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Dragonfall, by L. R. Lam

Review copy provided by the publisher.

When people were talking about interstitial fantasy some years back, I used to joke that I liked both interstitial and stitial fantasy–both the stuff that blurs the boundaries and the stuff that’s dead center of its genre. This is in the latter category. It would be hard to come up with more of a fantasy novel fantasy novel than this one.

It has: a human thief whose community blames them for their family’s past, who wants to learn more (MORE MORE) magic and triumph over their expectations. It has: a dragon fallen from the world of dragons–or pushed–to save his people and bring them back into the world of humans. Mostly wearing a humanoid form. It has con jobs and plotting and corrupt people in power; it has moments of transformation both literal and metaphorical.

In short, if you’ve been saying to yourself, “but I would really like a classic fantasy novel but maybe with a little more openness to contemporary ideas of gender,” here you go, this is the thing, it is for you. I raced through it, having fun the whole way.

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Short stories I’ve enjoyed, last quarter 2022

The list for the whole year is coming soon.

Fertile Week, Leah Bobet (Reckoning: Our Beautiful Reward)

“Cadence,” Charlotte Nicole Davis (Tasting Light)

Laser Squid Goes House Hunting, Douglas DiCicco (Escape Pod)

“The Blue House,” Dilman Dila (Africa Risen)

Troubling a Star, Andrew Dykstal (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Florida Project, Morayo Falayimu (Grist: Imagine 2200)

Murder By Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness, S.L. Huang (Clarkesworld)

Calf Cleaving in the Benthic Black, Isabel J. Kim (Clarkesworld)

ESCAPE! Auditions: Transcript for Contestant 35, Mur Lafferty (Sunday Morning Transport)

Directions to the House of Unnumbered Stars, Devin Miller (Flash Fiction Online)

Rabbit Test, Samantha Mills (Uncanny)

“Lady Rainbow,” Yvette Lisa Ndlovu (Africa Risen)

The Other Side of Mictlan, Matthew Olivas (Uncanny)

A Holdout in the Northern California Designated Wildcraft Zone, T.K. Rex (Grist: Imagine 2200)

He Stays Among the Commots, Christopher Rowe (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

The Found Revelations of Revalor’s Last Oracle, Elsa Sjunneson (Sunday Morning Transport)

“A Dream of Electric Mothers,” Wole Talabi (Africa Risen)

A Local TV Weatherman Describes the Apocalypse, Marcus Whalbring (Strange Horizons)

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Taking stock: the writer version

Those of you who have known me for a long time know that Christmas Eve Day used to be my special holiday with my dad. We would go out for lunch and people-watch and maybe buy a last stocking stuffer or two (but maybe not). The important part was that we would spend time together talking over the year we’d had and the year to come. My dad talked to me about his work from the time I was in the late single digits, and took me seriously when I talked about mine, so he made space from very early on for me to talk about what I was hoping to do in my writing and what I thought I had done. And it was very cool and very useful, and I miss Dad but also I miss this.

I am really, really resistant to anyone acting as Substitute Dad. (No, more resistant than that. Seriously.) But as I said to T when I was talking about this earlier this season, “I don’t have special lunch with anybody else on Christmas Eve now…but I still have to eat lunch.” And that analogy is kind of where I am with the stock-taking part: I’m not going to have a special lunch with one other person to do this stuff, but it’s still really good for me from time to time to sit down and think about the big picture. From time to time.

Some friends were looking at doing prompts from year-end assessment projects, but when I looked at this, they were far more general life stuff than I wanted. I have no objection to taking stock of one’s life! Sometimes a great idea! But it’s not the same thing as looking at one’s creative work in specific. The two definitely inform each other, it’s just that the general-purpose “what travel plans do I have in 2023?” “who do I want to see more of in 2023?” questions feel like questions for a different time to me right now. Some of the cues for self-reflection and planning in a more general sense can be repurposed for a more focused one for creative work. But others just felt extraneous and beside the point.

This is all a work in progress. I’m not done with this yet, and some prompts worked better for me in this moment than others. But here’s what I ended up with, in case it helps anyone else. I found that it works better for me to be as concrete and as specific in my answers as possible and to limit myself to things that I can do, not things other people might do or reactions other people might have. Here you go:
What do I trust in my work
What am I proud of in this year’s work
Where do I want to be brave in next year’s work
Where will I draw energy for next year’s work
What will I love in next year’s work
One big dream for my work next year [this is one where it’s easy not to be concrete/specific, and useful to fight that urge]
What was fun this year
What kind of fun do I want to have next year
Best thing I discovered about my work
What I want to write (subcategories: poetry, nonfiction, fiction)
For each item on my project list: how do I feel about this project right now? What do I need in order to make progress on it? What do I need in order to make it feel really great?

