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Bitter Waters, by Chaz Brenchley

Review copy provided by author, who is an online-and-conventions friend.

So few single-author collections have a unifying element these days, or when they do, it’s because the author is a one-trick pony. This does, and Chaz is not. There is a deliberate unifying element of melancholy here–some sweet, some darker– and of male same-sex relationships of varying types. There is a lot of water here, mostly seawater, but not enough to make it feel obligatory. Not enough to hit the point of “here we go again.”

What does not unify the collection–and this is fascinating too–is setting, or genre, or a particular set of characters (though there are some character commonalities across a few). Some of the stories are very clearly in high fantasy settings. Others are what used to be called urban fantasy, before paranormal romance made that term uncertain. Others have no clear speculative element at all but are suspense or “mainstream,” character studies, relational stories. There is an assured movement from each to each, a sense that the reading protocols will be signaled so that no story will be unsatisfying but each will be uniquely and completely itself.

There is love, or not; there is loss, or not; and where there is genuine love, there is sometimes genuine grief to match, and sometimes that love is undermined and taken apart by darker revelations. I finished with the sense that Chaz could have done more of these, that this happened to be the set that he had now but that this was by no means an exhaustion of what he had to say with these themes.

Please consider using our link to buy Bitter Waters at Amazon.

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Nobel Conference 50: Where Does Science Go From Here? (Wednesday)

See my first post for a description of Nobel Conference and Tuesday’s speakers.

Wednesday morning began with a rare livestream session, this one from Steven Weinberg. He talked about the clues we have to the hidden world beyond the standard model: where do things get weird consistently, and what would it take to find out what’s going on there? I was particularly pleased that he wanted a positive reason why formal mathematical simplicity should appear in our theories–that “we just like it a lot” is not a great reason and in fact can lead us astray, as it may have in the current formulation of Einstein’s equations, which he suggested may be more complicated than we think due to undetectable terms due to extra powers divided by very long lengths. My favorite moment was when he declared something “of no fundamental interest–well, it’s interesting to astronomers, but they’re interested in a lot of things.” (I am like astronomers in this.) I found the talk energizing and fascinating, ranging as it did across interaction strengths and neutrino masses, but the reaction of the people around me was frankly disheartening: they did not seem to follow what he was getting at.

Then came one of the stand-out first-rate blow-your-mind talks of the conference, one of the ones that moved me to tears, one of the talks that made me sad that standing ovations have become so common so that people do not feel the impact of it when I leap to my feet, because quite often people stand, particularly when they are about to leave for lunch. Harry Gray is the father of bio-inorganic chemistry. He is also, quite incidentally, a former professor of my friend Ctein, I learned later, but that had nothing to do with his talk, which was mostly about a thing he calls the Twenty-First Century Solar Army. And wow, wow, wow, wow. I came away a convert to Harry Gray’s Solar Army. If you know a teenager who’s interested in chemistry, Harry Gray will send them the materials they need to help participate on a genuinely useful level in this really cool project. They can help find two different catalysts, one for reducing and one for oxidizing, seawater, to use for clean hydrogen fuel. It’s explained very clearly on the website, and they’ll go into more detail if you’re interested and contact them. Harry Gray is the sort of person who is big enough that he doesn’t need to hog credit–he was giving names of specific high school and college students who have helped with breakthroughs, because he can, he needs to, he wants this to work, and he wants more help with it working. He talked about the range of things he wanted to try requiring either robots or students, and he preferred students because they’ll talk back and tell him when he’s wrong, and I went, oh, yes, you, you are the guy. (Although I’m hoping we’ll get robots there too someday. But that’s another Nobel Conference.) They did a really cool photo anode with an intercalated N2 in the middle of the WO3 that the referees of journals did not believe until they got confirmation from both Berkeley and Brookhaven because it was just too far “out there.” It’s great stuff. And you don’t have to be in the US to do it, he’ll take recruits to the Solar Army from anywhere and send them materials. The kids involved have started having their own conventions, SEAL-CONs, to talk about their work, and it’s been going on long enough that a lot of them are going on to work in the sciences as grad students or beyond. It was so wonderful. I ran into one of my old professors afterwards, and we were so excited that we hugged each other twice, and we’re both from here. So. Yeah. Solar Army, look into it, wonderful stuff.

