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Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also I have known the author approximately since the dawn of time, though I think it’s fair to say not particularly closely.

Another thing I think it’s fair to say: this is not “another one of those.” While the focus is on two races of anthropomorphic elephant people, there are dozens more anthropomorphic races. (And unlike my complaints about a certain comic series, there is no human savior for the animal folk.) Their story takes place tens of thousands of years in the future–farther out than all but a handful of stories have been set in recent decades.

And the main thrust of the plot deals with koph, a drug that allows its visionaries to talk with the dead by gathering their soul particles from the farthest reaches of the universe. Koph–and its refinements and control, and the wisdom of generations past obtainable with it–is the center, the heart of the book–that and the relationships of the elephant people on the planet from which it is obtained.

So yeah: not another one of those. Quite uniquely itself. There is only the tip of the galactic iceberg here in how the different anthropomorphic species relate to each other and among themselves. There’s room for more, much more, and if this is your style of science fiction, Schoen definitely executes on it.

One thing that surprised me was that I’m used to thinking of Lawrence wearing his linguistics hat, and the linguistics aspect didn’t come into the book until very late. It’s there! So if that’s something you’re looking forward to in a Lawrence Schoen novel, rest assured that it is present! But it doesn’t come in until quite late in the narrative.

Please consider using our link to buy Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard from Amazon.

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Tea and mythic beasts and mayhem

Last year for Christmas I wrote my mom a story that included all these elements. This year I decided to put it on my website for free to share with all of you. Here it is: How to Wrap a Roc’s Egg. It was inspired by a pair of earrings made by Elise Matthesen, by the work of the great taxonomist and general all-around eccentric Carl Linnaeus, and of course tea. Happy Solstice, merry Christmas, and on through all the rest of the holidays ahead. Enjoy.

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Books read, early December

Diane Ackerman, I Praise My Destroyer. Reread. I find that I am less enthusiastic about this over a decade later, but the science- and scientist-related poems are still of interest. I think other Ackerman volumes will be where I find my favorites. I may find that I am wrong.

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad. Usually when I read a short story collection I like to call out particular favorites. This whole thing is my particular favorite. Read the whole thing. This is so good. I–so from the very beginning, if you have any Malaysian friends, the dialog. Oh, the dialog. There is this comfortable confident feeling that she is telling the truth about your friends, and that makes you feel like she is also telling the truth about whatever speculative element. This is what good dialog does. (See also: good whatever else.) If you give readers the sense that people don’t really talk like that, it’s a short hop to these aren’t really people, they’re just ink marks on a page. These are really people. They are really particular, beautifully drawn people. Doing various things with heart and interest. I liked Sorcerer to the Crown a lot a lot, but this–I love this so much.

A.M. Dellamonica, A Daughter of No Nation. Discussed elsewhere.

Angelica Gorodischer, Prodigies. This is about the house of a poet, in Berlin. It is not the masterwork Kalpa Imperial is, and it makes me so very happy to have the chance to read something secondary, to get a translation that isn’t the One Biggest Best Thing. What a great future it is where I can read not just one Angelica Gorodischer book, oh yay yay yay. I mean, this is an interesting book. I just…don’t take translations for granted.

Ryan North and Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power. Extremely exuberant. Punny. Pugnacious. I heard someone say that it talks like the internet; yep. There are better audiences than me for this book, but I smiled at bits of it all the same. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, though.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti. I feel like this is a book that is doing a lot–a lot–to try to reach audiences who are unfamiliar with some aspects of African cultures and get them African-based alien interaction SF that they can be okay with. I love alien interaction SF and am pretty comfortable with less hand-holding through African cultures, so rock on.

Greg Rucka, Lazarus Three. Near future dystopian comic continues. Don’t start here, see if you like the early ones. I’m feeling pretty lukewarm at this point and would rather have his prose in something like Alpha, but writers are allowed their choice of projects and not mine. (What is this free will nonsense. What.)

Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. I keep saying that things do what they say on the tin; this does not. I am deeply interested in the future of neurodiversity, and there is almost nothing about that in this book. It is substantially Awful Things People Have Done To the Autistic Through History. I wanted to read it to see what mainstream people will think about my autistic/other neurodiverse friends and family, since it’s a pretty popular pop-science book, and aside from a few moments of historical diagnosis (staaaaaap) it didn’t have a lot that I’m going to have to beat out of people with my shoe. But it’s not very much fun to read if you already know the Awful Things Etc., and it does pretty much nothing for the future of neurodiversity if you’re a nerd/proto-activist in that direction. Well. We’ll just have to build it ourselves, folks. (And by “we’ll just have to build it ourselves,” I mean “I will be calling on you to build this with me, so saddle up.”)

Molly Tanzer, The Pleasure Merchant. Eighteenth century…science fiction? ish? or just historical fiction, depending on how you read it. Not like anything else out there, that I know of. Proto-mesmerism, and sex, and people’s best and worst natures, and oh my goodness so very eighteenth century. I love the eighteenth century, and Molly hits on so many things about it. Recommended.

The Hmong American Writers’ Circle, How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology. Quite a lot of poetry, some fiction, a little nonfiction, some art. An interesting mix. I’m a little frustrated by how many people told these writers that they had to “speak for their people” when white writers are put under no such constraint, but having a forum for their voices to be heard is a good thing regardless of whether you’re leaning that on them.

Derek Walcott, The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013. Lots to love here. Some political, some highly personal, and not clustered at one end of his career or another, either. You can watch him struggle with the legacy of colonialism pretty explicitly and in a fantastically erudite way. You can also just revel in what he does with language. Gorgeous, great. More.

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“The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all”

It’s Santa Lucia Day, the same as all the other Santa Lucia Days, different from all the other Santa Lucia Days. That’s how holidays go.

I have the fragrant saffron bun to bite into this morning. This year I opened a package of dried blueberries early in the week, and they were perfect, huge and not at all sticky, not like the ones I’ve been getting, the tiny clumpy ones. They were like cutting open a fish in a fairy tale and finding gold coins. I looked at them and thought, “These are too good for granola,” and I shut the package and ate tiny clumpy ones in my granola the rest of the week so that the lussekatter could have the gift blueberries. To make my life a little easier. To leave a trail for myself in the long grey not-cold-enough nights.

Some years the dark time of your own heart doesn’t synch up with the dark time of the calendar. Some years you get through the dark of your own personal year early and have sort of got a handle by the autumnal equinox–not that everything is amazing, but that you know what you need to do next. You are coping with what there is. The darkness of your heart can wait around for later, and for now you can do the stuff there is to do and appreciate the stuff there is to appreciate. Other people around you have their own bad stuff you can’t talk about. Your bad stuff is still there. But some years you find a little bit of a groove. You find a little bit of light, just as the world loses it.

The lussekatter are important those years, too. Because there’s always darkness at some scale–you can see it, you don’t need me to tell you where. Your family, your city, your country, the world–it’s a messed up world. There’s always darkness to kick away at, always light to bring back to someone. It’s the work of the world, it’s what we do. So I sang the songs–gently–to remind the dough what day it is. I kneaded gently, I sang softly, and the blueberries were there because I had left them for myself, my bread crumbs, my white stones. And this year the bread is still for me, but maybe a bit more for some other people. And that’s a good way too.

Happy Santa Lucia Day.

2006 2007 part one 2007 part two 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014

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A Daughter of No Nation, by A.M. Dellamonica

Review copy provided by Tor.

This is the sequel to Child of a Hidden Sea, and I recommend that you read that first.  I am a sucker for a middle book; this is very thoroughly one. I am also a sucker for a portal fantasy, and this is that, too. The culture clash aspects of it run very high, not just for plot but also for humorous moments, the kind of humor that has some lines you can quote but some things that are character and situation, the kind that are hardest to read out to someone because they’re so embedded in the book itself.  Which is the kind I like best.

It’s not all about the humor, though–this is not the sort of slapsticky book that gets described as “humorous fantasy.” (I don’t like humorous fantasy–I say this a lot, I have said it again in an email just today–because I like things that are funny.)  There’s quite a lot of serious stuff about how to handle being in the middle of a culture doing something you disapprove of–in this case slavery–and figuring out the lines between people you like and people you trust.  And there’s also magic and complicated family relationships and questions of foreign ecosystems and science research when people don’t want you to do science research.  It’s a romp but not a brainless one.  First and foremost, though, I’m pleased to have a portal fantasy that’s doing interesting stuff, because you can pretty much always get me to sign on for that.