I am sometimes extremely resistant to doing this. I have written two new short stories and two poems this week as acts of avoidance of doing this. That’s no bad thing: now I have four new things I’ve written that I had not written last week. More of this may happen before I’ve finished the prompt list. That’s okay. I’m patient, by which I mean I’m stubborn. And if this doesn’t work, I’ll try something different.

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Witch King, by Martha Wells

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an entirely new fantasy setting by Wells, and Tor (her publisher) is quite rightly sounding the horns and banging the drums about it. Wells spent twenty years writing mostly fantasy before Murderbot came out, and now she’s right back in the game. This is also a stand-alone. (I can see several of your eyes lighting up with heart emojis from here.)

We’re not in an era where secondary world fantasy really has a mold that everyone else is doing, but this sure is not it. Its protagonist, Kai, whose name is sometimes modified for various informative reasons, is a demon who inhabits bodies that would otherwise decay and rot. Dead people. He pilots dead people around all the time. This is not a book that handles it in a gross way, but it’s sometimes emotionally important whether he’s switched bodies and so on. There are also another couple of types of magic users, and there is quite a lot of conflict among them, who gets to be in power over whom, what things it’s ethical for them to do to each other.

All that sounds fairly abstract, but in the book it’s handled very concretely: there are two timelines, one of which gets you the backstory of these characters and their relationships (both the political and the personal) and the other is–well, they’re both adventure plot, more or less, with a lot of “who are we going to overthrow today and who can we trust” mixed in. It’s not a book with a lot of interiority (a funny thing to say about a book whose protagonist is literally interior to several other people along the way…), but it’s got a lot of interesting moving parts.

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2022: what I’ve been up to

Yes, it’s time for my year-in-review post! It’s been a year full of discoveries and adventures, sometimes even in the good way. (We try to make it in the good way.) We’ve gotten to the point where poems are not an exception, they’re just a thing I write now and going forward, and that’s weird, but again, we try to make it weird in the good way. I notice a shift toward more science fiction and less fantasy, but that may be balanced out by the fantasy novella I’m revising at the moment. We’ll see. Or it may not, that may just be where my head is right now. That’s okay too.

I’m sorry to see Daily Science Fiction shutting its doors, as they have been a fun and interesting magazine for several years now. I love flash as a length that allows me to experiment and play with form, so less of it–even just one magazine less–is sad for me. On the other hand, I’m happy with the story I wrote that closed out my time with them. I have hopes of continuing to enjoy work with the other editors I worked with this year, and I have seven things already in the works for 2023 and beyond–a lovely feeling of continuity and possibility. Also I accidentally started a new story yesterday. Ope.

Short stories:
The Plasticity of Youth, Clarkesworld, February
An Age-Based Guide to Children’s Chores, Daily SF, March
Family Network, Nature Futures, May
The Splinters of Our Bond, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May
Michigan Seems Like a Dream to Me Now, Daily SF, September
Out of the Red Lands, Analog, September
Bonus Footage, Asimov’s, September
Merry Christmas from the Bremmers, Nature Futures, December

Poems:
Revelations of the Artificial Dryads, Not One of Us, January
Identity, Uncanny, September
Dante on the Metro, Mobius, November

Essays:
From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Looks Like, Uncanny, May

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Schemes of the Wayfarer, by Drew Sarkis

Review copy provided by the authors, who are friends of mine. (This is a joint pseudonym.)

COURT POLITICS. Do you like fantasy novels about court politics? Because this sure is one. I like them myself, so I need to assure you: when it has “schemes” in the title, it is wall to wall scheming. The titular Wayfarer, various members of royalty, and nearly everyone else. All scheming, all the time.

Well, not quite all the time, there’s also food and sex and fighting. But many of those things come with a side of scheming sauce.