Thank heavens lunch was between that and Jennifer L. West’s talk, because if there hadn’t been a substantial break, I’m not sure I could have coped. And West’s was the other talk that moved me to tears with how good it was. She led in with talking about matching the scale of the treatment to the scale of the medical problem. She touched on growing biomimetic patterned tissue to match certain types of cells (mostly thin/avascular cells) and the need to figure out how to grow capillaries on scaffolds. Then the main body of her talk was about nanoshells and their use in cancer treatments through photo-thermal therapy. These incredibly small silicon balls have finely determined shells of gold. They’re injected into the blood stream of cancer patients, and their size is selected such that they won’t be filtered out in the kidneys but will collect at the tumor sites due to the way tumors form blood vessels–basically, tumors are kind of crap at forming blood vessels and end up with leaky vaculature compared to normal cells, so if you get the size of your tiny nanoshell gold-and-silicon thing right, it will congregate in just the spot of the tumor. Then when you irradiate with light near the IR spectrum (650-900 nm), it’s harmless to the rest of the healthy tissue but causes rapid heating of the nanoshell (15 C hotter than surrounding tissue) and burns off only the tumor.

This. Is. Amazing.

They can adjust them to do either imaging (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to scatter the light) or therapy (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to absorb, as above with the rapid heating). So you can get a good idea of exactly where the tumor is without injecting tagging drugs, or you can just blast the sucker. The “blast the sucker” preliminary results are extremely good on breast cancer and brain cancer in the lab so far, and in clinical trials on head and neck, prostate, and lung cancers, with no bad side effects and really great rates of efficacy. They are also looking at extending to multimodal uses and doing CT imaging–they could do MR if they included gadolinium, too. You can also add a thermally responsive coating of a chemo drug to expel the drug when the laser is on, so that it gets delivered very directly to the tumor site, at which point I was gasping, “What do you mean more therapeutic modalities?” and muttering, “It slices, it dices, it juliennes.” It was all just so much and so cool.

She noted in the Q&A that the structure of brain tumors often breaks down the blood-brain barrier anyway, and that nanoshells can take advantage of this. She also noted that the designers had to be careful of the surface chemistry to minimize risk of emboli, but that this care was quite effective so far.

This was a couple weeks ago, so I did think of Velma. I thought of other friends with cancer, some for whom this treatment is not in time. But it just sounds like it will help so many people. I scribbled furiously as she talked about the potential applications in retinopathy and other problems. And I cried, because it was just so very wonderful. A few days later, a friend was Tweeting something about how “we’re not going to cure cancer, but we *can*” [some other charitable assistance]. And I thought, it’s not a zero-sum game. “Curing cancer” is not all one thing. We’re closer to helping a lot more cancer patients than we think, and those we can help, can go on and help with other things that need doing in the world. I understand that it can be frustrating when your cause is not as popular as some other cause, but like the man says, we all do better when we all do better, and guys, this is one of the things better looks like. This really is better.

Antonio Damasio started out by giving the aphorism, “Never tackle the problem of consciousness before you’re tenured.” Then he gave a list of different things people mean when they say “consciousness,” narrowing his own focus to the experience of subjectivity, which he tries to separate in study from the mind-making part of consciousness, and further separate the interior and exterior-directed mind-making bits. He talked about the body phantom, interoception, and brainstem nuclei structure. He also talked about myelination and the role of risk in consciousness. Finally, he brought up second-order maps and the possible role of reflexive looping in creating sensation awareness and consciousness. It was one of those things that I wanted to go back over again with the diagram of brainstem nuclei structure several times to make sure I had the details right, but it was very neat stuff, and he’s got several books and articles out that will be worth tracking down.

