Wednesday, November 27, 2013

List Makers' Delight

A Christmas list is like Christmas candy.  When the holiday is over, I still want some.  Luckily, January is a list maker’s delight.  I can throw away the old lists and make new ones!

My friends claim that my need for lists is a sign of a clinical depression or OCD or a need for control or some such.  So I made a list of medical conditions that people talk about wrong:

·      Lactose intolerance
·      Sudden leg-jerk syndrome
·      Facial recognition phasia – really mean she saw you but is ignoring you so you won’t ask her again to borrow money

Once I decided to stop making lists, even grocery lists.  I found I list the needed groceries anyhow, but I purposely leave the list at home to punish myself.

Many people are list makers and don’t admit it. Doctors make lists, but they call them categories to sound smart. Librarians are major players. They have lists of compendiums that list the number of specific old books still extant. There’s a cry for help.

So I made a list of list makers:

·      Starbucks employees
·      Airline pilots
·      Writers on Amazon – all want to get listed with Kindle 100 best free books

·      Efficiency experts
·      Anybody in sports (but they call the lists stats to avoid sounding domestic)
Website designers are list makers, trying to draw order out of chaos. “Okay, everybody talks, but one at a time and 140 characters only!”

The internet is list nirvana. Google is basically a list with most visited first. Goodreads has a section titled Listopia. I limit my time there from 7-9pm as an act of personal discipline.

My need for lists is satisfied with students. I list the grades I think each will get, then the final grades they actually earned with the variance and frequency. Aaahhhh, I love teaching.
The only group that cannot seem to make a quality list is 

So I say, list makers stand proud. There are more of us that can be counted. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Perspective on Bad Reviews

Many years ago at a science fiction convention I was seated next to a famous writer in a well appointed hotel lobby for a book signing – his most recent novel and my first attempt. The idea was that convention attendees offered bought books for a personal autograph, except the many sci-fi fans were there to wear skimpy costumes, read comics and watch animee, and maybe get laid.

The writer and I chatted during a long series of quiet moments while infrequent shy readers approached and he flourished the felt tip pen. One reviewer came by carrying four weighty copies of new books and forty extra pounds under a tucked-in and buttoned-down shirt. “I reviewed your book,” he said.

The famous writer looked over his glasses while he finished an autograph for a young reader. “You said I played fast and loose with time, and the events were out of sequence.” The reviewer registered surprise and pleasure that the writer quoted his words back to him.

“You said the last chapters needed editing,” the writer added, “and the ending was too fast.”

The reviewer took out his phone and glanced at me like I might be willing to serve him to capture the moment.

“I’m reminded of a famous Van Gogh painting that hangs at the Art Institute in Chicago,” the famous writer continued. “Maybe you’ve seen it. The painter’s bedroom is depicted in too-bright yellows with the furniture outlined in squiggly strokes, and the bedposts are too big so they seem to loom off the canvas. I visited the gallery with my mother who claimed that was her favorite painting. She felt confident providing a critique because so many elements were obviously wrong.”

The reviewer’s countenance fell so he resembled a wax figure that was melting. He turned on his heel and marched away with fat thighs and buttocks pumping. The famous writer showed me the briefest smile before he reached to sign the next offered book for a fan.

Of course, we all know that the wrong elements made the painting recognizable at a glance as a Van Goth. Writers also seek a style that’s instantly identifiable for paragraphs taken out of context like with Flannery O’Conner, Margaret Atwood, or even Joyce Carol Oates. O’Conner was slammed for too much violence, Atwood for word smithing, and Oates for, well, everything. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Change is (mostly) good

Been absent here a while since I downsized to a walk-up in an upscale neighborhood. Did you ever notice that when you make one change, soon enough you change everything? New haircut, new purse, new jeans, new bedspread, new published novel.

The biggest adjustment, though, was my diet.  I was accustomed to perusing the Treasure Island salad bar and eating out of the container.  Dinner was pot pie, or enchiladas at the local Mexican place. Now I live in the land of a thousand restaurants, and I was eager to sample the many choices.

I wanted to start small. I entered a hole-in-the-wall hot dog place that doesn’t serve french fries. When I asked the manager how often he got requests for french fries, he claimed he was philosophically opposed to them. But he serves HOT DOGS!

