiction at that time in my life, but I have come to respect the value of it since, even if I am still unsure about Everworld.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 8: The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

We were sure to come here eventually, since I’m a longtime fantasy reader who was a child at the end of the twentieth century. I believe it is my greatest piece of fantasy-hipster cred that I first read (technically had read to me) a British copy of the correctly titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which looked very grown-up with its black and white photograph of an oncoming train on the cover) some months before the re-titled book was released in the United States. A friend of the family who visited from England knew we all loved fantasy and that I was the right age for such a thing and brought it as a gift when she visited us, before it had become apparent quite how much of thing Harry Potter was going to be on either side of the Atlantic.

Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone is, of course, very good, and that fact did not elude me or my parents as we read it for the first time. I read it myself more than once before the second book appeared, and I continued to read each entry eagerly when they came out. I wasn’t as deep into the world of Harry Potter as it was possible to be, but neither did I only dip a toe into those waters. I never attended a midnight release, or indeed any kind of release event at a bookstore. I certainly caused wands to be fabricated for my own use, but no robes or other wizardly paraphernalia from that particular universe appeared in our house or my games. (I had a lot of time for games of imagination as a child, especially when I was still home-schooled and had lonely hours to fill with nothing but a back yard and an ever growing collection of wood and plastic weaponry.)

I devoured each of the books, the first several, at least, in a day or two when it arrived. I enjoyed them, and also, at that time, voraciously reading the new Harry Potter book was an important way of performing the kind of nerd identity that I was most comfortable in. By reading them, I made public my attachment to fantasy in a way everyone else, especially other children, could recognize and accept. (I did not think of it in that way then, but I have been to college since and become far more pretentious.) Even as a read them, there were always things I disliked, the cringe-inducing awkwardness of so many of Harry’s interactions with adults, the painful stupidity of some of his choices. The opening of book 2, I remember, was particularly off-putting for me. None of this was enough push me away from the series, and I read the first four books more times than I can easily count, relishing each one, until I had more-or-less memorized each beat, and many of the individual sentences.

Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was where my relationship with the series began to change. I am given to understand that this is a relatively common experience. (That weight was long, wasn’t it?) I’m sure I read Order of the Phoenix more than once, but I don’t really remember it nearly as well as the first four. I’m not certain I read either of the last two books more than once. I had aged faster than the writing, and as I aged, I had read more and more other genre fiction books, which threw the weaknesses of Harry Potter into sharper relief. The added grimness of the latter entries did not really help with the problem of adolescence that broke my immersion in the world, it just made me enjoy reading the books less. They’re long books to spend a lot of the story arc sad.

I loved the Harry Potter books for a long time, and I enjoyed reading and talking about them, but I was only briefly a fan. When the little charity pamphlets about magical beast and the history of Quidditch gave a glimpse of the larger wizarding world, my imagination games featured a good deal of Harry Potter derived material for a while, but it didn’t go much farther than that. The real problem is that the way I enjoyed my books outside of reading them, the way I performed enjoyment of them for others, was to talk about them. Specifically, to analyze them, and Harry Potter doesn’t stand up to the deconstruction, as even its fans know. There are too many large holes in the logic of the world for it to keep its shine through deep analysis, and that gets added to the list of reasons I lost my deep love for the series. The biggest reason, though, was the end. I absolutely hate the rug-pull of Harry’s resurrection at the close. For me, it cheapened the sacrifice and left a sour taste.

If I was not really a diehard fan of Harry Potter as a child, I certainly am not one now. The books live in my memory, and the sheer number of times I read the first half of the series earns them a place in this blog series, but the greatest long-lasting impact of them on me and my reading was probably the reaction against them at the end, it’s certainly a big part of what created my current wariness of young-adult fiction and my tendency to pivot into things that are unequivocally ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ for my reading material. Thought, if you have some time, I do have some moderately detailed notes on how the series could be completely re-written to solve a lot of problems and improve the depth of the world building. … …Call me?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 7: The Discworld Novels, by Terry Pratchett

This is going to be a long one, because I have several books to talk about. Let me begin by saying that, until his sad decline in Alzheimer’s, everything Terry Pratchett wrote was smart, and much of it was not just good but great. It is the finest satire I have ever read, looking through its elegant lens at our world with a deep and bountiful heart, animated by an engine of righteous fury so elegantly described in Neil Gaiman’s essay “A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett.” Pratchett’s anger is always aimed upward at those who deserve to have it rattling their thrones, never at anyone who will be pushed down when they need a hand to lift them. There are too many excellent Discworld books to list, so I will confine myself here to four that touched me very deeply, and that shaped my reading and my thinking early, before I could encompass the whole of the great disc and its many people.

