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Friday, July 15, 2016 - 08:00

I had read a lot of discussions of this book before reading it and I wasn’t sure how that might affect my experience. In the end, not that much, I think. There were some aspects I was over-prepared for, some that I may have noticed more than I would have otherwise, but some of my strongest responses were to things I hadn’t remembered seeing discussed at all.

This is a book with a fairy-tale feeling, but one of those dark, pre-bowdlerization Grimm’s Brothers tales, where the monsters succeed in eating people sometimes, and you’re as likely to find yourself dancing to death in red-hot shoes as you are marrying a prince. The feel of the setting is Eastern Europe, involving two rival nations whose names are easily recognizable as Poland and Russia. Baba Yaga makes a guest appearance in authorial absentia. And the Big Bad is the evil sentient wood, engaged in a constant struggle with the wizards of the kingdom for every contested acre of land. In all of this, a peasant girl is chosen to serve a dragon.

Well, not really a dragon, but a wizard nicknamed The Dragon. And when a peasant girl like Agnieszka is chosen by a dragon, you pretty much know she’s got Chosen One written all over her. Except that it was her best friend Kasia who everyone knew was supposed to be chosen.

The friendship and loyalty between Agnieszka and Kasia was one of the backbones of the story, and I was delighted that Kasia got her own heroine-tale just as much as Agnieszka did. This is, of course, a very traditional fantasy tale, so there is never any suggestion that the two brave and daring young women who are willing to die for each other might, you know, ever be more than friends. Because Agnieszka is marked out for a trope-ridden attraction-of-opposites romance with the man who spends the first third of the book being completely beastly to her for no evident reason except that she offends his sense of esthetics and proper order.

I use the word “beastly” advisedly, because one of the tropes being invoked is Beauty and the Beast (except she isn’t beautiful). Another trope hangs on “men’s magic is logical and orderly and scientific, while women’s magic is chaotic and instinctual and unexpected.” And in the usual way of these tropes, the chaotic, instinctual women’s magic saves the day in the end.

But before we get to that end, we have to suffer through a lot of people trying to solve problems by throwing large quantities of violence at them. It takes entirely too long for anyone to figure out that maybe a sentient wood might have genuine grievances and a valid right to push back against human incursions. The later part of the book includes something like a half-dozen-chapter stretch that describes thousands of people supposedly on the same side of the struggle finding ways to slaughter each other in vast numbers. I just...I don’t come to fantasy novels for battle-porn. I know some people do, but the sequence felt unnecessarily prolonged and simply downright unpleasant. I don't quite understand how any of the participants remain sane, functional human beings afterward.

In the end, the Big Bad is solved by someone being willing to listen and empathize and find a kind solution. A pity it couldn’t happen before all those nice young men died and the kingdom was ripped apart.

Now, all that being said, Uprooted is an exquisitely written book with astounding world-building. But I can't really say I found it a fun book to have read.

Thursday, July 14, 2016 - 20:31

(A reminder that I'm running an e-book give-away this week of Through the Hourglass, a (now) Goldie-winning anthology of lesbian historical romance, that includes my story "Where My Heart Goes". Comment on any blog entry between now and next Monday, July 18, to be entered to win.)

I don't really think on Concord as "my" little town, in the hometown sense. I don't have a hometown--haven't really had anything like that since I left San Diego to go to college, back 40 years ago. When I picked Concord to house-hunt in, it wasn't for any specific association with the location (other than the fact that I had a clump of friends living here already).

But, having chosen this particular town, there are some "small town" experiences that I've really come to enjoy. Things like the fact that the place has an actual "town center" with a park and cafes, and with the movie theater just one block over. They hold a lot of little festivals, craft fairs, etc. in that center. And all through the summer, on Thursdays from afternoon through evening, there's a farmer's market and concerts in the park.

I don't usually hang around for the concerts--just swing by on my bike from the BART station to pick up some produce. But tonight the show was an Eagles tribute band and I decided to grab some butter chicken & naan from one of the food stalls, augmented by a basket of fresh strawberries, and found a spot on the grass to hang out and listen for a while. It's within the realm of possibility that I might bump into someone I know there. Not that I've gotten to know that many new people here (although the Starbucks baristas know my name and favorite drink) but with a central atraction like that, someone might turn up.

I like living in a town where I can hop on my bike and be at the movie theater, or the coffee shop, or the Half-Price Books (or--let us be honest--the Frys' Electronics) in ten minutes. I like living in a town where I could follow local politics, if I had a mind to. But I also like living in a town where I can hop on my bike and take the train to Berkeley or San Franciso on a whim. Not entirely a bedroom community, but with no sense of stifling isolation. I don't know if Concord is the sort of place one might be nostaltic for if one grew up here and then left. I understand that a big chunk of that "friendly city center" feel has been a relatively recent planned project, reclaiming what had become a somewhat blighted area a couple decades ago. The only places I've felt nostalgia for are places that never existed--or at least, ones that never existed for me.