So I went next door to a California-style lunch place with storefront windows that allow too much light, and artwork that references no cultural preference. They’re open only four hour a day, so I need to set an alarm on my phone. They offer egg entrees at weekend brunch but not at 11am on Wednesday. The menu had five lunch specials, five sandwich choices (one being duck tacos), and four salads.

I was served an overpriced and slimy spinach salad with the stems intact, but no onion slices and no olives. Pine nuts instead of sunflower meats, and tiny globs or what I took to be dried pepper. They need to move back to California.

Just so you don’t think I’m a crudgeon, I did find a steak house that serves real steak with a real baked potato with real butter and even sour cream, not some California soy cream substitute. And there was a line out the door of Midwesterners who can discern value for the dollar.
I need to move to Pilsen where steak burritos come wrapped in waxed paper, pizza by-the-slice is served on a Styrofoam plate, and french fries are piping hot and salted.  In this city… In this city, hot dogs come with fries. Spinach salad comes with onions. Attitude is gruff but not haughty. And I can get eggs any damned hour of the day.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Synopsis of new Christian Fantasy novel

For my Reddit friends: A Synopsis of The Backside of Beyond.  

Send a note to stella(dot)atrium(at)gmail(dot)com for a sample chapter or the complete story in pdf form for review.

A contemporary fantasy in the vein of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before, this sardonic story pokes fun at conceits in the Left Behind series.

A colony of long-lived aliens known as Longists is established in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2065, just as America appears to enter End Times events. The USA has fragmented into eleven provinces. Economic tensions lead to the construction of a bisecting fence on a north-to-south borderline one state west of the Mississippi

Yolanda Santiago, a Longist who walks among us, volunteers for a brain implant program, then goes rogue with military and banking internet codes. She rejoins the colony and learns her sister Aurora is troubled by a menacing spirit. 

Danielo Manuel de Barbarossa, widely viewed as the antichrist, grabs power in independent California and then in the provinces of Mexico and the Northwest. A grassroots movement of fencewalkers led by Pastor Acher undertakes a trek to circumnavigate the fence and call attention to the need for dismantling and for reconciliation among the provinces. Aurora and friends join the fencewalkers to gain guidance from Pastor Acher about the menacing spirit.

The story’s pivotal character Abby Davies takes a position as an intern with Senator Bertol Martineau, who is Longist, but she quickly grows into an enabler for disparate groups to communicate. Only when Abby Davies and Pastor Acher join forces can healing and the defeat of princes and principalities begin. Spirits are vanquished. Barbarossa is toppled, and the fence is dismantled by local groups similar to the end of the Berlin Wall.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Many Thanks

Thanks to all participants of the August 2013 GoodReads giveaway for SufferStone. We had 633 entrees for 18 paperback books.

Watch this space for a new giveaway in October!

Also see:
HeartStone: Book II of the Dolvia Saga
StrikeStone: Book III -- released in July 2013
SignalStone: Book IV -- due out in January 2014
SeaStone: Book V -- under construction

Monday, August 26, 2013

SeaStone: Book V of Dolvia Saga

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Power of Names

I believe in writing with specifics. I tell my students all the time: call it by it’s name.  A stand of trees is a different image than a stand of birch trees.

Two recent events, though…

I committed at a radio interview (six weeks from now) that includes a reading.  That is, the author reading from her own works.  I’m not very auditory – I hate talking on the phone, for example.  I attended author readings maybe five times in my life and hated all of them, except once I heard Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient read from his short stories. I’m a sucker for a crisp accent. 

Except, I’m from the American Midwest living in Chicago.  I have no respect for the letter ‘t’.  With us it’s all dese, dems, and dose over dare. What will my reading sound like over the radio?

Moreover, what scene shall I select for the 5-minute spot?  I review chapter one of the new release StrikeStone that is Book III in a series.  The scenes are sharp and push the story along nicely, engaging a reader who maybe has not picked up the first two novels.  Several sentences in the paragraphs, though, are used to identify characters, such as:

I had seldom contacted Kyle Rula, but received messages through the convent turnkey Sarah, and the Cylay administrator Vera who had been a childhood friend.”

The reader catches up with Sarah later, and also with Vera, but not in this scene that I want to read for the radio.  I need to delete those sentences for the excerpt.  But I start to scan the pages and find a wealth of energy spent signifying on the characters and their back stories.  I don’t want to overwhelm the radio piece with introducing characters that don’t make an appearance in the allotted five minutes. 