Keth has risen to the sort of minor prominence that comes from military service, and now her duties are mixed between the very physical kind of policing the Guard still needs to do and standing around smiling at annoying courtiers, wearing fancy court armor with a sword that wouldn’t do her any good in a real fight. She is startled to find that one of her old…friends? no…enemies? nnnnot quite…crushes? well, that’ll do…has returned to court as a wise and serene Wayfarer, ready to offer her services to the kingdom that raised her. All out of pure-hearted gratitude, of course…and all of Keth’s fears about “real” fights in court dress are about to come true, for various values of “real” and “fight.” Some of which include a gleeful minotaur. So onward, romping all the way.

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Books read, early December

Andrea Barrett, Natural History. Barrett has been writing historical fiction about people who care about science and the natural world for decades now. Her characters and settings interconnect and span a great deal of time and a large range of personalities. This is a collection with several more short stories in that oeuvre. It’s probably neither the best nor the worst place to start; as someone who’s been reading them for most of that span, my reaction was “oh good, more of this thing, hooray.”

Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann. What a very strange book to want to write. It’s mostly a professional biography of von Neumann aimed at people who have never heard of him and have no understanding of modern math, physics, or computer science, which is in itself a very weird thing to do (is this audience very interested in a von Neumann bio, then?) and not one Bhattacharya does exceptionally well. But he does take side trips into personal matters more or less for two topics only: 1) to tell you if someone is fat; 2) to tell you if they are mentally ill. He is happy to expand on #2 at length, giving very detailed accounts of the suicides of people close to Johnny von Neumann…but not to say how that might have affected him, and in most cases it could not because they happened after his death. I was thinking I would put a content warning on this book for that purpose, but honestly it’s just not a very good book.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality. Do not start here! This is the last volume in this series! It is fun and satisfying and does all the lovely things the rest of the series does, but seriously, start at the beginning, get the whole thing, friendship is magic, goofy jokes are magic, magic is also magic. Yay. I would be sad to see it end but I like good endings, and also it looks to me like Chokshi is happy to write other things I’ll probably like (hey, thanks for that!), so generally yay for a solid ending to a favorite series.

Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainier Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. This is a short joint biography of these two artists and the relationship they had as artists, solidly done and briskly written. They knew ten million people in their era, and it’s astonishing how many of them are relevant in a biography this short.

J. R. Dawson, The First Bright Thing. Discussed elsewhere.

John M. Ford, Casting Fortune. Reread. If you haven’t read other stuff set in Liavek, you may be tempted to think, oh yes, it’s Mike being opaque again. But he’s really not, he’s drawing on stuff you know from other works, or don’t, as the case may be. I love the way he does his theater company and all the moving pieces in that one. I love it all, but the moving pieces really just looked so well-done this time around.

V. V. Ganeshananthan, Brotherless Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Laura L. Lovett, With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism. Lovett takes the famous portrait of Hughes and Gloria Steinem doing the Black Power salute together and uses it as a springboard to talk about how much more Hughes did and in what context. I picked this up because it popped up on a completely unrelated library search, and I like knowing more things; it was quite short and interesting.

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait. I wished O’Farrell was doing more with the pentimento theme in this book. It was a pretty straightforward story of Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, interesting enough but not as much larger as I wanted it to be from where it started.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City. A geographic memoir, full of photographs, beautifully done, thoughtful about place and neighborhood and influence.

Jessie Singer, There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster–Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. This is one of those books that talks about things I think I already know about dangerous environments and the rhetoric of responsibility but gives them a much more thorough and detailed grounding than I had before. Lots of statistics without being dry, lots of analysis of propaganda that creeps into all sorts of weird corners of our lives. Well worth thinking about.

Moses Ose Utomi, The Lies of the Ajungo. Discussed elsewhere.

Wang Zheng, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories. When I saw this in the used bookstore, I snapped it up without even reading the back to find out which period that might be called “the Chinese Enlightenment” it referred to. The answer is the early 20th century, and Wang did extensive interviews with several women who had been involved in feminist movements and other women’s political action of the time. Really good stuff, hearing from a lot of interesting people firsthand and with analysis that gives good context.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Haunt Yourself. Kindle. A collection of horror stories I didn’t quite get around to when they sent it out near Halloween. Merc is quite good at this, good enough that I’m happy to read a collection of horror stories even though I am not basically a horror reader. Some may be familiar if you’re a regular reader of their work, but that’s okay, now they’re in a nice little digital collection, yay.