But I like it here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - 13:20

(A reminder that I'm running an e-book give-away this week of Through the Hourglass, a (now) Goldie-winning anthology of lesbian historical romance, that includes my story "Where My Heart Goes". Comment on any blog entry between now and next Monday, July 18, to be entered to win.)

If the first half of chapter 10 shows Sara recovering her ability to turn her life into a story, the second half reminds the reader why she needs to do so. Despite the passing interaction she has with her few friends, and the way she tames the sparrows and rats, she is deeply lonely. The doll, Emily, who even in brighter times represented a connection with her absent father, now becomes the focus of her concealed rage and frustration. The outbursts that she is too controlled to reveal even to her closest friends, are displayed to Emily. And it is to Emily that she voices her understanding that her “pretends” are only make-believe, and that her life is awful, and that she sees no hopeful future out of the relentless present.

When Lottie visited the attic room, Sara shared her fantasies about a family moving in to the house next door to the school, and someone inhabiting the facing attic window, even if it were only another servant girl. And then—in the most strained coincidence of the story (though I’m quite willing to allow every story at least one strained coincidence)—someone does.  And not just any someone, but someone who brings a reminder of her childhood in India, in his furniture and decorations, and in particular in his Indian manservant. (But more on that in the next chapter.)

We are, in fact, about to plunge into a morass of missed connections and conveniently overlooked clues. But the one thing that I don’t see as conveniently overlooked is Sara’s failure to put meaning in Mr. Carrisford’s (the Indian Gentleman’s) origins. Surely wealthy men returning from India with such souvenirs of their time there were not uncommon. There is no reason for Sara to attach any meaning to that fact than a general sense of nostalgia.

Becky continues to cement my fondness for her in being openheartedly curious about the possibility that the Indian Gentleman will turn out to be a person of color, bringing a family with interesting foreign ways. To be sure, when she speculates on them being “heathens”, she feels this is a characteristic that would need to be corrected by evangelism.  Both of their fantasies about the new inhabitants are disappointed: Becky’s when he turns out to be an ordinary English gentleman, and Sara’s when he turns out to be a single man with seemingly no potential for intriguing new attic-neighbors. But Sara’s sympathies are immediately engaged—as they so often are—when it turns out the man is an invalid, recovering from some serious unknown illness.

And part of both their fantasies come true in the person of Ram Dass, who is the titular focus of the next chapter. And with that, we will enter into some of the most uncomfortable characterization of the story.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 08:00

(A reminder that I'm running an e-book give-away this week of Through the Hourglass, a (now) Goldie-winning anthology of lesbian historical romance, that includes my story "Where My Heart Goes". Comment on any blog entry between now and next Monday, July 18, to be entered to win.)

One of the difficulties of using a really tight point of view (whether 1st person or 3rd person) is how to convey useful background information to the reader when it wouldn't make sense for the viewpoint character to be explaining the topic, whether to themself or to another character. There are work-arounds, of course. A 1st person narrator could frame the story as something like a journal, or as if they were relating the story to a listener who is enough removed from the events that they need to be filled in on everyday details. But those choices then need to inform the structure of the entire narrative, and that isn't always what an author wants to do.

In Daughter of Mystery, I broke the tight-3rd point of view in the two bookend chapters: in the Prelude, because I wanted to sketch out the basics of the setting and Barbara's place in it quickly from an external angle; and in the Coda because--not knowing if I would have a chance to continue the series--because I wanted to reassure readers that the characters continued on happily as a couple. There wasn't any similar need in The Mystic Marriage and I stuck to a consistent, tight point of view.

But for Mother of Souls, early reader feedback indicated that people were lost and floundering a bit about how the weather magic, and floodtide, and the relevance of the Rotein river underpinned the other events of the plot. I could include a few bits of it from characters explaining things to Serafina, who is still unfamiliar with Alpennian things. But Serafina already has a heavy burden of info-dumping, just for her own background. And I also knew that the place where the character point-of-view part of the story ended left off a significant consequence of the climax that the readers needed to be aware of. (Astute readers might well figure it out for themselves, but I didn't want to depend on that.)

So after dithering back and forth several times, I added bookend chapters to Mother of Souls providing that brief essential background. And as the first in a series of pre-publication teasers, here is the Prelude chapter. (I've realized that I can't do the same "chapter a week" teaser series that I did for The Mystic Marriage because there isn't enough time to cover all the chapters by November! So the teasers may be a bit more randomly distributed.)

