Books read, uh, recently

Over the last few months I seriously fell off the horse when it came to keeping track of my reading. So this covers December and January, but only the things I can recall reading — which isn’t very much.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu. I know this one ate quite a lot of December, because BRICK.

I . . . really, really wanted to like it. Epic fantasy, drawing on Chinese epic tradition! Sign me up. I was totally there for the worldbuilding and the character archetypes and the nature of the plot. And, courtesy of comments I’d seen elsewhere on the internet, I was prepared for (though not pleased by) the fact that the first half of the book has virtually no women playing significant roles, because I knew that there would be more showing up in the remaining pages. As indeed there are! But anybody without that advance warning would be justified in thinking that the only women in the story would be helpful wives, distant goddesses, or deeply problematic seductresses, so I can’t really say the second half justifies the first.

But the real problem for me was the style. It read a lot like an old epic — too much so. I fundamentally did not care about any of the characters, because the text never let me get close enough to any of them to form an emotional attachment. The style is incredibly distant, telling instead of showing, often spending more time narrating to you what is happening than letting you experience it. Let me give an example — it’ll be a spoiler, but (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) not much of one. If you’d prefer to avoid it, though, just skip the next paragraph.

So there’s a plot thread involving one of the few early female characters, who has been blackmailed by an enemy general into working for him. We don’t see her arrive in the lands of the rebels — that part I’m okay with, since it isn’t as important as what she does when she gets there. Once established among the rebels, she manipulates two men into falling in love with her: an uncle and a nephew, who have been inseparable for the nephew’s entire life. (These are major characters in the book; the nephew is essentially co-protagonist with another guy.) Once both of them are besotted with her, she plays off their jealousy, using it to create a rift between them, until they become wholly estranged and the uncle sends the nephew away at a critical moment when he needed to be present. Then she murders the uncle and commits suicide.

From beginning to end, this entire thing takes about sixteen pages.

Fully a quarter of which is spent on that last sentence, actually; the rest gets crammed into twelve pages, where it shares space with other things going on in the plot. We the readers are told that both of these guys have fallen in love with her. We’re told that they’re jealous. We get little snippets of actual interaction, a few paragraphs here and there, which present us with emotion (love! jealousy! anger!) the narrative hasn’t actually earned. I don’t consider this to be a spoiler because I don’t feel like there’s an experience to spoil; it feels more like me giving away the ending to a historical account of the Duke of Buckingham’s assassination. I majored in folklore; I’ve read a great many epics from different parts of the world, and can deal with that kind of arm’s-length approach. It is not, however, what I’m looking for in a novel. The sweeping scope of The Grace of Kings is impressive, but it only fits into one book because so many of the elements of modern fiction have been squeezed out. The result is that I found myself pronouncing the Eight Fatal Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” I finished the book, but have no motivation to pick up the sequel. Which is a pity, because I was so excited for the first one.

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones. I don’t remember where I heard of this one; it’s an ebook that’s been sitting on my tablet for ages. Normally when I call something “Ruritanian fantasy,” what I mean is that it’s set in a secondary world, but has no magic (e.g. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books). In this case, however, I mean that it’s set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, but has magic. I suspect that Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword are among its literary ancestors, as one of the two protagonists, Barbara, is a woman trained as an armin (bodyguard) and duelist for an eccentric Baron. The other heroine, Margerit, unexpectedly inherits the Baron’s estate upon his demise — including Barbara, who was his property. The plot is moderately complex, involving the question of why he named his goddaughter his heir and why he failed to free Barbara as he promised (and why he owned her and trained her in the first place), running alongside a strand wherein Margerit begins to study the “mysteries” (sacred magic) and investigate why they no longer work the way they should. Overall it came together in a reasonably satisfying way, and Jones has a pleasingly solid grasp of the social politics of a nineteenth-century-type world: Margerit can’t just go “la, who cares” and blow off her obligations without consequence, however much she may want to. Plus, lesbian romance, which I know would be a selling point for many of my blog readers. :-)

Phoenix, Stephen Brust. Still working my way slowly through these. I liked Vlad’s interactions with the Empress: they struck a nice balance between the formal ceremony that accompanies such a role, and showing the Empress as a human being (well, for the contested values of “human” that apply in this setting). I’m also pleased, though not surprised, to see Brust follow through on what he began in an earlier book, with Vlad questioning his role in the Jhereg and his chosen livelihood of murdering people for money. I have no idea whether that was planned from the start, or whether Brust got a couple of books in, looked at his assassin hero, and reconsidered how good of an idea that really was, but either way it’s nice to watch the change percolate through the narrative. Where it goes in the long run . . . well, that will be interesting to see. “Phoenix stone” felt like a bit of handwavium to me, but I’d love to see more exploration of what pre-Empire sorcery was like, and how the Interregnum changed the way sorcery worked.

The Month of Letters has begun! Get a letter from Lady Trent!