Patricia Smith Churchland was introduced as Manitoba’s punk rock neurophilosopher. She theorizes about the neurological basis of moral values and is very, very much against Richard Dawkins and his social theories. She hypothesized that oxytocin and vasopressin were the hub and basis of the system that built up into much more complicated social rewards and eventually social and moral values. She included the caveat that any category will have fuzzy boundaries and be socially influenced, so she was less interested in the edges between what’s social and what’s moral and more in the center of the concept. She talked a lot about the uses of oxytocin and vasopressin in nurturance and attachment in different kinds of mammalian brains and how simple these things aren’t, how they interact with dopamine and other chemicals in the brain and out of it. She also talked about some things we don’t know–the human density of oxytocin receptors, for example, and the fact that almost all experiments in this chemical set are done on men because oxytocin tends to send women into estrus, so…I will be interested in how this is handled in future studies, because it seems like it’s worth knowing. A lot of people early on wanted to just have snorting oxytocin be useful for something, or more oxytocin be better for attachment, (I have seen this in SF writers, so I wanted to note it here!), but there are issues with blood-brain barrier and with it having different effects all over the body or with tipping over into entirely different behaviors.

And then I went home and collapsed and absorbed it all. Wow, wow.

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Nobel Conference 50: Where does science go from here? (Tuesday)

A couple weeks ago, I went down to my alma mater for an event they have annually: Nobel Conference. They get Nobel laureates and other cool scientists to come and give lectures around a particular theme for two days in early October. I used to love Nobel Conferences when I was a student, and they’re not just for students, not in the least. This year was the 50th anniversary conference, and as such they decided on a broader theme, the future of science. They brought back several favorite speakers from past Nobel Conferences, including inviting Freeman Dyson to be the banquet keynote speaker to finish the conference on Wednesday. Well. Freeman Dyson was my professor for a semester when I was at Gustavus, and he was a really lovely person. I was halfway talked into going when I was reading through the rest of the presenters, but when I got to him on the list, that was it: I had to go see him again.

Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t make it. But by then I’d already committed to doing it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to have lunch with my former advisor and see a couple of my other professors, I got to hear some really exciting lectures on a wide variety of topics. I also sat the first day with an earnest and wide-eyed high school student and the second day with some eager and fascinated old people, so that was fun too, the different people I ran into who were interested in coming together for this sort of thing. If you’re in the greater Minnesota-Wisconsin area–even northern Iowa, really–you should think about Nobel Conference. There’s nothing quite like it.

Steven Chu showed some very interesting graphs about costs, regulation, and energy, which did not do what economists predict or can explain at all. One of his interesting quotes was from Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end but not for a lack of oil.” He talked about room-temperature storage and long-distance transmission of energy from renewables (e.g. wind and solar) as major technical goals for the next chunk of time. He felt that his biggest successes were invisible to the public: recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, especially those in their 40s, to this line of work, and to the National Academy of Science in particular. I didn’t mind not hearing about his original work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, because the stuff he’s done since has been interesting, too. I was definitely a Steven Chu fan by the end of his talk.

I wish I could say the same of Sir Harold Kroto. His original work on fullerenes was so impressive, I’d have loved to hear about that, but if not that, something else that was…not a rehash of every flat Atlantic or New Yorker article ever written on the subject of creativity, with a heaping helping of Kids These Days mixed in. Things are not as they were when Sir Harold was a youth, and Sir Harold does not approve! He’s not about to spend any time trying to understand, adjust, or God help us improve anything. He just does not approve! Some helpful person tried to steer him towards something, anything like a positive path in the Q&A session, and he was having none! Sadly I did not bring my cane, so I could not lend it to him to shake at some clouds. Seriously, what a disappointment. Fullerenes are so cool that even if you do nothing else interesting, you can always return to that–and should, if you have nothing else to other than harumphing.

