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Fourth Street Schedule

The schedule for 4th St. Fantasy is up, and it starts today! We’ll be heading up there to settle into the hotel and do evening events tonight. I’m leading the seminar starting at 9:00 tomorrow morning, but all the spots in that are full. You can still get a convention membership, though! And here are the panels you can hear me on if you do:

Saturday 9:30 AM: The Romance of the Breakdown. Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull,
Marissa Lingen, Max Gladstone, Sarah Olsen

What’s up with our perpetual fascination with breaking society and dramatizing the apocalypse as well as the post-apocalypse… how do our cultural myths and societal images intersect with this phenomenon and fuel it (the manor house cozy catastrophe of British fiction, the American narrative of rugged survivalists gunning their way across the ungoverned wastes, etc.)? We’ve seen that national powers can remain in control and national identities remain concrete even when bombs are literally falling from the sky. So why do we seem so convinced that if our society hits the rocks we’ll never get it off again?

(Oh, I have thoughts, kids. I have thoughts.)

Sunday 10:00 AM: Crossing the Genre Streams. Marissa Lingen (moderator), Max Gladstone, Doug Hulick, Kelly McCullough, Patricia C. Wrede
The challenges, structural concerns, and tricks of crossing two or more established genres in one book. How the beats fall differently, how to manage different sets of expectations, etc.

Note: the schedule has all of Sunday’s panels listed as PM. This is wrong. I know because I am never, never, never on a panel starting at 10:00 p.m. You think I flap my hands and call things “thingy” and “whatsit” ordinarily…you should see me in the 2200 hour.

Anyway! If you are noticing that I seem to be starting the convention every morning, you are correct! I am the Designated Fourth Street Morning Person. Rise and shine and geek out with meeeee!

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The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also, the author is a personal friend, and I read this previously in manuscript form–you’ll notice me in the acknowledgments. So that’s full disclosure for you.

This is a sequel that will fill in the backstory for you rather well in terms of practical details you might have forgotten since you read The Just City. In terms of emotional weight, I’d still recommend reading The Just City first, and it’s a bit difficult to figure out how to talk about The Philosopher Kings without at least some Just City spoilers.

Okay, so: most of the book is what’s gone on since the end of The Just City. One of the POVs (Maia) does exactly what she does in the first one: filling in the gaps between the “then” and the “now” of the rest of the book, telling the pieces of story that fit thematically and need to be given to the reader for context and yet are much more interesting as 1/6 book slightly out of order than they would be if it was all in a lump at the front. The Children of The Just City are now middle-aged with their children (The Young Ones) finding their places as golds, silvers, bronzes, or irons of their city–or more properly cities–doing their own thinking about justice, vengeance, consent, theology, and excellence.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the characters running into the rest of the world and having it be something of a shock, after all these years, that there are people who are not in any way attempting to recreate Plato’s Republic. It has come to seem utterly, indisputably normal to them. And…I think we can all come up with aspects of our unique lives that feel totally normal until we compare them with the outside world and remember. It’s done really well, the shock of the new coming from an unexpected direction and yet feeling entirely in-character.

And I love Arete. The new POV character for this book is fifteen, not even thought of when the titular Just City was founded, and her assumptions and worldview are so perfectly rendered. She is striving so hard and is still figuring out what, exactly, she’s striving for. My other new favorite is Neleus, fully human in a family where all of his siblings are part-god. The family dynamic there is just perfect, and it’s not something we see in fantasy much, although we should, because it logically fits.

I’ve been pleased that so many people have seen the first book as something to start a dialog, because that’s so very thematically appropriate, and I hope it’ll happen here too. Meanwhile since this is such an early review, I don’t want to do too much of it myself and spoil major elements that I’d like people to enjoy discovering as I did.

Please consider using our link to buy The Philosopher Kings from Amazon.

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All about

A couple of times in the last few months, I’ve had reason to say something like, “Sometimes things not being all about us are the worst, honestly.” Because I have had multiple friends and relations who are helping others deal with really bad things, and they have needed to hear it. So I thought I’d put it here, where other people could see it too.

A few months back there was an essay going around about how support needs to flow towards the person or people most affected by something bad. And I think that’s true and good. It’s just…hard to remember sometimes, when you’re watching the person who is most affected, that you’re allowed to need things from “outer ring” people too. It’s easy to get caught up in reminding yourself that it’s not all about you–and really, it’s not. But it’s a little bit about you. If you’re watching a parent writhe in agony, if you’re listening to a friend’s tears about something you can’t fix–that legitimately is hard on you. Even though it’s hardER on them. And it’s really important to be able to turn to somebody and say, “Well, that could have gone better.”