Please consider using our link to buy A Daughter of No Nation from Amazon.

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More stories I liked, that you might like too

Another in a semi-regular series of posts. Here are some stories I liked!  Please feel free to talk about them in the comments and/or leave links to additional stories you’ve liked. Stories are easier to transport for Mikulas morning and nobody will forget that it’s Mikulas and put their stinky feet on the nice stories you have left them. No one gets eaten by Krampus in these stories. That’s not really my style.

So Much Cooking, by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld).  Feeding a family in the face of a science fictional pandemic, food blogger style. This is so compassionate and humane. It is also so, so, so very Minneapolitan.

The Coup in Elfland, by Michael J. DeLuca (Mythic Delirium). I am a sucker for revolutions, especially for revolutions that do not have a simple happy ending. Blood is once again compulsory, you see.

Here Is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All, by Rahul Kanakia (Lightspeed). Spaceship-perspective story on a gloopy people and their gloopy priorities vs. its own.

A Photograph of Bones, by Robin Husen (Daily SF). A completely different story but also about perspectives. Seeing the world differently is beautiful.

The Girl With Golden Hair, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies). Great expectations, terrible queens, centaurs. And implication.

Spider’s Ink, by Jason S. Ridler (Beneath Ceaseless Skies). Rarely do I really like a story that I have to warn people might gross them out a little, but this is one: there’s some quite vivid visceral stuff here. That’s not the point, though, the point is much deeper, so if you can get through the initial bit, this is another story full of rebellion and politics, unreliability and non-simple endings.

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Where it starts, where it winds up.

I’m not going to say if it upsets you when there’s a mass shooting or police brutality, because you’re human. You don’t have to do a performative dance of grief for every person killed, every city that has to rise up and say no, enough, for me to know that you feel it. But if you’re American. If this is your country, in which all this is happening. That if, not the first one. If you’re American and of voting age.

Vote in your local elections.

Every news outlet in the country is trying to sell us the next presidential election as a two-year story–as the two-year story–and if that works, they’ll pitch it to us for three next time. Not even senators–say nothing of representatives. Just presidents, presidents, presidents. And not presidential policy. Future possible presidential policy. Hypothetical presidents. That is The News Cycle; that is what Serious People Who Care About The News care about.


When it all goes down, when it’s your city or the city next door to it, the president can send in the National Guard if it comes to that, the president can make sad speeches on the TV and reach out to bereaved parents–and we are at a place, as a country, where we know that it’ll be time for another sad speech and some more bereaved parents next week. We know that their grief will be as real and as fresh and as meaningful as last week’s bereaved parents, and the president can reach out to them with five minutes between climate change talks and trying to get those Indonesian fires under control. Hey, remember those? Giant, rampaging fires ruining the air quality of much of the south end of Asia and destroying huge precious forests? No, never mind, in eleven months one of these yahoos might be on a major party ticket; we have to run footage of them at a pancake breakfast.

But when it all goes down–the part for which they’ll interrupt the pancake breakfast–the people who make the immediate decisions about what will happen in your city or the city next door–those people were either elected or their hiring or appointment was set up by elected people. For the most part, that is who runs your city and county government. By the time the presidential election rolls around, you have a pretty good guess which way your state will swing, although you should vote anyway. But who will your ward want for alderman? Who will be your rep on the city council? In many places you will be voting on sheriffs. Sheriffs, come on, we have all seen how important they are. You will be voting on judges–even if it’s just to retain or deny them their seat. Think about that. The judges, the people who issue warrants or quash them? YOU CAN VOTE FOR THEM. You.