With Sean B. Carroll, though, we were entirely back on track, and I am definitely looking for his book. He talked about the icefish, a creature that evolved to have plasma full of antifreeze that came from digestive enzymes. It’s one of less than a dozen vertebrates to lack red blood cells and absorb oxygen passively. This is the kind of random nerdy crap I really enjoy, and he went on to talk about more evolutionary examples in animal development, about European kestrels mutating to see in the UV instead of blue/violet and getting to see trails of vole urine as a result, because apparently vole urine is quite visible in the UV. Who knew! What lovely stuff. He also talked about the astonishing progress in restoring large species diversity at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Exciting, inspiring stuff.

Svante Pääbo talked about early humans and the hominids lines who contributed to homo sapiens, and then the hominid lines who contributed to them. I think the best part of his talk was that when he was first at Nobel conference in 2008, he gave a firm date beyond which we probably wouldn’t know anything about hominid line contributions, and now, six years later, he was thoroughly willing to rescind that, talking about an older hominid line that we can see contributing to the Denisovans the way the Denisovans contributed to us, and he’s no longer willing to say, “Here is the date before which we won’t be able to say anything.” I just loved that. I loved watching knowledge extend just that fast that he stopped trying to say what we can’t know. And I loved that he could put up a list of all human-specific amino acids on one slide.

I left early from Gary Ernst’s talk; he was disorganized and breathless and kept circling back around points that were either staggeringly obvious or really alarming. (“Drilling for oil has been contaminating the groundwater for 150 years and nobody cared before,” is as direct a quote as I could write it down. I don’t even. Just–no.) He was the last talk of the day, and I was tired, so maybe his talk got better, but I did not stick around to find out. In a slate of ten panelists, having only two of them give bad talks and the other eight somewhere between good and transcendently great is an amazing ratio.

I have more to say here, and the two best talks, the ones where the science moved me to tears, are yet to come. But this is already getting long, so I should break it into two posts, so I will come back to Wednesday’s talks in my next Nobel Conference post.

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Short-short for your Monday morning

(It will not get longer if you read this later than Monday morning.)

Here is a new short story from me and Daily SF: Emma Goldman: A Biography for Space Aliens. As you will see at the top, this is in the Gronklorf and Fizzoom Notable Earthlings series. Gronklorf and Fizzoom’s Notable Earthlings! Buy the whole set for your spawn!

Or just read this one for free. Your call.

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It’s what you know that ain’t so: the high fantasy edition, volume 37

I can’t count how many volumes of high fantasy I’ve read that get categorized as inspired by medieval Western Europe. By this I mean I don’t feel like trying to estimate, because I have a spreadsheet that goes back over a decade and marks things by genre (“speculative,” though, rather than “high fantasy”–so it would be incredibly tedious). Point being: lots. Many to most of them pre-gun. Many to most of them featuring, at least peripherally, soldiers and armies.

Almost all of them have the soldiers in some kind of uniform.

If the soldiers are a major part of the narrative rather than “I passed a soldier in the street” (recognized by uniform), learning to march in step is almost always a part of the story.

And yet. Here’s the passage from Essays in Swedish History, specifically “The Military Revolution”:

The demand for unanimity and precision of movement led naturally to the innovation of marching in step, which appears at some date impossible to establish about the middle of the seventeenth century. And the principle of mass-subordination, of the solution of the individual will in the will of the commander, received a last reinforcement with the slow adoption of uniforms: ‘without uniforms,’ said Frederick the Great, ‘there can be no discipline.’ The process was already observable in the 1620s; but it was scarcely complete by the end of the century. The long delay is easily explained. As long as body-armour remained general, uniforms were scarcely practical; and even when armour was abandoned, the common use of the sword-resisting buff-coat prevented for a time a general change.

