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World Fantasy Convention schedule

This one is much simpler than some cons: one panel. Plans for ice cream and fountain pens and many other lovely things aside from formal programming! but for programming there’s this:

Strength Isn’t Just For the Strong

Time: Saturday – 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM 
Category: Panel
Track: Panel
Location: WaterTable BC
Panelists: Carole Cummings, David Anthony Durham, Rhiannon Held, Fonda Lee, Marissa Lingen (M)
Description: Fantasy stories w/ ordinary, non-magical people, both humans and others, as protagonists. #StrongCharacters

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Present Writers: Suzy McKee Charnas

I missed a month when September happened to me, but we’re only looking back to remember where we were and what we were doing, not for regrets. What we’re doing: the Present Writers series is explained more fully with its first installment, about Marta Randall, with posts about Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, and Jane Yolen following it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s anger lately, as I think many of us have–productive and otherwise. And there has been no writer more formative for me in how to write about anger in a respectful way–no writer who leaves me feeling understood and invigorated with her spiky depictions of female fury–than Suzy McKee Charnas.

Charnas’s work spans genres and decades. Like most of the people in this series, she is not easily pigeonholed, writing vampire fiction and post-apocalyptic SF with equal fluency. But there’s the matter of that voice, that quintessentially New Yorker take-no-prisoners done-with-your-shit Charnas voice. Most of the late-night pretentious writer conversations I’ve had about confident narrative voice confused an authoritarian voice for an authoritative one, but this is a mistake Charnas never makes.

I first read The Bronze King when it was new, when I was seven. I last read it this morning. Valentine, its cranky teenage protagonist, used to be a Big Kid in my perception, with all the baggage Big Kids have to deal with. Now 14 looks pretty darn young, and Charnas simultaneously doesn’t have illusions about what teenagers are dealing with (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll all get at least a mention in this book) and recognizes how new it all is. When Val gets berated by a male character who feels that he should have had the more heroic role that she performed because she was just a girl, it didn’t shock me that a boy might behave like that, because some already had. It shocked me that we didn’t have to pretend that there weren’t any boys like that. And that we didn’t have to take any lip from them when they showed up in our lives.

Later, when I was about Valentine’s age, I read the short story “Boobs.” I punched the air and yelled when I finished with it. Suzy McKee Charnas knew what was coming even back in 1989; she won a Hugo for it. There was a girl harassed for her body in this story. There was a girl triumphant. And the setting was not removed, not quasi-medieval, faux-historical; the contemporary setting meant that it spoke to me very, very directly. It gave me so much fierce magic. Almost a decade after I first read it, at my first WorldCon, I spotted a familiar name on a badge going the other direction on the escalator. “Oh my God Suzy McKee Charnas! I loved your ‘Boobs’!” I burst out and then wanted to sink through the escalator floor, but she just laughed happily. She knew what she had done, what it could mean to girls like me. To women like I grew up to become.

Since I started writing this post, I have felt more and more determined to go back and reread Charnas’s work. The Holdfast Chronicles are definitely worth another look, and there are short stories I’ve never gotten to. This is one of the best side effects of writing a series like this, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so immensely glad Charnas is present with us just when her work is most needed.

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Broadens the mind, I hear

I recently sold my 150th story, which was a very nice feeling indeed and one I’ll explore more in my next newsletter. (I am trying to have somewhat non-overlapping content between my monthly newsletter and this blog. We’ll see how that goes.) But it was also a type of story I wanted to talk about more specifically here.

That is: it’s a story that was inspired by my trip to Finland and Sweden in 2016. It’s the fourth story in that category I’ve written and the fourth I’ve sold, and while it’s two years in the past, I’m pretty sure there are more coming. None of them are related to each other in any other way. Different speculative elements–different genres–different characters and settings. But I couldn’t have gotten to any of them from the same angle without traveling.

I didn’t plan any of them before we went. I just went and looked and listened and smelled and tasted and felt and thought and felt and thought and came home and read and felt and thought some more, and lo, there were some stories there.

