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Reading Recs for Women’s History Month — 2020 Expansion!

Five years ago, I put together a rec list for Women’s History Month. I’ve read a lot of books since then! So I thought I’d expand the list with some newer titles (or new-to-me titles) featuring amazing women from history.

As in 2015, inclusion on this list doesn’t mean the book is perfect or 100% historically accurate. It just means I enjoyed the read, and I think other folk might, too! For the purposes of this list, I’m focusing just on books with real historical figures as characters. I’ve read a ton of other books featuring invented female characters inside real historical context, though, and I might make another list with those, because so many of them are just so good.

Fiction

  • 48355011The First Actress, by C. W. Gortner: I would subtitle this book “The Rise of Sarah Bernhardt”, as it mostly follows the early life of the Divine Sarah. It’s a rich exploration of the formation of one of the modern world’s first celebrities. Much attention is paid to her family and their echoing influence on her life. I don’t know enough about Bernhardt to know how much of that is historically verified and how much was authorial invention, but I could certainly believe it all within the context of fiction, and it makes for a compelling character study.
  • The Borgia Confessions, by Alyssa Palombo: A dark spiral into one of the Renaissance’s most fascinating and infamous families. While the main female character is Palombo’s invention, we see enough of women like Lucrezia and Vanozza that I feel solid including it on this list. Palombo also faithfully re-creates the world of Renaissance Rome in all its spectacle and decadence.
  • 44059557._SY475_The Magnolia Swordby Sherry Thomas: I’m including this one even though Mulan is more of a legend than a historical figure, because this retelling is so rooted in the history of 5th-century China. This YA novel centers not only Mulan, but other women she encounters on her journey, plus it has some really spectacular fight scenes, all rendered in Thomas’s typically wonderful writing.
  • Ribbons of Scarlet, by Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, Laura Kamoie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, and Heather Webb: This ambitious multi-authored project tracks six women across the French Revolution’s various phases, showcasing a variety of political opinions and socioeconomic realities. I really appreciated how the authors gave each heroine her own voice. Sophie de Grouchy and Charlotte Corday’s sections were probably my favorites, but each section of the book invests you in its characters and their trials navigating a period of upheaval and danger.
  • Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: This book really is a fantasy, but I’m including it on this list anyway, because the heroines are the Brontë sisters as children! Who get transplanted, along with their brother, into a strange world derived from their games and imaginings. Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This is a middle-grade novel, but I can highly recommend this flight of fancy for readers of all ages.
  • 46138193The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A deep dive into a witch trial I had no idea existed, in 1620s Norway. This book is bleak and moody but absolutely enthralling, exploring the poisoned psyche and power dynamics in an isolated Arctic town. (FWIW, I’ve seen it positioned as a fantasy novel in a few places, but I would definitely place it firmly on the historical side of the fence. The narrative never really suggests that the folk magic some of the women get attacked for has actual magical force in the way you’d expect from a fantasy novel).
  • Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood: I read this after watching the miniseries, and only then realized that it was based on real historical events. Grace Marks, aged 16, was arrested in 1843 for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. The trial was sensationalized, and it was never quite clear how culpable Grace was — but it makes for a gripping read, and the book unfolds in a way that unsettles the reader’s brain.

Non-Fiction

  • 36525023._SY475_Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: Look, Mary Beard is just awesome. This tract is a trumpet calling out the deeply ingrained misogyny of our world, in history and in the modern day. I’d love to read a deeper dive from her on the same topic.
  • Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, by Guy de la Bédoyère: I had some issues with this book taking Tacitus a little much at face value, but overall, it’s a solid exploration of the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty — who are the only reason, Bédoyère frequently reminds us, that the dynasty existed at all. Particularly great is the examination of Roman feminine virtues and the way in which transgression could lead to both power and punishment.
  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin: I don’t read a lot of biographies, but I enjoyed this one. It goes into incredible detail about Jane Austen’s life and the world she was living in, lending color and context to her books. I only had a sketchy outline of her bio prior to reading this book, and mostly her early life at that (which, okay, I mostly got from watching Becoming Jane); this filled in a lot of those gaps.

And here are a few historical books on my TBR!

  • 40993442Bakhita, by Véronique Olmi
  • Queens of the Conquest, by Alison Weir
  • Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore, by Emma Southon
  • The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton
  • My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
  • Alison Weir’s Tudor Queens series
General

Aven Cycle Book Two Title!