Sometimes the ritual reminder that it’s not all about you is usefully centering. It refreshes your patience and your perspective. But sometimes it minimizes that you, too, are having some pretty bad experiences in this general area. Sometimes it shuts down the conversation you’re currently having from including sympathy and/or brainstorming for how to make things easier for you. Sometimes it’s really, really okay if the things that are not all about you are just a little tiny bit about you.

Also, hang in there.

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Linda Nagata has a great post on quitting writing, from the perspective of someone who’s done it and come back. Go ahead and read it now. I’ll wait.

The thing about this, the reason I want to signal boost, is that there is so much of writer culture that is pushing uphill. It’s pushing against a world in which not writing is the default, and it’s trying to make space for an unusual activity. And this is good. More room for the creative and unusual! Hurrah!

But…not writing should be the default, because not everybody writes. Not everybody wants to write. (Not everybody wants to have written, either.) And among the people who want to, I would hope that they also want other things. Friends, family…hobbies…other jobs, other pursuits…time to read, even. You’re allowed to change the priority order of the things you want, as your life goes on, so that something that was previously secondary becomes primary or vice versa. Or further down the list than that.

You are allowed to love to do more than one thing. You are allowed to be there for more than one person. And “yourself” is one of the people you may need to be there for, and that takes all different shapes.

This may sound like it’s the exact opposite of the advice I give college students, which is to make room for the things that are your priorities now rather than pushing them off until some magical day when you will have more time, because that magical day will never come. But I think the key word there is “magical.” When there is something you want to do that you are not doing now, the question is: what will be different later? And sometimes there is a clear, factual answer to that question. Sometimes what will be different later is that forming a habit of working out in a gym would require purchasing a gym membership when you’re no longer getting one for free in college–for some people that’s motivating and for some quite the opposite. But it is a difference. For some people, college is requiring them to write papers, and that’s taking all their writing energy, whereas they intend to get a job that is not writing-heavy. For others, college has more room to put writing their “own” stuff in their schedule than grad school or work life will, so it’s a great time to start incorporating writing into their lives automatically. People vary. Situations vary. This is not a bug, it’s a feature.

And sometimes if you say to yourself, “What will be different later, that I will have more time for writing?”, the honest answer is, “I will not have a newborn.” Or, “I will not be caring for someone in the final stages of terminal cancer.” Or, “I will not be in the middle of a move across multiple time zones.” Or even, “I will have had a chance to rest.” These can all be honest, important answers. If you find that you always have an honest, important answer for, “Why not write?”, the answer may be that writing is not a priority for you. That is okay. Now may not be your time. We all have some times when we are not up for writing. Some people find that they last eight hours and end with the alarm clock; some find that they last a decade. But the person whose time for not-writing is “only when not conscious” if not morally superior to the person whose time for not-writing is “when my kid is tiny” or “while I am getting this degree in a field I like.” Due to the vicissitudes of life, they’re not even guaranteed to be a better writer–on nearly any axis.

The more writers I get to know, the more writers I value as whole people. The more I want to encourage self-care. For some people, that absolutely means “carve out x hours of writing time a week; I am better for it.” For others that means, “not this year, perhaps next year.” Again: variety is not a bug, it’s a feature.

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Books read, early June

Balak, Sanlaville, and Vives, Last Man: The Royal Cup. Discussed elsewhere.

Blue Balliett, Chasing Vermeer. This is a children’s book with mysteries, puzzles, codes, and capers. I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did The Westing Game all those years ago, or even in strong like with it the way I did The Mysterious Benedict Society more recently, but it’s still a fun and worthwhile read, and I’m going to look for more of Blue Balliett’s stuff.

Colin Cotterill, Six and a Half Deadly Sins. The latest Dr. Siri book. It is a terrible, terrible pun, and there are a few places where Cotterill seems to feel that he is engaging in clever deception, and I…was less impressed. Also the very ending made me harumph a bit. But if you like the Dr. Siri books, this is another one, and worth reading if you enjoy them. Probably better to start earlier in the series, though.

Douglas Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. If ever there was an argument for an introductory note, it was this book. Egerton quoted a lot of primary sources for the period, which tend to be white. And which tend to phoneticize African-American dialect in ways that I feel are distancing and patronizing. Among other things, the question of whose dialect is pronounced “as the standard spelling” is one that somehow never gets resolved in favor of people phoneticizing people with my accent–and yet I have a very distinct regional accent. Which I guarantee is not the same as the white Southern planters of the time who were presenting their own words as the unmarked state. And yet…if you’re quoting somebody, you quote what they said. That’s what quoting means. So you can’t really say that Plantation Owner So-and-So said that an African-American freedman said, “I’m going to see that day!”, because that may have been what the freedman said, but it is not what the plantation owner said he said. Sigh. So: author’s note sorely, sorely needed. Other than that, I felt that Egerton got caught up in which 19th century personalities he really enjoyed and felt people should know about…regardless of whether they were really relevant to the Reconstruction. Robert Gould Shaw, for example, died in 1863; nor was he such an extensive thinker that he could be said to be a major influence on policy for the Reconstruction. He was definitely an important Civil War-era American, but…this book was about the Reconstruction. So the lengthy digression about Shaw seemed like not the best use of space, not the best organization. Nor was he the only such figure.