I will begin with Small Gods. It was my first Discworld book. I will also venture to suggest that it is the correct first Discworld book, if someone is looking for an entertaining read that stands alone and does not lose savor or depth without a context to sauce it. Small Gods uses no characters, save for some of the deities, that appear elsewhere in the series, since it takes place long before most of the other novels.

A great deal of the historical, social, political, and religious references and allegories in Small Gods went far over my head when I first read it, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, but the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. I cared. I cheered and groaned and was frustrated and anxious and triumphant at the times intended. Many of the jokes were excellently simple and required nothing but an enjoyment of words or absurd images to make me laugh to myself as I read them. Now, when I come back, I know what is being winked at, what pieces of history are pilfered for their best pieces, what bits of human sin are the villains I am being taught to recognize in life.

After Small Gods, I was aware of Discworld but not drawn in. As young as I was, it had been strange and difficult enough I did not immediately look for another like it. I picked up other Pratchett books occasionally and haphazardly, reading them out of order and without understanding the larger picture of the universe. Some of the books do not really work well when read out of context. Deciphering large series was much harder before internet bibliographies so helpfully broke everything down by publication date and internal chronology.

Feet of Clay was the book that got me properly pulled into Discworld. It was the one that made me get all the rest and read them properly, over and over until I understood how they fit. It is a Sam Vimes novel (my favorite subset of the Discworld), and, for me, it begins the second act of the night watch’s narrative. Feet of Clay is a pure delight, especially for a young person just beginning to like stories that are a little darker, stories with a little teeth to them. It treats with huge and weighty questions about prejudice, about freedom and slavery and leadership, about blood and class and labor, and, as all watch books do, about justice and revenge.

Sam Vimes is character I will always love, and I first met him here: so full of righteous fury, but so wary of giving in to it, so distrustful of easy answers and fast, satisfying solutions. Sam Vimes and this book taught me about the institutional injustice of capitalism and class structure a decade before I was ready to articulate a bit of it, and it was great fun at the same time, magical and cynical and full of wit and mystery and magic.

Vimes is the hero of my very favorite Pratchett: Night Watch, which I think may be his very best novel. I read it when I was fully enfranchised in the series and the world. I had read more or less everything that was out at that point. As with most Discworld, this improved Night Watch from good to nearly perfect.

Night Watch is a novel about revolution, and how it manages to revolve without ever lifting the people at the bottom any higher. We see the particular revolution of the book from the point of view of Sam Vimes tumbled back in time, who knows just how much and how little this glorious republic will achieve. I am re-reading Night Watch now, and I am filled once again with admiration and joy and sadness at Pratchett’s poignant love for people who think they can change the way the world works, and his righteous hate for the machine that crushes the poor and the good and naïve between its gears and the people who turn those grinding wheels.

Reading Night Watch for the first time, I was most taken with Sam Vimes, his cunning and his wit and his cynical idealism, and with the glimpse inside the mind of the future patrician, Vetinari, that was offered. Reading it again, I am struck with its astounding prescience born of deep historical realism. The whole book might be meditation on recent history in Egypt and the Middle East. It was published in 2002. It is an always-relevant look at the danger of government turned against its people and the broken dreams of so many revolutions. It is angry and sad and hopeful and beautiful and true, like all of Pratchett, underneath the brightly colored shell of humor that entices you to take a look.