So…yeah. It’s not that movement in unison was unheard-of (if you have spears or pikes, you pretty much have to coordinate the movement–although in those cases shuffling together is sometimes as good as marching in step), and it’s not that nobody ever had clothes alike. But “this section of the army is so-and-so’s guard” is very different from “the entire army has a uniform.” If you look up “Flemish painting soldiers” or “Dutch painting soldiers” or either of those two ethnicities with “siege of” instead of “soldiers,” you will get paintings of people not dressed alike. Because they are off duty? Not in the sieges! No, because uniforms were not standard. Because an armband or something in your hat was what you had, more or less.

Here’s the thing: you can do this if you want, in your secondary world, even though it was not at all standard in this world in that period. You can do it no problem. “In my world they got there sooner, as a standard.” Fine. It’s one of the benefits of making it up. It’s a little dicey that so many people seem to want to. But you can jump on that bandwagon if you wish. Here’s the thing, though. Yesterday I read a blog post by Mark Lawrence in which he was talking about some of the questions he gets asked about why fantasy–his in specific–is “conservative” in some particular ways. And one of his answers–one of the standard answers–is that if the world is not focused on (in his example) a world with six suns or a complex symbiosis with aliens, putting those things in will bog down the book. And sure, yes. I get that. We end up talking about this when we talk about ways to draw on history, especially at Fourth Street–that of the cool ideas we discuss, it will be hard for any one book to take on all of them, because they will all take word count. It sounds like some of the questions Mark Lawrence is getting are pretty unreasonable, and I don’t mean to say that he does this specific thing–haven’t read his stuff.

But what I’m saying is: efficiency does not account for all of the conservatism of high/epic fantasy. sometimes the forms of “conservatism” that readers are noticing are historically inaccurate and bog down the book, and also are missing opportunities to be interesting. The books that I read that describe the soldiers’ uniforms, or describe soldiers learning to march in step: they are taking word count to make something simultaneously more generic and less historically accurate to the time period and general location that gets the credit for inspiring high/epic fantasy. It can be a phrase here and there, or it can be entire chapters. But in this case either historical inspiration or imagination would give you something more interesting than the blurred carbon copy of a misconception.

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Books read, early October

Lauri Anderson, Children of the Kalevala: Contemporary American Finns Relive the Timeless Tales of the Kalevala. This…well, the connections to the Kalevala are less intense than a person might hope, if a person is a Kalevala groupie. On the other hand, there are a few things that are…pretty much on the nose, if you know Yoopers. And if you don’t know Yoopers and would like to, I can’t really come up with a better reference.

David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal. Too concise. I thought of leaving my commentary at that, because it amused me, but there really were some interesting bits–the windmill whistles, the women in North Portugal in 1846 revolting two years before the rest of Europe. I’m just glad we have another, less concise history of Portugal sitting around, because they’re not easy to come by, and this one skimmed many of the figures for whom I wanted a history of Portugal in the first place.

Steven Brust, Hawk. Discussed elsewhere.

A. S. Byatt, Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories. These are pretty patchy. The last story in the latter volume is tone-deaf on the topic of anorexia and really should be avoided, not just by people who find that topic personally difficult, but by people who are looking for interesting, well-written stories–this is a case where “trigger warning” is less applicable than “not worth being triggered by,” for those who are in that circumstance. Some of the others are differing degrees of charming and interesting, but on the whole Byatt’s stronger short stories are elsewhere.

Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, eds., War Stories. A fairly uniform type of war story despite the variations in trappings. Three stand-outs in high quality, in different sections, so that was pleasing: Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Radio,” Yoon Ha Lee’s “Warhosts,” and Karin Lowachee’s “Enemy States.”

Siri Hustvedt, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves. I am interested in neurological conditions, and I have seen them interestingly discussed in memoir form (Oliver Sacks, basically). This…is not that. This is very short, is what can be said for it. There are some good sentences in it. Meh. MEH.