To me, the story seems flat after editing, like the remaining characters are acting without responsibility to those who I redacted temporarily.  Actions in the scenes are not undertaken in front of community because I removed the names of people – brother, auntie, daughter, leader –  to whom the actors are responsible.

So I start thinking about how reading in pubic is different from reading in private.  A short piece is different than a novel that’s part of a series.  Adjustments are needed. 

Funny thing, though.

In 2005 I was teaching freshman how to write in complete sentences and asked students in one course to keep a journal.  Since they were required to, I also started a journal – three 3-page entries each week that were reflective and confessional.

Recently, I posted some of the short writing pieces from that effort on a new eblog titled Writing in the Short Form, intended for my current creative writing students (in September) who I will guide to write short fiction in their own voices. “Bare yourselves; dig down to the bone; throw away caution; expose the dark side for fear and jealousy.” Sound familiar?

I sent the few first posts to a friend who said, “Yes, the posts are too personal, and you should change all the players’ names.” 

I hate the idea. 

I know this feeling is only process frustration. The end-reader knows little about my lofty goals and my compromises. So I changed them, (Marty for Michael and like that). The re-naming effort takes all the hurt out of the paragraphs, like it’s somebody else’s story now.  Marty isn’t responsible like Michael was. Go figure.

What’s in a name? Designer names for our clothes; names of countries we want to visit; names of villains in Spiderman movies; the name for the pill needed to stop my skin from itching.  Names are everywhere, and if we cannot recall them, we cannot have the benefit of the fashion or geography or camaraderie or healing.

Sri Lanka was Sinhala in India, and Taprobane to the ancient Greeks. On a store-bought globe, the island country was identified as Ceylon until 1972.

You tell me.  Sample the short works on the eblog that my students will use. Do the names have power?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Thief: a Master Class in Pacing

I read The Thief on recommendation from Lois McMaster Bujold who claimed in a FaceBook post that she was frustrated with finding a good read so she returned to something familiar that she knew was good.

I wanted to review The Thief for the Worlds Without End 2013 reading challenge for Women Writers in Genre Fiction, but Megan Whalen Turner was not on their list of women writers, probably because as a Young Adult (YA) writer Turner had won none of the name sci-fi awards.

TurnerOf course, with a recommendation for Lois McMasters Bujold, who needs the awards system?  I always thought the awards ran in trends anyhow. The current trend is castle stories.

The narrator of this castle story is the thief named Gen who keeps secrets from his companions and from the reader until the end. For a YA book, this reader is relieved to find little assassination gore and few battlefield scenes. The dungeon scene is about deprivation more than torture.

The Thief is economical in that all elements are used to work out the plot, and the story unfolds as it must for exposition while four adventurers (who know each other slightly) journey to find a stone that lends immortality to the holder.

For my writing students, I recommend this book as a master class in pacing for inserting elements at the right moment. The story is kept small since the four travelers must avoid towns to remain secret. The quirks of each character are revealed through pranks of one-upmanship. A system of gods is introduced through campfire stories, and the back story of each character, while relevant to the plot, is meted out in morsels only.
Turner books
Because of the first person narration, the scene about how Pol sacrifices himself to get rid of the traitor in their group was glossed over (since Gen wasn’t there). Pol’s internal struggles to fulfill his mission were interesting but undeveloped.

A satisfying read with believable special skills for the travelers and different-but-familiar gods. Three more books complete the series. Highly recommended, especially for young readers.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Interview with Stella Atrium

Q: How is it going with the release of Book III in a fantasy series?

Atrium: StrikeStone just entered the pipeline for distribution the first week of July 2013, so sales can’t be tracked yet. We did a Goodreads giveaway for Book I -- titled SufferStone -- that got great response, though.

Q: What are the drawbacks to writing a series?

Atrium: Well, my stories are about the women, so there are fewer battle scenes and gory deaths. Characters include the fate of the set-aside wife, or a tribeswoman who maneuvers behind the scenes to promote her son as leader, or a businesswoman who courts the men while she ignores the talents of her niece.  The battles mostly take place over the hill while the women try to gather remnants to hold together a society.

Q: Sci-fi fans don’t like stories about women?

Atrium: That depends on where you look for fans.  Not to speak against Reddit, but I’ve had more luck with engaging fans on GoodReads and World Literary Cafe.  Also some readers don’t start with a fantasy series until at least three books are in print.

Q: Are more books planned for the Dolvia Saga?

Atrium: Book IV -- titled SignalStone -- is mostly written, but I’m polishing the last section to foreshadow Book V that’s just underway this summer.

