“What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn.”

I told one of my best friends earlier today, I feel like we’ve lost an Elder. He agreed.

It doesn’t much matter what “we” I’m talking about there. We, writers. We, readers. We, lovers of fantasy. We, admirers of satire. We, thinking observers of this mad world we inhabit. We, humans, who feel and dream and want.

Sir TerrySir Terry Pratchett wasn’t just a superb novelist and an incisive satirist — He was a writer-philosopher who shaped an incredible part of my worldview. His passing was not unexpected, given his long struggle, but it’s still heartbreaking. And, as Neil Gaiman noted in the last thing he wrote about his friend, back last fall, it’s also enraging. It makes you want to scream against the essential unfairness of the universe.

But, of course, he had a lot to say about precisely that.

Pratchett’s books can speak to nearly everyone — everyone willing to open up a bit and listen, I think, and they tend to eviscerate precisely the sort of people who won’t — and, like all great works, I think you get something slightly different out of them depending on who you come to them as. Personally, I come to them as an educated woman (hence a lot of affinity for Susan: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”) and as a pagan (it should come as absolutely no surprise that the Witches of Lancre are my favorite sub-series). A pagan, moreover, who’s cobbled her faith together out of the scraps of a dozen others, her own inclinations, and the works of modern philosophers like Terry Pratchett.

The thing is, when you tell people that you’ve constructed part of your faith out of fantasy novels, they do tend to react like you’re a bit daft. I think this is foolish for two reasons. The first is that “fantasy novel” is often just a matter of where you’re standing, and (setting aside entirely the once-prominent faiths that we now dismiss as mythology, which we categorize as a subset of, yes, fantasy) a large chunk of the world now bases its beliefs on a book that contains, among other things, prophecies, angels, demi-gods, chimaeras, magic staves, necromancy, and a dragon. So. Y’know. Judge not.

The other is that it’s just silly to dismiss brilliant thought simply because of the cover it’s wrapped in or the shelf it sits on. The mirror that Pratchett held up to our nature might have been thieved from a funhouse, but that just gave him more license to show us ourselves writ large: our triumphs and our failures, our absurdities and our poignancy. I challenge anyone to read Hogfather without finding themselves deeply considering what it is to be human, what fundamental element of our imaginative capacity separates us from other beasts. I challenge anyone to read Witches Abroad without thinking about self-determination and the importance, and the dangers, of writing your own story. And by all means, try to get through Small Gods without questioning everything you’ve been taught about religion in general.

Pratchett was Shakespearean in many ways, but, as someone pointed out earlier today, one of them was you can express cosmic truths, you can fillet open the heart of humanity and lay bare its secrets, and still be hilariously funny at the same time.

Discworld1

He said so much and so well about belief, about imagination, about the magic we make in our own heads, about the power of words. Of course those words seeped into my own philosophy, my own ideas on faith and what makes life as a human worth living.

On Twitter this morning, Connor remarked that nearly everyone he knows has not just a favorite Pratchett book, but a favorite Pratchett character — more than a favorite, a near-avatar, someone who resonated with them in a special way, someone they saw themselves in, glories and flaws together. I told him that if I grow into one-tenth of someone who’s midway between Esme and Gytha, I’ll have done well.

But if I grow into a writer with one-tenth the incisiveness, one-tenth the felicity of expression, one-tenth the soul of Terry Pratchett — if I can somehow touch the tiniest fraction of the people he’s reached and will continue to reach through his brilliant words — well, that would be more than I feel fair to ask for in this lifetime.

Thank you, Sir. May you find the peace of your choosing on the other side of those black sands.

Why You Should Bid on #MS4MS

MSawarenessSo, my literary agency is doing something super-cool for its anniversary: #MS4MS, where agents are auctioning off manuscript critiques to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

My agent, Connor Goldsmith, is one of those offering his services in the auction, and y’all, you could not do better than bidding for a critique from him. Connor has been a wonderful editorial agent for me — he has a great eye not only for seeing what’s good about a story, but for seeing what it needs to make it great. He’s particularly great when it comes to pacing and stakes. He knows his genres well, knows what they demand, and knows what’s selling and what’s out of favor in them right now. Connor’s also the author of the Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel, a superb resource on structure and pacing. I demur from speculating how many items were at least partly inspired by the process we went through revising Aven (because I definitely recognize some of my own bone-headedness in there) but I’m definitely referring back to it as I work on The Seventh Star to make sure I’m hitting the right notes. Plus, he’s an all-around great guy. ;D

This is a disease I have a personal stake in. My grandmother has suffered from it for a good long while now. Growing up, it wasn’t really ever explained to the kiddos, but we could definitely see that something was negatively affecting her life. I think, more than anything, it affected her ability to participate — by the time I was a teenager, her mobility was becoming more limited. I really started to realize how big the impact was when she was no longer joining the family tailgating at college football games, but had to stay in the house up the hill. She’s wheelchair-bound now, and has been for a while, but for all of that, she’s made it into her 80s and is still fighting.

For my grandmother’s sake, I wish they’d made progress against this disease decades ago; for the sake of everyone living with it, I hope they’ll make progress as fast as possible. And you can help with that — and get a manuscript critique for yourself! Total win-win.

So.

MS Critiques for MS. Get to it!

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

Nonfiction

So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