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The Lies of the Ajungo, by Moses Ose Utomi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a very short work, not on the long end of novellas. In the afterword, Utomi thanks people who helped him situate this book on the spectrum from fantasy to fable, and that’s it, that’s exactly what it is, it’s very much in the middle of that spectrum. I was surprised to see in the marketing materials that there will be a sequel, because it works very much on the level of stand-alone fantasy novella.

Which is not to say there is not more to be said of the Forever Desert and the City of Lies, simply because there’s space left that might be filled with almost anything. But Tutu’s story as the hero of his waterless city is very well contained in these 84 pages–the friends he finds where there are said to be no friends, the powers in the rest of the world but also in himself, and the beginnings of the shape of magic in the Forever Desert. The descriptions of thirst are appallingly strong, distressingly strong, and this is not a fable in the sense of it being comforting or easy. This is a tale of betrayal, death, despair, and definitely, certainly lies. After 84 intense pages, you might well want a breather.

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On Recommendations

Last week on Zoom, my dear friend John Wiswell (read his work! I recommend it!) asked me how I handle book recommendations, with the sheer amount of reading I do. With a data set that large, how do I approach the question? he wanted to know. And I’ve been thinking about how to articulate it ever since.

If you read here regularly, you know that I say at least a little bit about every book I finish. Every book. If I finish it, it gets mentioned in my book notes here twice a month. This started back in the early days of blogging–no seriously, we’re talking more than twenty years ago at this point–when I was trying to post every day, which was the style at the time. And some of what I’m thinking about on any given day is the thing I’m reading, so that was going into my daily blog post. I found it useful to be able to look back and say, here’s which book this was, here’s how I felt about that, but daily blogging was no longer a thing I wanted to do, so I consolidated it. Later I started doing periodic and then year-end posts that were just lists of short stories that I have enjoyed.

With short stories, while I sometimes find things to say about them on twitter other than “this is good,” the list just goes up as a list, rarely any commentary. And the thing is: they’re short stories. They are not a commitment. Click on them, read a few lines, find out if you’re interested! But also know they exist. Obscurity is the greatest enemy of short stories (poems too).

With novels…well, let’s take a recent example that was an eARC so it got reviewed here in advance of the bimonthly book post. Brotherless Night, by V. V. Ganeshananthan. I used all sorts of positive language–“vivid,” “humane,” “nuanced.” I said, “I loved this book so much.” Do I recommend it to you? Well, sure. That is: I said things about it that should help make it clear whether I recommend it to you. Because there are very valid reasons not to choose to read a book about the Sri Lankan Civil War–one of our family member’s family members on the other side of the family personally fled that conflict, for example, and if those people look at it and think, oh, I hope this is beautifully done, I hope it’s a great book, and also I cannot take any more of this, I had too much of it in real life? Valid.

And of course there are less extreme reasons why a book might not be for you! At least one of you regular readers, for example, basically never likes children’s books. Never. No picture books, no MG, no YA, she’s tried it, she keeps trying again at least once a year that I see, she does not like children’s books. I try to give enough information that major predictable categories like that will be clear–that she will not think, oh wow, humor and friendship and the lore of the Indian subcontinent, I definitely should pick up this Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality! And then be extremely disappointed for something that is not a flaw in either her or the book, just a mismatch.

So…this ends up leaving me feeling like I don’t want to do “best books of YEAR” posts right now. I could do them with category markings (“best MG,” “best poetry collection,” sure), but most of how I want to talk about books–most of how I want to recommend books–is with a lot of context. And one of the things that does is make the line between “best” and “not really quite there” pretty blurry. So what I try to do instead is to bring things up in context–when somebody says they like historical fiction, for example, I will mention Brotherless Night. (Bullets can’t stop me from mentioning Brotherless Night at this point.) I will talk about Andrea Barrett’s recent collection and how she’s done worldbuilding stuff in historical fiction that is almost analogous to a fantasy world but with actual history. I’ll talk about my surprise at enjoying The Marriage Portrait as much as I did but that in the end I wanted it to go more places than it went–and I’ll reply to what the other people are saying in that conversation, how they feel about historical speculative conceits in this context, how soon “history” starts in their tastes, all of it. I want recommendations to be a conversation, and there are very few contexts in which I don’t want to have that conversation. “Ooh, I’ve thought of a book you might like” is one of my favorite sentences. Even if I don’t, mostly, end up wanting to make a book list at the end of the year and draw a bright line through the murk. I like the murk, is the thing. Having thoughts instead of ratings is another of my favorite things.