Q: Does the reader need to read the first two books to understand events in StrikeStone?

Atrium: Thanks you for asking. Rabid Readers Reviews read an advanced copy claimed she understood StrikeStone just fine without the first two, but she wanted to go back, then, and pick them up to read. I hope other readers have a similar reaction.

Q: How many books in the series are planned altogether?

Atrium: Six is a good number. It’s important to complete some story threads for each book, but leave the reader wondering about what happened to other characters.

Q: How do you balance all those characters and keep them clear in your head? 

Atrium: Each character has her own quirks and way of seeing the world. Tribespeople on Dolvia have a tight community where each is needed to balance the harmony. I like to allow them to grow and see how each acts in a crisis or as an adult after some catastrophe. The characters are people to me, so I’m always returning to see what happens next.

Friday, June 28, 2013

July Release of Book III

Book III of the Dolvia Saga now available as a Kindle ebook for $6.99

See the ARC review by Rabid Readers Reviews here.

"Imagine a small planet just slightly removed from our own and accessible via wormhole with two moons and a rich savannah and a ritualistic culture and you have Dolvia.

One need not read the first two novels to appreciate the beauty and elegance of Atrium’s new world in “StrikeStone” but reading the novel certainly made this reader want to pick up the previous two."

Read the series from the beginning here:
SufferStone: Book I of the Dolvia Saga

Thanks to all who participated in July 2013 the Goodreads giveaway of SufferStone in anticipation of the new release.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Killing off the Bad Guy: Robin Hobb Series Finale

by Stella Atrium 5/1/13

I’m an unabashed fan of Robin Hobb and force copies her books on my friends so we can discuss the characters and inventive plot twists later.  Dragon warming stations! What a hoot!

I’ve read each series as they were published, and cried when the grey wolf died, and when the Fool and Fitz were separated in the fourth connected trilogy. I knew that Hobb had a talent for wrapping up story lines to a satisfying ending that signaled the reader that this character’s arch was finished now, as she did when Fitz settled in with his childhood sweetheart after his soul was made whole by the Fool’s most recent adventure with magic (trying not to give away the climax).

MartinHer stories have influenced readers and other writers who use (or skim) plot ideas that were made whole in Hobb’s fertile imagination.  GRR Martin allows certain characters, designated wogs, to ride-along on the spirits of animals, for example, even though he keeps that feature in the background of his series Game of Thrones.

Martin seems a bit trapped with Daenerys’ dragons, still infants in Book VI, because communication beyond hand signals will seem to imitate Hobb’s work. I wonder how he will resolve that conundrum.

HobbWhen Blood of Dragons was made available in April 2013, I had mixed emotions. I didn’t want the long-enjoyed world that leads to exploration of the fabled city of Kelsingra to end, so I actually put off the reading of  to savor the anticipation.

The first three books of this storyline presented stunted dragons and their malformed keepers who were young people just exploring girl-boy friendships.  I liked that Hobb included hard choices for the girls, and provided the girl characters with the presence of mind, prompted by queen dragons, to manage events. Too many writers for sci-fi or fantasy neglect the hunger of girl fans to engage with characters like them.

Robin Hobb has more well-drawn characters than she needs to finish the series, and only nods to Althea and Brashen (and their liveship Paragon) who readers have followed in earlier stories. She holds certain developments for the young keepers to the very end, and even brings old-world dragons Tintaglia and Icefyre back into the mix.

The richness of the stories almost invites new episodes in older storylines like the dime novels that use characters from an old Star Trek series.  Except Hobb’s endless invention for new twists would be missing from these.

Spidy villainIf I can add one sour note…  When the bad guys are removed, mostly by dragon anger or indifference, the story sorta falls flat. Many stories are bad guy driven, of course, like any Spiderman is memorable more for who played the villain than for who played Spidey. And Hobb’s villains are often without redeeming features.  But the power of the dragons is so overwhelming that the deaths seem puny, and the humans who kowtowed to the bad guys seem parochial in their fear.  Here’s a clear warning for Martin when Daenerys’ dragons are grown, hey?

The sci-fi reader should schedule reading Hobb’s books in order from the beginning (Assassin’s Apprentice) since certain secrets about the Skill and jitzin and flame jewels are revealed in this latest episode.  I hope there are more in the works! I envy the reader her many hours of solitary enjoyment ahead.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Crime Novel by Mosiman

I used to claim that I read everything that crossed my path and, as a young person, selection was not important since any book could teach me about life.  Later I became a ‘serious’ reader concentrating on philosophers (who I didn’t understand), history that helped me piece together trends in today’s world, and biographies of famous people that were far more boring than a reader wants.