I haven’t started on the stories inspired by the trip to Denmark and Iceland yet, but I know they’re there. (I even know the shape of at least two….)

People who don’t write, who are not frequently around writers except when I bring them around–people like my grandma–often think of travel for writing purposes as linear and planned. If I’m doing this trip for writing purposes, it must mean that I intend to set a book in one of the locations and am going to go give it a good hard squint and see what I get out of it. But…a few months ago I outlined a book inspired by these experiences, and it was just as unanticipated as the stories. And while I’m going to use the experience to revise an old book set in various parts of Finland, that’s not what I was there for–I didn’t know I’d ever get the right ideas to revise that book into something coherent.

It’s culturally much harder to say, “I’m going to write what I’m inspired to write.” We’re taught to look down on that kind of vague approach even within creative fields. Have a plan, be able to justify yourself, don’t just…be one of those irresponsible artists who flits around hoping for inspiration, ugh, what is that even. Well, I don’t hope for inspiration, I work for inspiration. I open doors and windows to inspiration, I leave out honey traps for inspiration, I sew gossamer nets to catch the very finest particles and smallest species of inspiration. And this only works if you’re not already convinced of where it isn’t.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone has to travel to be open to new external input. Not everyone has the resources in whatever direction; sometimes I don’t have the resources. But I actually feel that making room for frivolity is essential. For books where you don’t know what chapter will help with your current project–or whether any chapters will help with any projects at all. For other people’s art, primarily as its own thing and only as a jumping-off point later if ever. For finding the road nearest your house that you’ve never been on and taking it and finding out whether there’s a bespoke foam merchant there, an antique shop, a greasy spoon, a park. For going to the free museum night to see an exhibit that has done the traveling for you. Not because you know how it’ll inspire you, but because you don’t.

I went to Montreal two weeks ago. I’ve been to Montreal many times. I love Montreal and have opinions about gelato available near different Metro stops. Vive Montreal. And even on this short trip, mostly full of conventions, I still discovered places I’ve never been, and I still looked at the places I have been and thought of them differently. Not in the “I must look into the Viau Metro and make sure I can put a story thing there” way. Just as: here I am, what else is here, who else. It makes me more able to do more of the same when I get home. I have no idea where it’ll end. And that’s an extremely good thing.

Next time I have a major trip–who knows when that will be–I will get asked whether I’m setting a book there, what book, why. I’m really happy that I don’t know.

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Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Math is nearly everything to Cas. It’s her solace when her mind is too loud, her means of making a living (albeit somewhat unconventionally), her identity, her core. The closer she can come to articulating axioms for individual people, the more comfortable she is dealing with them.

Which is good, because comfortable is in pretty short supply in this book otherwise.

Cas’s life is violently efficient retrieval services. She associates with people who have even more violence in their worlds–most notably Rio, a psychopath kept on the rails with a strong moral code external to his sense of self. But the situation she falls into at the beginning of Zero Sum Game is an even more dangerous one than she’s used to–not just in its violence but in its dangers to her own brain.

This is a fast-paced thriller with some clever twists and an uneasy resolution and a few math jokes along the way.

Please consider using our link to buy Zero Sum Game from Amazon.

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Books read, early October

Wow, this was a notable fortnight for bouncing off books. I discarded fifteen books unfinished, so…yikes. Here’s what I did read.

K Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress. (The latter discussed elsewhere.) This is a big fat fantasy series of leisurely structure. If you’ve been missing the kind of fantasy where we get to see the protags grow up and learn to be the people they’re going to need to be, this is definitely that kind. The Tiger’s Daughter is a coming of age story for a couple of women (couple in both senses), one of whom is Empress and the other of whom is…extraordinary in other ways. That would be a major spoiler.

James Baldwin, The Amen Corner. A play about righteousness and families and who can learn and who can’t. Did not take long to read, much longer to think about.