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. Light, entertaining, not earth-shaking if you’ve read/thought about this before. Fast read, some good tidbits.

Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I really like Lepore’s work in general, but in this case I felt she missed an opportunity to actually talk about Wonder Woman and possibly female superheroes in general in much more depth. She was more concerned with the family life of Wonder Woman’s creator, sometimes exoticizing it weirdly even in the places it was utterly usual.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. In some ways I’m sorry I saw the play “Mr. Burns” before reading this book, because almost everything it’s doing was done better in “Mr. Burns,” which did some other things as well. The prose is quite readable, and although the worldbuilding has some points of nonsense in service to creating the emotional situation Mandel wants to write about, there are fewer of those than in the average post-apocalyptic book, and the emotional situation is then actually well-portrayed. There’s a lot of pre-apocalypse, basically our world stuff about the characters, how they got to that point, which is fine, readable, but in such a short novel it means that she’s not actually doing very much that’s interesting with the motivations for the traveling theater and its players, nor with how that group evolves. Which absence is particularly striking when you’ve just seen “Mr. Burns.” The thing is…”Mr. Burns” is a high bar to clear. It made me weep in more than one spot. Station Eleven was a book I read through to the end, but while it took “survival is insufficient” as a tagline, it didn’t really go anywhere interesting with that tagline. And this is one of the places where good worldbuilding actually would have helped: a sense of how the characters ate, just literally how they ate–just to take one example–might have helped with the sense of what they were giving up to get past mere survival, and how.

Cherie Priest, I Am Princess X. A YA thriller about girls who write comics. Incredibly fast read, generally a good time. Pretty standard plot, but mixing in the elements of the comic made it stand out in a fun way.

Marguerite Reed, Archangel. Science fiction with varying levels of engineered humans interacting with each other (and with alien fauna, hurray!) with varying levels of trust and hostility. Fun read with a strong love story component–for me the love story is not a strong plus or minus, but I know some of you find it to be a strong positive, so I thought I’d say. There is also a really well-drawn depiction of a toddler/parent relationship.

Charles Slack, Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech. About the Sedition Act, and about the newspaper writers, printers, and owners who had to deal with it. Not very long, not very much on Adams and Jefferson, but at least moderately interesting. Definitely worth reading if you have an interest in the early parts of the American experiment. At times I roll my eyes when historians seem to be acting like historical people didn’t have a grasp on some particular principle when it turns out modern people aren’t so great at it either. In this case, “free speech includes people whose speech you dislike” was the bit that was hard “back then,” sigh.

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. I’m really glad this is not the first Spence I’ve read, because it is “too much Jesuit, not enough China,” and it’s nice to know that that’s not generally a problem he has. Some of the stuff about how the missionaries decided to present Christianity in a Chinese context is pretty interesting, but I generally prefer his other books.

Arthur Tourtellot, Life’s Picture History of World War II. Grandpa’s. This is from 1950, so the image reproduction standard is very low, and the standard for what kinds of racism are allowed in the text are also quite low. The Japanese are more often referred to by their most common English-language slur than by their full nationality. This is very much a book where the war is still fresh for the people compiling it, in more ways than one.

Ursula Vernon, Castle Hangnail. A romp through wicked witchery, turning things into dragons, and the capabilities of hypochondriac goldfish.

Dan Wells, The Devil’s Only Friend. Discussed elsewhere.

Patricia C. Wrede and Pamela Dean, Points of Departure. Disclosure: I read this in manuscript because Pat is in my writing group. It’s a set of stories that fit very well together, most of which were originally published in the Liavek collections back in the day. You don’t have to have read any of them for these stories to work well and make sense, though–the collection is a lovely introduction to Liavek, and to these two writers’ work. Highly recommended.

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Last Man: The Royal Cup, by Balak, Sanlaville, and Vives

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

The first volume of this series came out earlier this year, and I reviewed it. I basically described it as Tintin Goes to a Tournament, Manga Style, and as an installation rather than a complete story.