I don’t have an elegant transition, but I do also want to talk about one more book: Lords and Ladies, because it is a fairy story, one which I read early, and, if you have been paying any attention to my writing, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking about fairy stories. It is a witches book, the first in Pratchett’s real golden age, in my opinion. Like many witch books, it draws a lot on theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in this case. I missed those references my first time through, which is odd, since I had read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and seen it performed more than once before I read Lords and Ladies.

As a fairy story, Lords and Ladies is thoughtful and deep. It has the bones of terror that good fairy stories need, and it meditates on how stories can trick us. The glamor of fairies is built on stories of blood and ancient right and beauty and confounding style, and those stories trick us into acting against our own best interests, just like they do when ordinary people tell them for that reason. It reminds us, as good fairy stories should, that a loss of wonder in the world is a price we pay for nights that can be fearless, and it may well be a price worth paying.

I have no pithy conclusion here, except to say that discworld is brilliant and deep beneath its constant and irrepressible humor, and my young life was made much richer by reading it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 6: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

I don’t know exactly when I read this book first. I read a lot of books in the later years of my home-schooling and the first of my traditional schooling, and the order in which I came to the next several titles in this series is lost to the mists of time. I found Lord of Light during a program of devouring all of Roger Zelazny, who I had found first through Nine Princes in Amber. Since I liked that book, I got everything the central library had of Zelazny, as was my pattern for finding new books at that stage of life. Roger Zelazny was far from the only author whose entire section I pulled from the fantasy and science fiction shelves. I was probably too young for much of the sex, politics, literary allusions, and sarcasm when I first read it, but I loved it anyway. I still love most of Zelazny, but Lord of Light is the book of his that I return to often, the one at the center of his portion of my heart.

Lord of Light is a novel intentionally based in Indian religion and mythology, drawing heavily on the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is about colonists of distant planet who have built a society that draws heavily on the iconography of Hinduism, and a revolutionary who introduces Buddhist ideas as an intentional disruption. For both Zelazny and his characters, the basis in real-world religion provides a wealth of potent imagery to pilfer and re-purpose. It was certainly brilliantly targeted for me, as child who devoured mythology in the form of modern novel adaptations, illustrated surveys of bowdlerized snippets, and eventually full texts in translation.

Lord of light filled me with a desire to read the Vedas and the Upanishads, before I actually knew what they were. I haven’t actually managed that yet. They don’t have nicely packaged popular translations the way British mythologies tend to. I think of reading them again whenever I return to Lord of Light. I’ll actually get to it one of these days, I swear.

I adored the mythic scale of the action in this book, and the intentional reference to gods and goddesses let the conflict shake the foundations of the world without seeming overdone or out of place. The characters battle over the whole world and course of its civilization, and nothing undercuts that scale. Like Tolkien, the narrative is comfortable with its own scale, with the conflict of good and evil, or perhaps beauty and ugliness. They are human characters with foibles and petty desires and memories of something ordinary, but they are also more than that. They have ascended, intentionally, to a plane beyond. They may not deserve their lofty positions, their power of the fate of so many, but they do not give the power up. They have chosen to ascend.

That’s part of what works so well in Lord of Light. The characters know they have become archetypes. They’ve adopted those roles on purpose, to reinforce their power. But even self-aware, the power narrative still controls them. This idea is never spoken aloud, but Lord of Light is suffused with the power of narrative causality. It’s characters are driven to play to type, and to pursue the arc of stories they know will end with their destruction, because that is the way the story ends. This power of the narrative to compel even self-aware actors once they enter it is a tacit demonstration of an idea I found made explicit in Terry Pratchett, and later in more than one book about fairies. I think its implicit presence here is one of the hooks that caught me deep enough not to let go.

When I first read Lord of Light, it made me feel worldly and knowing and mature. It did not make me any of those things, but it’s jaded, worldly characters and their references to history and literature and stories that I did not know, but that I was trusted, as a reader of the book to understand, made me feel like I belonged among the jaded immortals who had become the gods of their world through science and mysticism and raw ambition. It is very attractive, at thirteen, to imagine you belong in the company of living gods who have lived centuries in body after body, long enough that they no longer marvel at the wonder of a world and city shaped in their own divine image.