Jesse StoneReading today is impacted by the volume of pages on the internet. The urge to engage with ideas and words (and images) can be satisfied daily on Facebook, depending on who you follow.

So reading for relaxation takes a backseat in today’s world. Writers offer a series of books with returning characters like the Jesse Stone series by Robert B. Parker to build a brand name. Readers return to discover the new case and Stone’s cynical solutions for finding bad guys adept at hiding their empires in small towns.

Cheatle_ElvisI have avoided murder mysteries over the decades of reading, partly because I figure out who-dun-it too early in the chapters. Crime stories are mostly about people in the seedier side of life, so I find them grim and difficult to finish.  Also the patois (accepted slang) of city detectives seems dated and forced in many stories, pushing the conceit to an impenetrable extreme.  Who can forget Don Cheatle’s explanation in Oceans 12 that even the lead characters couldn’t follow? – We have a Barney here!

Widow_coverSo what motivation to finish reading WIDOW by suspense writer and Bram Stoker nominee Billie Sue Mosiman?  We follow three primary characters (a female victim-turned-killer, a Texas detective, a demented copycat killer) through scenes in titty bars and madhouses, each speaking a distinct patois, to view the losers and naive victims who are easy prey for a couple of serial killers.

Mysteries and crime novels have raised the bar for gruesome violence to a degree that the most depraved acts are no longer shocking.  Who remembers our collective shock in Chinatown when the female lead admitted her sister was her daughter by her father?  That revelation seems tame now.

Faye Dunaway
The addition in WIDOW of a haunted mansion, a savvy homeless woman, and a eager-beaver junior detective provided questions about where the story was going and how these influences would impact the ending. Unfortunately, these elements were pushed aside for a more conventional denouement.

I did finish the story, though, mostly to see how the killers and detective performed when they were knowingly in a room together – although each met and talked with the others more than once.  What happens next? The morbid curiosity was active, and the characters well drawn enough that I could put the story down and return with a memory of events and who was in the next scene.

wogf_200Another convention in crime stories is the death of the bad guy in a shoot-out – no trial or lawyers or media. Our copycat killer dies violently of course; that was assumed. But do the detective and dancer blame all evil on him and build a life from the ashes? You’ll have to invest the time I burned up to learn their fates.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kage Baker: Make a Satisfying Ending
by Stella Atrium 2/27/13

Genre writers are encouraged to build a brand by writing a series of books instead of stand-alone books. The nature of cliff-hangers means some characters have unresolved story lines at the end of Book I, like Darth Vadar who survives when the death star is destroyed. Why waste a well-drawn bad guy in a single catastrophe?

HangedToday’s trend is to leave unresolved story lines over several books like GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones that gives the reader episodic morsels following four related main characters (after he killed off the hero types). I like to think writers today are experimenting with stereotypes and resisting the expected ending with surprises and anti-heroes.

Some series writers provide an ending twist where characters struggle against the armies of the undead over 300-pages toward a deserted island, but come up empty-handed for the needed talisman to save the empire, as in Abercrombie’s Before They are Hanged. Somehow I felt betrayed. I had invested a whole afternoon but had no denouement for my time spent.

So when the story in The Anvil of the World neatly tied up all concerns into a hopeful package at the end, I had this odd sense of satisfaction, a feature that was once a prerequisite to securing a publishing deal. Hurrah for self-publishing!

DickensKage Baker’s story is targeted for younger readers and rides along on jeopardy and humor while an unseen bad influence pursues the extended family of Smiths. The caravan colleagues flee danger to open a hotel in a seedy part of town while characters discover they are really blood relatives. Even the demons are siblings. It seems that survivors of armed conflicts from decades ago hid babies in brothels, only to find the current kitchen waif is that very child grown into a malleable girl. Vapors of Charles Dickens.

Kage_BakerSo the third episode means the (now related) humans serve a squabble that has erupted among the demons, and our hero Smith provides the key that erases the troublesome human race, but refuses to use it, cutting off his own arm. The friends (human and demon) repair back to the hotel where, lo and behold, the kitchen waif gives birth to a child destined to redeem the race.