Laurie R. King, A Grave Talent. Chaz reminded me that Laurie R. King exists and also that someone (Liza?) gave me a book in her non-Holmes series that I found quite readable lo these many moons ago, so I went to find another from the library. This one is a little sad from this historical vantage, because it’s so carefully working the reader up to being willing to read about a protagonist who is in a lesbian relationship (not gendering the protag’s partner, Lee, for half the book), and from here it’s like, oh, honey, we’re willing! I promise, just tell us about the murder she solves with the brilliant painter at the heart of it, her family life is fine, really. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this kind of easing the reader in King felt needed doing as the series went on, since this type of mystery series is sort of meant to be picked up at random, and yet history was marching on even as she has been writing them.

Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. I do like how Ross King talks about the details of doing things. In this case there are all sorts of bits and pieces about frescoes, what can go wrong with them, what can make them crumble and molder and generally misbehave, short-term and long-, what made for a more prestigious fresco painter, how it all worked. I like that sort of thing very much, and he does it well. He does it so well, in fact, that I went to my library list to go request another of his books, having been reminded of how much I liked this one.

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932-1940. Well. There was plenty of Winston Churchill in this, which means plenty of entertaining anecdote, plenty of quip and plenty of perfect zinger, many a line well growled or intoned, many a jaw-dropping upper-class English situation. But I had to put the book down several times not only because it is such a brick that it hurt my neck to read it, but also because William Manchester is such a hideous jerk that he found all sorts of opportunities to make me gasp at how awful, how very very awful he was. And note: this is a bit like the Heinlein bio in that Winston Churchill was not a perfect sweet little angel who could never have offended a soul, and yet his biographer! His biographer could not just leave it at the places where his subject was actually offensive! No no no no! He had to do things like saying staggeringly offensive things about German war widows who were driven to prostitution to survive, repeating the German slander about the Polish cavalry (pop quiz: is it the same to be cornered and slaughtered when you are with your horses as to be so stupid as to think your horses will be great against tanks?), sympathizing with the Russians for of course invading Finland I mean who wouldn’t, and comparing Norway to–I am not kidding–a woman who was available to everyone once she’d been raped. (Note: using a mythological reference for that last comparison does not actually make it less offensive THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.) And as in the Heinlein bio, it is done gratuitously. Certainly, a biography of Churchill of this period will require some sense of what’s going on in the war (or, more broadly, in politics at the time–but really, 1932-1940, politics at the time mostly means the war). But Manchester really does a terrible job of staying focused on Churchill. He wanders off and does a crappy history of this era of WWII instead, complete with tons of unsubstantiated Manchester opinions and random placements of his soapbox. Whenever he returns to Churchill, it’s fascinating and well worth reading, and I expect I will want to read the rest; there’s a reason I stuck with this one through 700 pages of YOU SAID WHAT ABOUT INVADING FINLAND. I just…will want to be well-braced before I take up with any further volume. Uff da. Wow.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Olympians: Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess, Olympians: Hades, Lord of the Dead, Olympians: Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory, Olympians: Poseidon, Earth-Shaker, and Olympians: Zeus, King of the Gods. Discussed elsewhere.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Black Hound. Not quite as good as the giant one, but still a fun children’s book/comic with nifty art and solid relations between the humans and the spirit creatures of their area. Will keep reading this series and recommending to small people of my acquaintance.

Greg Rucka, Lazarus One. Graphic novel. An interesting beginning to a post-apocalyptic setting, but very much only the beginning, so if you want more than set-up, wait around a few more volumes. Already starting to explore loyalty questions, though, so–yeah, it’s a Rucka, says so on the spine.

Alison Sinclair, Breakpoint: Nereis. A lovely short-ish novel of re-contact that has several elements we talk about wanting to see more of–disabled characters with depth and agency, among other major things. I like re-contact novels (lost colony, human divergence, themes like that) and would like to see more of them, particularly from Alison, but others too.