Kelly Barnhill, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories. Not only is this fantasy collection a lot of fun, there are some stories in it that speak my language down to the potlucks. It is very, very Minnesotan in spots, in ways that can be delightful whether you’re a native, a transplant, or an outside observer.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds. Fiyah Issue 8. Kindle. Martha Darr’s “Octopus” was the real standout of this issue for me, staying with me for days after I finished reading it.

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate. This is the second volume in a justly multiply awarded fantasy series. The craft of it is just staggeringly good, and the ideas keep poking at me. It is, however, extremely grim, so if you hear “geology fantasy” and think “yaaaaay!”…that’s accurate, it’s just not complete. I’m very much looking forward to the concluding volume…but not right away.

T. Kingfisher, Clockwork Boys. A novella that is very clearly the beginning of a series, full of the kind of interesting creatures you would expect of Kingfisher (who is, in another life, Ursula Vernon). Like many such novellas, the pacing is a little weird, but the entire thing is charming enough to forgive it.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning. This book is structured like a thriller–short chapters, short sentences, fast pace–but has a lot more depth of worldbuilding and characterization than your average thriller. I often want more well-done fantasy set in the future, and this is that–with a future that’s more than superficial shine. Definitely looking forward to the next.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trotta, eds., Uncanny Issue 24. Kindle. I am in this. I don’t review things I’m in. But it’s there if you’re interested.

Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. This was more contemporary than I was hoping for. It was still informative in spots, and enraging/satisfying, but if you read a lot of women on Twitter, you may well already know this stuff–you may well have been there for it. It goes beyond Twitter and the #MeToo movement, but not as far beyond as I anticipated. Also it was emotionally grueling.

Martha Wells, Exit Strategy. The fourth and last Murderbot novella–there will be more Murderbot, but in novel form! This was a satisfying conclusion to this portion of the arc, lots of fun, return of characters whose return was implied by the structure of the series, hooray. Delightful, recommended–but don’t read this one first, read all of them. Read all of them! Yay all of them!

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The Phoenix Empress, by K Arsenault Rivera

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second volume in its series, and you really should not start here. It’s structurally interesting in that it’s like the opposite of a romance novel: the central couple has already gotten together, and the question is can they stay that way, what will happen within their established relationship.

It’s the kind of setting and scope where “what will happen within their relationship” includes possibilities like one of them becoming a rampaging undead monster, or mismanaging an empire into ruin, or…there’s a lot of scope, is what I’m saying here. Continents and lifetimes, not just of the main characters but of thousands upon thousands of bystanders.

The setting is Asian inspired, with different regions not quite standing in for the Mongol steppes, China, Japan, and other real-world analogues. The feeling of vastness that I get from reading nonfiction about China through time is not there. This is a much more contained space to play in. On the other hand, the central couple I’m talking about in this plot is a lesbian couple, so some kinds of space are more expansive than would be traditional–and this is the kind of relationship story where people are actually living with the realities of their decisions, not a coming out story or a “first flush of love and that’s it” story. This is the story of the complexities of an ongoing relationship. Complete with zombie-equivalents and apparent gods and family dynamics. If you don’t like big fat fantasies at all, you probably won’t like this one, but if you’ve been waiting for sprawling epics that happen to center two women–plus a large cast of supporting characters who are not all or even mostly men–you’ve come to the right place.

Please consider using our link to buy The Phoenix Empress from Amazon. Or start at the beginning with The Tiger’s Daughter.

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This Will Not Happen to You (and Others)

New story! This Will Not Happen to You is out in Uncanny‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue. I’m very happy to be ripping the fabric of spacetime with these fine people.

So happy, in fact, that I also have an interview and an essay, Malfunctioning Space Stations, in the same issue. The latter is a reprint from the Kickstarter for this issue, so it may be familiar to some of you. Still, I’m glad to see it out there again.