The people who decide in budget meetings whether your police force should spend its money on community relationship training and a little trailer to haul around a speed detector sign, or whether that money should go to riot gear. You elect those people. Or you don’t. Or you say, oh well, there’s nothing important to vote on this time. Meaning: it’s not a presidential election. Meaning: I have not been force-fed years of coverage of these people eating pancakes. They are slightly lumpy and do not spam me with glossy ads of themselves and their glossy children. They have improbable names and there are lots of them. This part of participatory democracy is work.

Wail your anguish on social media, by all means, or don’t. I trust that you have a human heart, that you feel that anguish either way. But if you only have $20 to give, or you only have an hour to volunteer, is it going to matter more to the presidential candidate or the person who wants to make sure your city has a good council member? And if it all goes down in your city next time, God forbid, don’t you want to look at the people who are making the decisions and think, well, I did the best I could to get good ones? Because sometimes there’s not much a good mayor or a good alderman or a good sheriff can do. But then there are those other times, and we’ve seen too much of them lately. I’d like to hope we’ve seen too much of them to keep ignoring the most immediate scale of action we have.

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Books read, late November

Light fortnight for books–partly because of one monstrosity, partly because of a disproportionate amount of manuscript reading.

Pamela Dean, The Dubious Hills. Reread. I got lured. Again. This is one of my best examples of a book that teaches you how to read it as you go. I love all three of the main children so much, Arry and Beldi and Con. I miss the days when Moo was sometimes like Con. I don’t miss them always. Just a little. And I love the things it does with doubt and certainty and relying on other people.

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, eds., Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales. Quite a few stories in this anthology worked particularly well for me. Holly Black’s “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)” is the kind of lighthearted space SF that makes me think that the old guard complaining how there just isn’t old school SF like there used to be just aren’t paying attention to the right areas. M.T. Anderson’s “Quick Hill” was a sad creepy march toward the inevitable. Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Diabolist” worked quite well for me as the portrait of a girl and her own, her father’s, and a town’s demons. Patrick Ness’s “This Whole Demoning Thing” made me suspect (in combination with Carrie Vaughn’s “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife” from Haikasoru’s recent Hanzai Japan) that I might have a previously unsuspected fondness for apocalyptic high school rock band stories. Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Wings in the Morning” was the kind of teen relationship crack that she peddles so well–I could see the emotional buttons she was pushing, and that did not make them pushed any less effectively.  Also, harpies. Also, self-acceptance. Also, harpies. Finally, the volume closed with Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying,” which was a lovely examination of extra-dimensional alien who even knows what ghost things and adoption and three very different girls and their friendship. I loved it. I want more like it. I mean, also, look at the title. Just look at it. If you think “meh,” then maybe that is an accurate meh for you, but: that title, oh, oh.

Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Aaaaaand this was the monstrosity. So much Burne-Jones. So. Very. Much. How many times can one woman exclaim, “Shut up, John Ruskin”? Let’s find out! I said. I am not as much a fan of Burne-Jones as I am of William Morris, and let’s find out why! I said. MacCarthy is an affectionate but not blinkered biographer. She is reasonably sensitive to the women in Burne-Jones’ life but does not (sometimes alas!) let them take over his biography. This is a thorough ramble through Victorian England, where everyone appears to be related to everyone else, or if not (Paderewski came over from Poland and could not be expected to be everyone’s cousin) at least ran into them in the street. Quite a few moments of wanting to kick Rossetti.  It’s briskly written, fun to read, but you can look up and a hundred pages have passed and there’s still more of it. It’s a commitment, is what. But I would seek out more MacCarthy, and if you’re interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, I would recommend it for sure. Even if you’re only interested in the period.

Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems. Reread. This was the strangest experience. I remember loving Anne Sexton the first time around, and I honestly cannot point to more than one poem I loved or even liked all that much this time. I have a really strong sense of continuity of self. Usually even when I don’t still love things now, I can say why I did then. And I can’t even point to which ones I used to like. It’s baffling, disorienting. I know what year I read this originally–2002, it’s in my booklog–and other things from 2002 are explicable if not still loved. Honestly, no idea.

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits With Gun. A brisk, fun novelization of the story of one of America’s earliest women crime fighters. A run-in with a thug that ruins their buggy sets Constance on a path to law enforcement–since heaven knows it isn’t being enforced without her. Brave, stubborn heroine; quick read.