What with yesterday’s World Fantasy kerfuffle, I forgot to post a reminder that the Month of Letters has begun! If you’d like to receive a letter from Lady Trent, instructions for how to do so are here. (Or, y’know — I’ll answer letters addressed to me, too.) I’ll reply to anything postmarked within the month of February, so get your pens going!

World Fantasy’s Safety Surcharge

Today the registration fee for the 2016 World Fantasy Convention went up by seventy-five dollars, from $150 to $225.

I registered during the previous WFC, as has been my habit for years. Unfortunately, now I realize that I need to rethink this policy. Because despite being prodded on these matters, WFC 2016 still has not posted either a harassment or an accessibility policy. The con-runner, going by her comments posted there, seems to think that “be nice to one another” and “the hotel is ADA compliant” are sufficient measures in that regard — and maybe there will be policies posted by the time the con begins, but apparently it’s totally unreasonable to ask for those things before the price of attendance gets jacked up.

This is not okay. It amounts to a safety surcharge, because if you want to attend WFC, you have two choices:

1) Buy your registration early, in the blind faith that the con will do its duty and put together an acceptable set of policies before you arrive.

2) Wait for the policies, and pay more money in exchange: seventy-five dollars more now, another fifty if they aren’t posted by mid-April, literally twice the membership price if you pick your membership up in the fall (y’know, around the time the harassment policy got posted last year). To say nothing of the difficulty in getting a hotel room if the block has sold out, which it often does — a situation that might put you in a different hotel entirely, and yeah, like that won’t cause you problems if your mobility is limited.

Oh, and let’s not forget: this is a con with a membership cap. Waiting to register might mean you can’t attend at all, because they’re sold out. So really it’s heads they win, tails you lose, because if these things matter to you, then you wind up paying more money to the con, or not showing up at all.

I’ve said that I will not attend a con without either a harassment policy or an accessibility policy. As it turns out, that pledge needs to have a rider attached to it: these things must be posted sufficiently far in advance of the con. I already have my WFC membership, but if they have not addressed this problem in a substantive way by the end of the month, I will ask to have my membership refunded. That gives them four weeks: more than enough time to look at the many fine policies posted by other cons and select their menu options. If they can’t do it in that amount of time, I really don’t have faith that they care enough to do it properly at all.

Who knew you could buy sanity on Amazon?

So as many of you know, my husband had ankle surgery recently. He’s on crutches, putting no weight on the affected foot . . . for 8-10 weeks.

That’s a long time.

And while I can’t rightly compare my own difficulties to his, it’s going to be a long time for both of us. All of a sudden, I’m carrying most of the household on my own shoulders, because he can’t. Many tasks that I’m used to sharing with him (laundry, taking out the trash, etc) are now mine alone. Things that didn’t use to be tasks suddenly are: I have to be available when he goes to bed, because while it’s possible for him to drag his crutches and the pillow we’re using for his leg up the stairs as he slides up them — they’re too narrow for him to crutch up — it’s a pain in the neck, and much easier if I carry those for him. Some tasks that I would normally let slide for a little while now have to be kept 100% up-to-date; the ant infestation plaguing this entire city isn’t related to his surgery, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to wash the dishes right away or risk finding a conga line of ants making their way across our kitchen to whatever I left out, and I have to keep the living room constantly tidy or he won’t be able to cross it safely on crutches.

But. My friends, I had a stroke of genius, and it already promises to do wonders for my sanity.

We’ve been making extensive use of stools and folding chairs in various places so he can kneel on them(1) while he showers or washes his hands or whatever. I found myself wondering whether it would help to put one of those in the kitchen, too — and then I thought, no. What we want in the kitchen is one of these.

It arrived this afternoon. Today, for the first time since his surgery, my husband scrubbed some dishes. He loaded the dishwasher and emptied it, too; he put dinner into the oven and took it out again. He can’t do everything; kneeling for too long is uncomfortable, and he has to be careful that it doesn’t roll out from under him and drop him into an unexpected split. But he can function. He can probably manage to bake some brownies if he wants to — and if you know my husband, you know how much that means to him.

And me? I was giddy with delight. The sheer fact of knowing that I don’t have to do everything kitchen-related is a relief all out of proportion to its actual size. Sure, I’m still facing another two months of having to carry his plate to him and then carry it back when he’s done, because you can’t really do that on crutches and the stool doesn’t transition well to carpet. But he can make his own sandwich for lunch without having to balance on one foot while he does it, even if I’m the one who carries it to the couch. He can wash dishes, which is a task that normally falls about 70-80% in his bailiwick instead of mine. He can prepare simple dinners. All of these are things I expected to have to do myself for weeks to come and now . . . now I know that he can help.