Jonathan Spence, Treason by the Book. An interesting short study of alleged treason in eighteenth century China. One of the things that I felt was worth noting is that the people who were trying to demonstrate their own innocence had very modern concepts of how to go about proving it–so the whole “they didn’t think of it the same way as we do” really doesn’t apply to the entirety of the system, just the people who were doing the prosecuting/persecuting. And I think that whether that’s true relies on a carefully selected value of “we,” because if you just mean modern people, there’s an alarming percentage of “us” who do go with “some jerk mumbled about it, must be true, off with his head.”

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Hawk, by Steven Brust

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

So first things first: the direct, word for word, Burn Notice pastiche does not last more than about a page and a half, if you open this book and are worried. If you haven’t watched Burn Notice, it’s a perfectly sensible way to reintroduce the events of the series, a sort of Where We Are And Where We’re Going. If you have watched all of Burn Notice, however…there’s this moment of…”Oh, Steve, did you really want to associate your long-running series that does a bunch of cool stuff with a long-running series that did a bunch of cool stuff and then completely tanked its ending? You did your death-and-sarcastic-shenanigans first and better!”

But as I said, that only lasted a few pages, and then we are into the plot moving forward, really moving forward–giving Vlad progress on things he values, seeing old friends without it being a string of pointless cameos and without edging out room for new things, plotty new magic problems and a return to Vlad’s assassin roots without a return to Vlad’s assassin state of mind. There is, as one would hope for the book centered around the House of the Hawk, magic theory. There is Daymar and his (???) sense of humor. Hawk has, in short, all sorts of the things you would want it to have, and it has them in the right quick-beats moving-along setting-up-other-things sort of way.

This is clearly the latest in a long series, but you know what? It’s the one of the most recent entries I would feel best about handing people and saying, “ready set go.” They would miss a lot–who are these people? why is it such a big deal for Vlad to contact that person? why is she so terminally upset at that other person?–but y’know, sink or swim, kiddo, you want to start a series this late, you’re probably a person who’s okay with some hard knocks, and the crucial “why the heck should I care” is pretty neatly handed to you for this one. Here: care. Good. Onwards with the stabbing and the shenanigans with the improbable musical instruments.

Please consider using our link to buy Hawk at Amazon.

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Olympians box set (1-6), by George O’Connor

Review copies provided by First Second.

This box set includes the following Olympians titles: Zeus, King of the Gods, Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess, Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory, Hades, Lord of the Dead, Poseidon, Earth Shaker, and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. It looks like they intend to keep on with the series.

These are pretty straight-up comic book retellings of Greek myths for the young adult set. There are not graphically depicted rapes on the page, but on the other hand there is a great deal less glossing over than one might fear given the “for the young adult set” label: O’Connor understands that bowdlerizing the Greek myths takes a great deal out of them and sets young adults up to make references with undercurrents that they don’t mean, so while he isn’t drawing genitalia, he is drawing implications. In the last two volumes in particular, Hermes starts to develop as a character–his volume should be a lot of fun when it comes around–and to be one of the main sources of humor, but there are others. When I see discussion questions in the back of a book intended for young people, I wince, but some of these included gems like, “Zeus’s dad tried to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?” and, “Athena turned Aracne into a spider. Was this an appropriate way to resolve conflict? What other animals might she have turned her into?”

My twelve-year-old godson came over for supper when I was in the middle of reading these, and now he is in the middle of reading them too. He devoured four of them in an hour and a half, declined ice cream in order to keep on reading them, and was disappointed when his mother said it was time to go home. (I promised that they would still be here in a fortnight when they’re over for supper again.) So far there have been complete retellings of some of the major stories and bits and pieces on the edges of others; some of the stories in one volume will get called back in another, and there seems to be a lot of room for more. The characters reflect the wide variety of skin, hair, and eye colors, and to some extent body shapes, available in humans around the Mediterranean and the regions that would have migrated there. I particularly enjoyed the sea art in Poseidon’s volume, but the variety stayed fresh and interesting, and there’s plenty of room for more–Hestia, for example, has barely been touched on in these volumes, but she is portrayed as a sort of human flame, and we’ve hardly seen Artemis and Apollo either. The human heroes get a lot of time as the gods interact with them, but O’Connor doesn’t paint himself into the corner of trying to be exhaustive about any god or myth or story, just being interesting, which is a far better job to take on.