 

CHAPTER ONE

Prelude - April, 1823

High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein in turn, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.

They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.

But sometimes floodtide fails to come. When the weeks stretch out long past Easter into the rising heat of the late spring, and the falling level of the chanulezes turns the exposed banks rank and fetid, the priests at Saint Nikule’s will raise a bucket of water from the river and splash it over the feet of the statue and ring the floodtide bell.

 

 

Publications: 
Mother of Souls
Monday, July 11, 2016 - 08:00

I'd been thinking of doing a book giveaway here just to get some non-spam comments on my blog, and then the historical romance anthology Through the Hourglass, which includes my Margaret & Laudomia story, won a Golden Crown Literary Award this weekend and the publisher said we contributors could give away copies to celebrate.

So anyone who posts a comment on any blog entry (of any date) between now and next Monday (2016/07/18) will have a chance at winning a free e-book of Through the Hourglass! (epub, mobi, or pdf) That's all you have to do, just comment, then check back next Monday to see if you won.

The blog doesn't have the sophisticated spam-management module set up yet, so I have to approve all comments by hand, so do worry if there's a delay before your comment appears.

Full citation: 

Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20024-1

 

If you think about Roman art, you may imagine elegant marble statues. But the popular, everyday art painted on walls of both private homes and public accommodations included a lot of explicit pornography depicting a wide variety of sexual techniques. Most of the wall art is preserved at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, where the eruption of Vesuvius preserved a moment in time from the 1st century CE. When my family visited Pompeii, back in 1976 when I was a teenager, the more prurient images had literal gate-keepers on duty who would allow access to female viewers only by permission of an accompanying male authority.

This is an extensive study of Roman art depicting sexual activity, much of it overtly pornographic. Of the entire (enormous) corpus of material, Clarke has only identified two images that may depict or imply sexual activity between women. Both are part of a series of wall paintings at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii (ca. A.D. 62-79), and the physical condition of the paintings makes interpretation difficult and uncertain.

Both occur in the same location (apodyterium 7) and are scenes 5 and 7 in the series there. The framing of the scenes implies ridicule of sexual activity between women, but it must be considered who the intended audience was (men visiting prostitutes) and the social implications of sexual roles and practices in Roman society.

Scene 5 shows a female figure (identifiable by wearing a breast-band while otherwise naked) reclining on her elbow in bed, turned toward a figure standing beside the bed and with her leg raised to rest on the standing person’s shoulder.

The sex of the standing person can’t be determined from the body, which is indistinct due to damage, but Clarke interprets the person as female based on the hairstyle, and because the person’s skin is depicted as pale and similar in color to the reclining woman. In this genre of art, men are systematically depicted with darker skin than women. Clarke also argues that in this sequence of paintings, there is an increasing degree of “perversion” (according to Roman attitudes) in each successive scene. Given this, the placement of scene 5 in the sequence would be unexpected if it represented a prelude to a standard male-female sex act. Clarke further speculates that among the obscured details, the standing woman may be wearing a dildo (and he provides a number of literary references to such a practice in a Roman context).

 

Following Scene 6, involving a m/m/f threesome with the man in the middle simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated, Scene 7 increases the number of participants and sex acts. The bed contains two men and two women. From the left, a man anally penetrating a second man, who in turn is receiving fellatio from a woman, who in turn is receiving cunnilingus from a second woman.

Time period: 
Place: 
Friday, July 8, 2016 - 08:00

I've been catching up with Podcastle audio fiction podcasts lately, so I thought I'd do some very brief reviews of everything (or at least everything I can remember listening to) since the last batch of Podcastle reviews. I tend to listen to this podcast fairly consistently, if often in clusters. Not all the stories hit anywhere near my sweet spot, but I'm usually listening on a drive or while working in the yard, so there's an incentive to finish them even if they aren't quite to my taste. This is rather different from my print-story consumption, where each story has to make a strong case for a place in my reading queue. I think it's good for me, in a way, to have at least one venue where I consume a cross-section of material that I might not otherwise try. These reviews cover about the last three months of the podcast.

I’m skipping the two “Miniatures” because I really don’t remember them well.

410: The Saint of the Sidewalks by Kat Howard

A piece of inventive urban folklore about how new gods come into being, and the relationship between them and their worshippers. That isn’t nearly a good enough description of the vivid gritty realism of this fantasy. A woman invokes the Saint of the Sidewalks and is answered by achieving a burdensome divinity. Strongly recommended.