If this storyline seems forced, it was. The characters are well-drawn, though, with humor and surprise to provide enough entertainment along the way that I can recommend Kage Baker’s story to the YA audience who aren’t as jaded on archetypal fantasy as this reader.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Louise Erdrich: About the Unreliable Narrator
by Stella Atrium 2/16/13

ErdrichLouise Erdrich has written a series of novels about a Native American extended family trapped in poverty and fear on the reservation and in Minneapolis (called Apple Town due to the vowel sounds). In The Antelope Wife, revolving narrators bead together  events apparently to bind patterns over generations – fates of twins, lost babies, lustful wives. Since the level of diction of each narrator is identical with lazy grammar, interjected native words, and self-centered vision, the use of he-she-they gets confusing for relations among the cousins.

My reading of The Antelope Wife was different from other reviewers who took the first narrator in chapter one as the center. I found the central character to be Cally who struggles to find meaning in the advice, myths, strange gestures, broken dreams of her parents-stepfather-cousin-grandmas-ancestors. The details Erdrich presents of their disassociated lives are unsparing and often funny. For example, Cally wonders about the choices of a cousin who pre-salts her food since salting before tasting is an indication of general dissatisfaction with life.

Cally moves to Minneapolis and works in the family bakery, asking each client if she has seen the twin grandmothers who are Namers and have a reputation among the tribes. The grandmothers visit much later for Christmas while listing all their digestive complaints. Cally’s main frustration is with a distant mother who seems tortured by a lustful past and troubled by judging ancestors. After her botched second wedding, this Calico Wife cooks for hungry ghosts so the ancestors and a lost daughter will feel full and leave.

There’s no stream of current events from TV or even military service to anchor the reader, and no structured reasoning for any character gained from books or technical training. The stepfather tries to duplicate a cake made by an outsider without recipe or reference to books. Each character tries to divine meaning from the ignorant acts of others – willfully ignorant as though the Native Americans refuse to learn from the larger culture for fear of losing spiritual contact with the prairie.

Water_ChocolateThroughout the reading, I was often reminded of the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel that has a central love story, a fear of vengeful ancestors, and an ironic take on the fates of family members. Recipes were said to hold the spirits of ancestors, and service to family was an organizing theme.

But Erdrich offers short vignettes, often from the POV of non-family members, even a dog, as part of her beading, constructing a unique and gritty backstory tied to the land. The effect is like a child’s watercolor as viewed through a window streaked with rain. Although the colors were once strong, the current outlines are blurred and runny, made void of the sought-after deeper meaning.

wogf_200Since this story was in the cache for the Worlds Without End 2013 Women of Genre Reading Challenge, I wondered again at the loose categories for genre writing. The unreliable narrators and the Native American stories about troubling spirits don’t constitute a genre subcategory. I would rather shelf this novel and all of Louise Erdrich in literature, although Like Water for Chocolate is often shelved with Ethnic Studies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling
by Stella Atrium 2/12/13

I love castle stories. What could be better than a 350-page fantasy novel that starts with three companions on horseback carrying swords and Radly bows crossing a frigid field to escape the bad guy or to rescue the princess?

I celebrate that there’s no end to these horse-and-castle stories, and I investigate whatever’s new. Some novels like A Quest for Heroes by Morgan Rice are calibrated for a juvenile audience and the heroine is too young for insights I would seek. Some stories follow the new trend of heaps of gore and lists of knightly heraldry like The Wilding by CS Freidman.  For some stories I don’t buy the second book in the series because not enough surprises held my attention during the first outing, like Blood of the Falcon by Court Ellyn.

Golden_FoolI picked up Luck in the Shadows because I had enjoyed all three Bone Doll’s Twin stories, and especially the gender-bending twist.  The witch who lived in the forest and the young magician who she trained were diverting enough for use of magic.  Though the three stories lagged in places, a whimsical holy man arrived like a breath of fresh air to resolve some plot difficulties.  A 15-year-old girl in full armor and long sword at the head of an army to save the empire was a bit of a stretch, but at least she was a girl, and she had female relatives who had roles in the plot (more than decorative).

But…  I would call Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows a lighter version of The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb.  Over the past two decades, Hobb wrote four series (series-es) around the enduring friendship between a fool with a mysterious background and an apprentice to a wizard.  There are same-sex undertones, but each becomes the beloved to the other through their many adventures.