I’m well aware that the situation I have with him is business as usual for a lot of people. If you’re a single mother with a toddler, you’ve got to carry every bit as much weight, without the compensation of a charge who continually thanks you and can at least accomplish tasks that don’t require standing. And they don’t sell products on Amazon that will magically turn your toddler into more of a functioning adult. But if you ever find yourself dealing with a similar situation, remember the merits of a simple, flat-topped, caster-mounted stool. It can work wonders.

(1) Some of you will now be thinking of those kneeling scooters you’ve been seeing around lately. We rented one, but they don’t corner well at all, and our place is too small for him to easily navigate indoors on that thing. It’s useful only for when he leaves the house; the rest of the time, it’s crutches, which are far more maneuverable.

Return of the Bride of the Revenge of the Month of Letters

As I have done in past years, I will be participating in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters! Ish — the actual point of it was to send something via the mail every day in February, but, inspired by her example, I’ve used it as a time in which people can write to and receive letters from Lady Trent. The process will be exactly the same as in past years.

Time to go practice my cursive . . . .

Pre-order CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 5 now!

There’s a page set up now for pre-ordering Clockwork Phoenix 5, which will be available for sale on April 5th. For those who may not recall, this is the anthology that contains my story “The Mirror-City.”

I got my contributor’s copy of CP5 in the mail the other day, and I have to say, I think it’s the prettiest Clockwork Phoenix yet. I love the new cover. :-D

Also, one day left in which to get Lies and Prophecy at a discounted price!

“Dice Tales” at Book View Cafe

I’ve started blogging at Book View Cafe again, this time on one of my favorite topics: role-playing games! Specifically, RPGs as a method of storytelling, and how that interrelates with and differs from the more conventional kind of storytelling I do as an author. There are three posts up so far, one introductory piece to launch the series, one on the dramatis personae of an RPG, and one on mechanics. New installments will be posted each Sunday morning. Comments are off here; share your thoughts over there instead!

Limited time sale for LIES AND PROPHECY!

From now until next Tuesday(1), Lies and Prophecy is on sale! Normally the illustrated edition is $4.99 and the text-only edition is $3.99, but each is a dollar off for the time being, making that $3.99 for the illustrated and $2.99 for the plain. Choose your retailer here!

I’m also pleased to link to a pair of pieces about Chains and Memory. The first is a piece I wrote for Special Needs in Strange Worlds, on characters with PTSD. I could have talked for a lot longer there — one of the things I didn’t even try to touch on is the fact that Kim has also developed PTSD by the second book of the series — but the focus of that post is how I managed to give Julian PTSD without noticing, and what I did with the story and the worldbuilding once I figured it out. The second post is over at Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, discussing the cultural differences between Kim and Julian, and how the two of them work to bridge that gap. Her blog series is called “My Favorite Bit,” and given my anthropology background, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that my own favorite bit is the mismatch between the two characters’ assumptions, the things they do because of those assumptions, and most especially, the light-bulb moment where they realize what’s been going on. (For those who have already read the novel, I’m referring specifically to the scene after Julian gets his nose bloodied at practice.)

Finally, I’ve gotten out of the habit of linking to reviews here, but I have to say I love this quote from Marissa Lingen’s review: “There are action scenes. There is not fencing, but there is fighting, torture, revenge, and true love. Of more than one sort. There is not actually a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, though. I suppose one can’t have everything. At least not in a book of this length.” I am now sorely tempted to put an MLT into the third book, just because. :-P

***

(1) Actually, from a couple of days ago until next Tuesday — but I forgot to post this in a timely fashion. Mea culpa.

I would make a good seeing-eye dog

(Except for the part where my vision is terrible. And I’m not a dog.)

Some years ago, a friend of ours with a degenerative eye condition told us about the methods used to sort German Shepherd puppies for possible training. I don’t know whether this is how all facilities do it, but at that particular place, they would put a puppy in a room with various blanket and toys and so forth, and then leave them alone there for a while. Some dogs basically curl up in a corner and cry, and those will have a lovely future as someone’s pet. Some tear everything apart and pee all over it, and those are candidates to become police dogs. The potential seeing-eye dogs are the ones who investigate everything in the room, then sit down in a place where they can watch the door and wait.

My husband had ankle surgery today — I swear this is not a non sequitur — and it occurred to me that I am very much a much Dog Type Number Three. In the pre-op room, I wandered about reading every label on every box and drawer, peering at monitors, and generally investigating everything I could get at without touching stuff. When it came time for them to administer the nerve block, one of the nurses said that would be a good time for me to head out to the waiting room; I asked whether it would be a problem for me to stay and watch. The anesthesiologist said that would fine, so I sat in a chair and peered around him at the ultrasound screen while he stuck a needle in my husband’s leg. He even narrated what he was doing at one point, for my benefit!

. . . yeah, I’m a writer. If I can watch a thing, I probably will. Because who knows what I’ll need to know someday?

(In other news, my husband is home and doing fine, though that will probably change a bit when the nerve block wears off and he starts actually needing the happy pills they have prescribed for him.)