411: Hands of Burnished Bronze by Rebecca Schwarz

Something very roughly in the King Midas vein, where a king commands his wizard to perform a terrible deed that then returns to haunt him and destroy his victory.

412: For Honor, For Waste by Setsu Uzume

This one is starting to fade in my memory. Once, every cycle of time, one life, one talent is sacrificed to a god-like figure in return for the city’s luck and prosperity. This time, three comrades and warriors are set into competition for the right to be the sacrifice. Can they trust each other enough to do what is truly best for the city? Some intricate characterization and adventure, though most of the plot twists were telegraphed.

413: This is Not a Wardrobe Door by A. Merc Rustad

There seems to be something of a fashion for meta-fiction about portal fiction. This is one of those stories exploring the hidden supernatural mechanics behind secret portals, imaginary childhood friends, and the desperate need to reclaim a sense of belonging that might never have been real in the first place. Haunting and incisive.

414: The Men from Narrow Houses by A. C. Wise

It’s been a while since I listened to this one, but the excerpt on the website brings it all back, so it must have been memorable. The story begins with a repetitive oral-storytelling style that suggests deep mythologies and traditions, but with a contemporary-feeling setting. It’s one of those stories that does a long, slow pulling back to reveal more and more of what’s really happening. In the end, memories get rearranged (or correctly arranged) and things aren’t at all what they seemed at first. Creepy, but not scary.

415: Responsibility Descending by G. Scott Huggins

This is a continuation of the characters and setting of a previous story, involving vast sea-going empires ruled by dragon and human partners, and most especially a story of one of their human-dragon hybrid offspring who has grown up in ignorance of her heritage. The previous story was an interesting mystery of the “discovering your origins” type, with a lot of ambitious worldbuilding. This second story, to my mind, falters and flounders a bit. Too much time is spent having the protagonist explore and come to grips with her new home and culture. There is an awkwardly inserted duel-for-the-sake-of-justice that seems little more than an excuse for an extended training montage and consequent aerial battle.

416: Braid of Days and Wake of Nights by E. Lily Yu

A story of mortality and the desperate rage against death, told with a magical-realist atmosphere involving unicorns and the many different New York Cities that coexist. In the end, despite the fantastic trappings, it’s a story of human relationships and conflicts, brought into sharp focus by one character’s impending death. Whether it’s uplifting or depressing will probably depend on the listener’s own relationship to mortality.

417: Archibald Defeats the Churlish Shark-Gods by Benjamin Blattberg

Don’t recall listening to this one.

418: James and Peter Fishing by Anaea Lay

If, as I did, you find yourself expecting some sort of apostolic reference, you too may find yourself charmed by the slow reveal of exactly who James and Peter are, and why they are fishing together. To say more would be to spoil the surprise. I found this story of the meaning of life to be charmingly philosophical (or perhaps philosophically charming) in the way it reveals layer after layer of the characters’ backstories and motivations. It did seem to go on perhaps a smidge longer than I might have had patience for in a non-audio format.

419: Giants at the End of the World by Leena Likitalo

Huh. Must have somehow hit “mark as played” because I don’t remember this one at all.

420: The Bee Tamer’s Final Performance by Aidan Doyle

This was a completely bonkers piece of hallucinatory nightmare masquerading as a tale of resistance. The imagery kept starting out about 37-degrees aslant from reality, then snicked into place in a configuration even more removed. I doubt I would ever have finished it on the page. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good story. It’s just...really really strange, and leans more on imagery than plot. Do not read or listen if you have phobias about clowns or bees: contains bee-filled clowns.

421: Hatyasin by Rati Mehrotra

 

A dark and violent tale of occupation, oppression, and being driven to the breaking point. Also of loyalty, bargains, and love. There’s some rich world-building in a small space, with names that evoke India and ancient alien presences that evoke a touch of Lovecraft. The tone ranges from sisterly squabbling to heroic battle. This story was darker than I usually like, but I was drawn in. The protagonist was far more sympathetic than her actions might suggest.

Thursday, July 7, 2016 - 07:30

It's that time of the summer when I suddenly realize it's time to book my flight to Kansas City for this year's Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention). If you followed along with all my convention blogging last year, you may remember that Worldcon was the event that left me thinking, "This. This is what a successful convention experience can be. Remember this if you're ever feeling down or left out or marginalized in the SFF community." To be sure, every Worldcon is different: a different location, a different organizing committee, a different slice of the SFF community. But it helps to go in with the confidence that I pretty much know how this thing works and that it will work for me.

In addition to the programming, I'm planning to have some fun Alpennia swag to hand out. (Memo to self: in addition to booking flight, work on Alpennia swag!) And--following an approach that worked well last year--I'm making a list of "friends I haven't met in person yet" to contact about penciling in social plans.