Luck_ShadowsFlewelling’s Book I of her Nightrunner series presents a watcher with a longer life than many, a wizard who commands spells for shape-shifting and message bubbles, and an orphan (why is it always an orphan?) who is a quick learner (why is he always more gifted at picking up dark skills?). Without a girl/boy love story to carry the reader through the MANY discussions of the heroics of former queens, and more discussions of the dead wizards who helped the dead queens, getting to the end was a struggle.

I don’t care about those old queens.  I have no context for those old queens. More living female characters who have roles in the plot -- other than decorative -- please.

Flewelling presents a bad guy (why do they always have no redeeming value?) who pursues our watcher and apprentice, but she drops this story line in the middle of the book in favor of describing the needed lessons in swordplay for the apprentice (why are long descriptions of training with swords required for fantasy writers?).

IcefyreThe struggle in the final act means the watcher and apprentice fight on the side of the current royal family for whom only three scenes were spared, and vanquish a long-simmering blood feud for which only two scenes were constructed.

Again, the reader doesn’t feel invested in solving the problem at hand, especially since the resolution was a matter of home invasion and a fire contained in a single room. A comparison to Hobb’s white queen in Fool’s Fate comes to mind, wherein the queen lost her captain, her familiar, her ice castle, and her hands before her suffering ended.

wogf_200The bad guys in Flewelling’s story had not shown their faces again by the end of Book I, but the homoerotic undertones were coming to light. If there were more surprises, fewer long-winded stories about dead queens, less description, more jeopardy, more hetero romance – then I could overlook the disjointed plot.  I doubt that I pick up Book II.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Among Others by Jo Walton: A Review
by Stella Atrium 2/9/13

Among_OthersAs my next review for the WWE 2013 Women in Sci-fi Genre Reading Challenge, I chose Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I assumed was written in the 1980s since the main character discussed at length classic sci-fi stories available in Britain during that decade. I’m glad I finished the story before I read the press about Jo Walton and how she edged out GRR Martin for the Hugo Award last year for this work.

Her Hugo win is only logical considering that the story is more about engagement with classic sci-fi books than any other theme. The reviewers for the Nebula and Hugo awards must have thought Among Others was a smorgasbord!

I’m equally glad I didn’t know the story was called a ‘reverse Harry Potter’ because I would not have started it for that very label.  Derivative works are not my cup of tea. The story is written in the voice of a Welsh girl named Mori who doesn’t know her father and hates her witch mother and is sent to an English boarding school that harbors NO magic – no possibility of magic since objects are held in common. I can see how that plotline gained the label.

**spoiler alert here**

Mori and her twin Mor spend a rich childhood communing with Welsh fairies and avoiding the cruel acts of a demented mother. The fairies enlist them to diminish the powers of the mother, but along the way Mor is killed and Mori is crippled.

Two facets of the story make it a classic. First is the unfolding explanation of the magic of English fairies and how ‘it’s so deniable’, expounded through the filter of a sheltered 15-year-old who reads too much and is overly concerned with ethics. The second is the genuine responses to sci-fi stories Mori reads that are placed ahead of friendships among school chums, or reconciliation with a distant father, or a budding romance with a town boy.
I had read many of the sci-fi stories Mori claims to love (and at that same age), so I was in on the in-jokes. Defining the events of her life through examples from the stories – looking to Asimov and Zelazny for direction in a crisis – was unique, funny and delicious.

I liked that Walton choose the decade of the 1980s for her setting, ignoring world events but celebrating the gift of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, newly published. The world of Wales and Britain seemed quaint (County as Walton called it) and confined without the internet or a true connection with America that was the center of sci-fi publishing. The discovery of local fan conventions seems like finding Nirvani to Mori.

Sci-fi fans and would-be writers today discuss systems of magic all the time on Reddit – who got it right and who was copying from the other – high and low fantasy; soft and hard magic. Walton takes a respect-for-magic approach, and Mori worries that changing one event means so many events in the past and future must also change. Mostly, Mori uses magic, of which she seems strongly imbued, only when asked by the fairies and then only if the act does no harm. The one time Mori uses magic on her own as protection against her mother, and also requesting a karass, she worries later that all friendly gestures toward her are magic-bound.

ZelaznyThis is a coming-of-age story, though, with no save-the-world tropes and few insights beyond what a perspicacious 15-year-old can glean from family and books.  The book is brill, wholly charming and worth the investment of a rainy afternoon. And I ordered out-of-print Zelazny books for my next read.