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.