I do not really know if Lord of Light is a very good book. It is probably a good book if you like Roger Zelazny, which I understand to be one of those things, like marmite or black coffee, that provokes strong reactions on either side of the debate. I do know that it is a perfect book for me, then, when I was young, and now, when I am still relatively young, but understand more of the references. I return to it endlessly now because it is filled with comfortable nostalgia. It is a story made to work even when you already remember every word. I do not remember every word yet, but I may before I am done reading it. The story will still be right, proceeding with the orderly and satisfying pace of a ticking clock, or the bone-deep rightness of fairytale.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 5: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is going to be the last of these books where my memories of being read to are as vivid and extensive as memories of reading for myself. I got A Wizard of Earthsea early, long before I could understand or even notice all the things it was about. That is one of the wonderful things about A Wizard of Earthsea: it is a perfect adventure story for children, as well as a thoughtful and complex fantasy for adults.

I would like to stake out a position here and say that I have wanted to be a wizard for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, pretty much for as long as I can remember anything. I still want to be a wizard. I am just finding compromises until I get there. When I wanted to be a wizard as a child, this book is the one I took my template from. I hear Wizard of Earthsea long before Harry Potter appeared, long before I found and read So You Want to be a Wizard. Ged was the wizard I admired, the one I imagined being.

Ged’s magic, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea is, in my mind, the perfect magic for a studious child. I loved words as a child, I loved poetry and puns and playing with language. Here was a story where just that, knowing the right words and saying them at the right time could change the world, and there were secret words that would let you turn into a bird or a dragon, or call fire out of nothing.  It is a book where knowledge is fantastic power, just perfect for a curious little boy.

More than that attraction, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea feels right in the bones. I like to think I recognized that even as a child. It follows rules, but they are shaped by the logic of story as much as anything, not pinned to an appendix that cannot be violated. The power of wizardry is properly fantastic, capable of shows and flights of fancy, of real change and terrible violence and subtle mischief. It can do almost anything, but wizards in the book do not, as a rule, do much of what they could by magic, because it costs and it is dangerous. I have become somewhat obsessed with the costs of magic as the most important part of fantasy worlbuilding lately, and I think the perfect rightness I felt in Le Guin’s exploration of that, especially in The Farthest Shore and Upon the Other Wind is a big part of that. Something feels right about Earthsea’s magic and the heavy price for that kind of power. This theme is, of course, also very welcoming to return to as an adult who writes. It’s quite affirming to read again about the awesome power words can have and the care one must take wielding them.

The world of Earthsea is of course wonderful for more than just magic. Le Guin’s world building is like a perfect ink painting, with each brushstroke suggesting a wealth of details that appear without ever being fully drawn. The Archipelago feels like a living place, and the trades and lives of the ordinary people are full and real, and the magic is folded tightly into the weft of them. The place makes sense, and you can feel it breathing, hear it chattering all around you as you read, even as the grand wizards carve their own path and only occasionally dip a toe into the lives of ordinary people. It is also inventive and grandly unlike so many other fantasy worlds. The Archipelago may not be a utopia, but its vision of society not oriented primarily around war, conquest, and monarchy sets it apart. It has the power and the realism of a society built from the bottom up, with more concern for the people of little villages and merchant crews than for warriors and kings.

If Tolkien’s world was mythic, Le Guin’s prose is the same. Her language is spare enough to make each scene iconic, close enough to make us feel the chill of rain and the warmth of a welcome fire. A Wizard of Earthsea is not a mythic story, not quite, but it makes us sure that Ged deserves myths, that he is such a hero, but still human. Le Guin gives us a giant among ordinary people, but still makes him relatable. Ged has none of the Austere distance Gandalf and Aragorn enjoy. He is flawed and uncertain and close enough to touch.

A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels are full of thoughts and questions about so many things: language, gender, religion, politics, death, property and freedom and so many more. It is possible to read them and notice none of this and still enjoy wonderful tales of adventure. They are books you can return to throughout your life, and they will grow with you, and each time they will show you something new, as much as you are ready to understand. I love them, without caveat or equivocation.