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Not Our Kind

I have been sitting on this good news, and now it can be told! My short story, “The Hanged Woman’s Portion,” will be included in the anthology Not Our Kind, along with other cool stories by other cool people, and you can see all the information about it here on the antho Kickstarter page.

Because yes! It is a Kickstarter! It needs kicking and starting, and the publisher asked if we could talk a little about our stories. So first of all, when Nayad asked me to be part of this project, I was thrilled, because for all the stories I have published, no one has ever invited me to be part of an anthology before this one. The theme is outsiders of various kinds, and I immediately thought of a human woman in an alien jail. It can be hard enough to navigate a criminal justice system in your own country, but as a foreigner, how much harder–and then a literal alien, a person of a different species from a different biosphere–how much more difficult would that be, trying to figure out the rules, the norms, the customs? Human assumptions about how we relate, how we gain sympathy or lose it, become even more important in that setting. I had a great deal of fun writing this story, and it was great working with Nayad on it. I haven’t read the others, but the experience of working on this one makes me expect great things of the rest.

In the Kickstarter rewards, there are critiques from me and brownies from me and many other cool things from other people, as well as the anthology itself. Go have a look! I hope you like what you see. I think you will.

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The slander of the time

I just permanently put down a book–sadly, no, this is not an “I can in fact quit you” post–because the historian writing it was taking every single period usage of a particular insult as though it was documented fact. He didn’t seem to have realized what the other historians of that period had: namely, that while some behaviors probably were well-supported, a single mention of a political enemy calling someone a witch, a sodomite, a cripple, or some other term assumed by contemporaries to be negative did not mean that they engaged in any particular concrete behavior whatsoever–except to disagree with the political enemy.

We’ve had this in our own lifetimes. Of course we have. People get called gay, Muslims, Communists, terrorists, because the people using those terms think that those are negative things to be, not because they saw someone kissing someone of the same sex or praying to Mecca, much less anything that might in real terms constitute affiliation with any Communist (or communist) or terrorist group. And yet historians! Come on, historians! This is supposed to be your job! This kind of perspective: you’re supposed to know better!

But in terms of writing speculative fiction, I think this kind of culturally pervasive insult can rise above Princess Leia’s “scruffy-looking nerf-herder!” if it’s handled carefully, but only then, and it’s pretty tricky for exactly the reasons the historians had trouble with it. One of the main ways we learn things about characters in a novel is what the other characters say about them, so if Ana says that Bot is a filthy drum-sniffer–what’s a drum-sniffer? why shouldn’t you sniff drums? what do they smell like?–we, the readers, have to find out that there’s some reason not to believe her, or else we do go away with the thought that, well, that Bot, he’s a filthy drum-sniffer. And we have to know whether drum-sniffing is an actual thing that carries with it serious shame, whether it used to but has fallen into slang usage that no longer feels literal (as with “bastard” no longer carrying serious allegations of parental non-marriage), and so on. Whether something is potentially a literal truth and only some people find it insulting is one of the hardest ones to pull off–the speculative world equivalent of allegations that President Obama is a secret Muslim, for example. It’s hard enough to navigate the thickets of “He isn’t, but it wouldn’t be an insult if he was” in this world, where there is an actual President Obama whose external religious behavior can be observed, and where people can look up external definitions of what “Christian” and “Muslim” mean to various parties.

It’s another piece of worldbuilding that can add richness and depth to the culture(s) and personalities you’re building, or it can bog a story down and confuse readers needlessly. If it happens to actual historians, it can certainly happen to fantasy readers. But that’s not a reason not to try, it’s a reason to be careful and run things past test-readers. Like most of the things worldbuilding nerds talk about wanting to see more of, it shouldn’t be required in every story, as a checklist, just as one of the cultural touchstones that can spark implications and ideas.