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Books read, late September

Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood. This is an urban fantasy with very strong metafictional roots, fairy tales and meta-fairy tales, and also it’s a YA with the emotional life of its teenage protagonist done well and suited to her circumstances. I stumbled on this one without hearing anything about it, and I’m glad I did.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks at Last. It feels to me like Birdsall has spent this entire series trying to tell the sort of children’s family narrative that was common for kids’ books a couple generations ago, but without the sexism. This is what happens when you write a late-series book where The Oldest Sisters Are Now Getting Married! but you’re trying to undermine some cultural tropes about that. It isn’t entirely successful on that front, but it’s a fascinating thing to watch through that lens. And there are sweet entertaining family moments as in the rest of the series. And lots of dogs.

Ruthanna Emrys, Deep Roots. I read this in beta and liked it then; it has only gotten better. It continues Ruthanna’s series that is treating Lovecraft as an unreliable narrator about things like the racial worth of various persons, and taking on those narratives from an entirely different worldview. Still filled with very alien aliens, things rugose and squamous, but…differently so, and better. Yay.

Patricia Fara, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War. This was fascinating and infuriating in about the proportions you’d expect, but the crucial bit is that it was the subject matter, not the author, infuriating me. Lots of work here about what kind of science is valued and valorized, what kind of contributions to history matter.

John M. Ford, Heat of Fusion and Other Stories. Reread. Some of these stories just hit so hard, no matter how many times I read them. I fall in love with “Chromatic Aberration” and “Erase/Record/Play” over and over and over again. I also see the places where Mike was leaving us messages we would need after he was gone, and that’s…hard and wonderful.

Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. This was wonderful. Hilarious in parts, harrowing in parts–I remember now why I read tree books when I need to relax and not just nature books, because good heavens have humans killed a lot of beavers over the years, and often for terrible reasons. But there is a lot to be hopeful about in this book, and also there are funny stories, and I’m so glad I read it. (Beavers and their contributions to watershed health: wow, wow, wow.)

Kate Heartfield, Alice Payne Arrives. This is a time travel book with some quirks (do not expect historical accuracy to be a focus–things are diverging a lot), but it definitely doesn’t assume that people are the same through all sorts of historical changes and that the same people are always fated to be important. Which I appreciated. It’s also the school of novella that is telling the beginning of a story rather than a complete story, so–more story for those who are interested, not a complete arc for sticklers for that.

Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. A fairly early (1980s) volume about the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, among books on that subject matter; I know this subject matter has been covered since, and parts of this book are…very much of their time. However, the author is sympathetic…as long as you’re not one of the people she feels doesn’t deserve sympathy, specifically the men who were jackasses to the women in this book…and compulsively readable. If you already want to kick John Ruskin in the shins, buckle in.

V. E. Schwab, Vengeful. Discussed elsewhere.

Dana Simpson, Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm and Unicorn of Many Hats. I caught up on this series and giggled my way through it. I don’t actually like the long plot arc stuff as well as the shorter plot arc stuff for this comic strip, but that’s okay, even the longer plot arc in Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm was still fun and had good moments. It was a time for Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, that’s what I have to say about that.

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water. This was less science fictional than Life on Mars but equally compelling poetry, definitely will be worth keeping up on her new work.

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Vengeful, by V.E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I think the proper genre category for this book (and the other in its series, Vicious) is super-anti-hero story. The superpowers regularly at play in this plot do not in any way render their bearers heroic; quite the opposite. Here we see humanity in all its vicious, vengeful, self-centered “glory.” There is some loyalty, but mostly there is raw ambition, fear, attempts at control.

The superpowers of this universe come from the events surrounding a person’s death–provided that it doesn’t stick. These near-deaths provide a range of powers not quite the same as the standard narratives–some bulletproof heroes, certainly, but the limitation of having to relate powers to death is an interesting one, and well suited for the dark kind of story Schwab is telling.

Every element of this book feels like it would adjust so well to film, and people love superhero stories and also revenge stories, so I hope they do film it. It’s full of beautiful dresses and dark places, elegant dinners and grueling fight scenes and terrifying pseudo-medical experiments. It is very, very noir, so if you want a book with kindness and hope, this is not that book. But if you want to dig your teeth into the throat of vengeance, well, Schwab’s got that elegantly covered.

Please consider using our link to buy Vengeful from Amazon.