Check out my panel schedule here. And if you're going to be there too, please let me know so we can make sure to bump into each other.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - 21:00

In Chapter 10 (The Indian Gentleman) we see that Sara is regaining her balance in the way that she starts inventing “pretends” about the world around her once more. First, it was turning her garret into the Bastille. Now she watches the other people in the neighborhood of Miss Minchin’s school and starts telling herself romantic stories about them.

In particular, she begins inventing fanciful romantic names for the members of one rather large family (known sometimes as The Large Family). One might imagine that she feels envious of the eight children who--in addition to living in comfortable circumstances--are obviously loved. But there doesn’t seem to be anything of envy in her thoughts, only an appreciation of how happy they are.

What Sara hasn’t accounted for is that even as she’s telling stories about The Large Family, they’re telling stories to themselves about her. In particular, the little boy she calls Guy Clarence tells himself a story about how Sara is a poor, hungry beggar-girl for whom the gift of his Christmas sixpence will represent a fortune sufficient to turn her life around. This is a mortifying shock to Sara. Intellectually, she knew that strangers were reacting to her much differently than they had before her fall. But she had never been forced to confront the fact so blatantly.

Once again, a turning point in her life hangs on her willingness to put other people’s needs ahead of her own. Because rather than simply refusing the gift, she gives Guy Clarence the gift of accepting it. That action (along with her upper-class speech mannerisms) makes Sara memorable to the whole Large Family clan. While this fact isn’t completely essential to her later fate, it will certainly smooth her way.

One of the repeating themes that I find both utterly believable and discomfiting is how Sara’s polite and confident demeanor communicates to others that she doesn’t really belong to the working-class life she’s been thrust into.  Believable: because the reflexes and behaviors you’ve been trained into by your upbringing are impossible to shed entirely. The best you might manage is to learn to act out a different role convincingly. I know that I have reflexes and behaviors that derive from spending my entire life with the sure and certain knowledge that I don’t have to worry about my next meal, or where I’m sleeping, or whether my medical needs will be met, or what to do if an unexpected expense comes out of nowhere. (That “sure and certain knowledge” could become wrong overnight if the right conjunction of circumstances happened. But I retain those reflexes because it’s never been wrong yet.) But at the same time, this theme is discomfiting because it’s presented with a flavor of essentialism. That is, one gets the impression that Sara has these reflexes not as learned behavior due to her environment, but because she simply is, deep down and through and through, a genteel person, in the same way as she has gray-green eyes. Her behavior doesn’t simply signal that she has known a better life than she now leads, it signals that she deserves a better life because she is a better person than someone who didn’t have her history.

And one of those reflexes? Sara turns the sixpence into something of a lucky charm, making a hole in it and wearing it as a pendant. She is never tempted to spend it, even when she fantasizes about finding money in the street to buy bread with. Because if she spent it--and especially if she spent it on bread--then she would be the beggar-girl she’d been taken for.

Although we begin to see glimpses of the old Sara returning, there are still dark days. And that’s what the next installment will cover.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - 21:04

Check out this lovely interview E.P. Beaumont did with me on the topic of food as a worldbuilding tool.

Publications: 
The Mystic Marriage
Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - 16:41

As previously noted, last Thursday I e-mailed off the manuscript of Mother of Souls to the publisher. So I should have a brief relaxing break before plunging into my next writing project. Somehow that never quite works out for me. In one of those peculiar conversations that started out on facebook and then jumped over to Twitter, I found myself being inspired by a Starbucks Coffee shopping back to write a fluffly little short story about mermaids. And Nantucket Island. And lonely early 18th century Quaker ladies. Tentative title: "Light in the Water".

And so (as you do) I found myself pulling up old maps of Nantucket that showed settlement distributions, researching types of small watercraft appropriate to the era, and devising an internally-consistent social ecology of mer-people. (Did you know that the two-tailed form featured on the Starbucks label and known in heraldry as a melusine is actually the sexually mature form of the species that has the more familiar single tail only in the juvenile form? What's that you say? "Heather, you just made that up!" Well, yes. Yes, I did.) I'm not sure I'm capable of writing a historically-based story without plunging into some sort of research project. Fortunately I could poke around for an appropriate (human) character name in my own genealogical records.

When I got hit by an attack story back in January after finishing the first draft of Mother of Souls, I put it up as a free e-story. But I think I'll hold on to this one and see if I can find a market for it. Probably not. It's too much of a fluffy romance for a fantasy market, and not "spicy" enough for the usual LesFic markets. But hope springs eternal.

Publications: 
Mother of Souls

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