The second volume is like that but with wayyyy more gratuitous sexism. So…if that’s what you’re looking for…here it is? I am not really interested in further volumes, after this one. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

This is apparently not my week for reviews and the awkwardness of the boilerplate text at the end of reviews. So, in case it was unclear, I do not recommend this book. If, however, simplistic storyline plus loads of gratuitous sexism is your thing, or if you’re looking to do research on this type of graphic novel….

Please consider using our link to buy The Royal Cup from Amazon.

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The Devil’s Only Friend, by Dan Wells

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Teen sociopath and demon-killer John Wayne Cleaver is back. Now–more sociopathic and more demon-killing! Um.

In the first trilogy, John was firmly embedded in his loving family. Wells seemed to wibble considerably about whether John was actually a sociopath or just an Isolated Boy Who Needs Wuv. This latest entry in the series leaves both of those grounding elements behind and instead gives us an FBI-sponsored team of (of course) misfits hunting demons and the inner thoughts John is stifling about hurting dogs and starting fires. His “rules” are only mostly in place, but this seems to be a source of angst rather than genuine concern.

The FBI-sponsored team is a combination of terminally bland and thoroughly unlikeable–and getting them through John’s first-person viewpoint does not help. The only person John likes at all for most of this book is someone who was damaged to the point of non-functionality in the previous series, so most of his interactions with people are in the charming land where sociopathy and teen disaffection meet.

The demons–the Gifted, the Cursed, the Withered, whatever–proliferate in this book, and while Wells makes some effort to differentiate them personally, this is only mildly successful. The initial trilogy had its problems, but it felt reasonably complete. Trying to go on with John Wayne Cleaver past that arc is really not working for me.

This is where boilerplate gets awkward, but hey: if you’re still thinking of buying this book….

Please consider using our Amazon link to buy The Devil’s Only Friend.

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Opening night

I am tracking how many first lines I write for this book. So far it’s five. Alec asked me if I had discarded any of them, and I laughed, because yeah, I’ve discarded four of them. I wouldn’t have come up with the others if I didn’t need to replace them. I don’t count the times that I delete an adverb or strengthen a verb as separate sentences. These are five completely different starting places, varying in book time from a few seconds apart to a few days. They are doing different things, and what thing they need to do is evolving as the book evolves.

I have talked before about writing out of order, about how every piece of the book affects every other piece and how for me that means that writing them all linearly just won’t work. And I secretly think that everyone else is at least a little bit like that too. I have met zero people who revise each line into perfection and then never change it. I’m sure there was some historical figure who did that, but currently: really not. Everyone needs to look at their work as a whole and have some parts of it evolve based on how other parts look once they’re down on the page. It’s just that I do that with a lot more temporal variance, I think.

Anyway: the five first lines don’t mean the book is going badly, they mean that the book is going well and giving me more stuff I’m excited about writing every day. So seriously yay that.

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Books read, late May

Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. Akcam is a Turkish historian who is confronting the Armenian genocide head-on, and from what I can tell he is fairly rare in that. He is doing it in a fairly dry way, examining all sorts of documentation and refuting opposition arguments piece by piece, so if you wanted to know what it was like to be Armenian in this period, this is not the book for you. But that kind of argument can be extremely important to have in meticulous detail.

Jack Berry, West African Folktales. Collected from various sources with more attention to folklore as a field of study than as storytelling, so there’s somewhat repetitive variation. However, sometimes that’s useful to see what’s essential in the culture you’re reading about as compared to your own home culture.

John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. A giant doorstop of a book, focusing on various men and women who influenced popular and high culture in England in the 18th century. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, go for it, but it was not transcendent enough to recommend more broadly.

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower. Reread. Vivid post-apocalyptic fiction. Shorter and left more open than I remembered, so I’m glad there’s a sequel, but utterly engrossing while I was reading it.

C.J. Cherryh, Inheritor. Reread. Jase Graham whines and throws fits. Too many HOOMANS. I am deeply glad to know that there is better stuff coming in this series (AND FEWER HOOMANS), because Bren and Jase grating on each other is realistic and well-done and ANNOYING.

Diane Duane, A Wizard Abroad. Reread. My least-favorite of the Young Wizards books due to a fairly genericized Ireland and an equally generic-feeling smoochy subplot. Again: I’m glad to know there is better yet to come.

Melissa Grey, The Girl at Midnight. Discussed elsewhere.

Gwyneth Jones, Bold as Love. Reread. The thing I like about this book is that its heart is about people taking care of each other. Some of the stuff they do to take care of each other is not at all my mode, but for me that’s what makes the whole thing worthwhile. Not just the central triumvirate, but also the side characters, the way people are and aren’t there for each other in serious crises. It adds to the small-scale bits of futurism I like so well. Despite the horrific abuse early on in the book, despite the awful things some people do to each other and the compromises they make, the warmth of this just made me happy all over again.