Book Two officially has a title! I’m delighted to announce that Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, Neitin, Aula, and all the rest will be back in…

Give Way to Night

I’m really pleased with it. Unlike From Unseen Fire, where it took ages to arrive at something that made everyone happy, this had immediate unanimity. It was on my list of ideas, and it was the favorite pick of both my agent and editor. It’s poetic, it reflects the darkening world of the second book, and it reaches out a bit in theme to Sempronius and Vibia.

Because I truly am useless with titles, I did steal this one (with sight grammatical adaptation) from Latin poetry as well. Where From Unseen Fire comes from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, this is a phrase out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

“It would take too long to tell what wickedness I found everywhere. Those rumours were even milder than the truth. I had crossed Maenala, those mountains bristling with wild beasts’ lairs, Cyllene, and the pinewoods of chill Lycaeus. Then, as the last shadows gave way to night, I entered the inhospitable house of the Arcadian king.”

The context has no relevance, really, but I do like the sense of descending into eerie darkness that the passage has. Although, now that I think of it, the pinewoods and the house might both be seen as hints to the action… but, I say too much. 😉

Bits of Fun

Book Recommendations 2019

Io Saturnalia, friends!

As the holiday season is upon us, I hope you’re having a lovely time, whatever and however you celebrate. And if you’re still looking for some gifts, allow me to recommend some books!

Everything on this list is something I read this year, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was published this year. I did read a lot of new things; I also did a lot of whittling down the TBR and catching-up on things I’d somehow missed. I read 116 books this year (so far! Still a couple of weeks left, after all) and enjoyed most of them! But in the interests of a somewhat-concise list, here are ten that I could most easily imagine a hypothetical ideal reader for:

9780735210936Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch
Buy it for: Whoever you know that’s addicted to the most social media platforms or that family member who still asks if you’re on the Google
Because Internet is an absolutely fascinating study at the language of the internet and how it has evolved over the past few decades. McCulloch dissects the informal written communication that has really only developed with the internet, how we learn it, how people of different ages and online entry points learn it differently, and how it keeps changing. I have flung this book at so many people.

9781524796280Fire & Blood, by George R R Martin
Buy it for: That friend who was losing her gd mind during the Game of Thrones final season
Fire & Blood will not be a five-star read for everyone, but if you’ve got a friend who seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of fictional universes, then this book will be a five-star for her as it was for me. This in-universe history of House Targaryen is wonderfully involved, but also a tongue-in-cheek examination of historiography and textual transmission. It’s a deep dive and perfect for the hyperfixation-prone geek in your life. I loved it so much I actually consumed it twice this year, once in print and once in audio.

9780756410261The Thorn of Dentonhill, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Buy it for: Someone who loved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
The Thorn of Dentonhill is the first in a truly epic series, though each book is a self-contained adventure. Overall, Maresca has written an astonishing twelve novels in the Maradaine saga, ten of which are currently out, following four different groups of citizens of Maradaine whose stories interweave with each other. (You could start with the first book in one of the other sub-series, but I read them in chronology of release). Maradaine is not so absurd a place as Ankh-Morpork, nor as overtly allegorical, but the stories share a street-level view of a complex fantasy realm. Our heroes often tack along different moral, ethical, and practical lines from each other, but all are sympathetic, compelling, and fascinating.

9781440348389Damn Fine Story, by Chuck Wendig
Buy it for: Your friend who spent November in a NaNoWriMo frenzy
Damn Fine Story is a great dissection of the craft of writing, composed with Wendig’s particular brand of incisive irreverence. I tend to be picky about craft books, because it’s so hard to find one with a tone I don’t find abrasive to my own sensibilities, but this one was a treat. It provides some basic storybuilding terminology, but it also breaks down a lot of the why stories work and how to use what you enjoy about the stories you love, as a consumer of fiction, to build compelling narratives as a writer.

9781683690436Geekerella, by Ashley Poston
Buy it for: A hopeless romantic who goes to nerd conventions like Dragon*Con or NYCC
Geekerella and its sequel, The Princess and the Fangirl, are just charming as all-get-out. These are YA romances built around the conceit of a Star Trek-esque show’s reboot and the subsequent fan fallout. The fairy-tale strains are clever without weighing down the stories, and the easter eggs for geeks are an absolute delight. These books are fresh, witty, and have so much heart. I found myself squealing out loud with pure joy at so many points in each one — and talking out loud to the characters, as though they could hear my advice.

9780062916075Ribbons of Scarlet, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Heather Webb
Buy it for: A virtuous citoyenne or readers who you often see with those historical novels where there’s a woman in period dress looking over a cityscape on the cover
Ribbons of Scarlet is the story of the French Revolution told through some of its women, and told by a collection of wonderful historical fiction authors. It offers a complex view, featuring women from all strata of society and all kinds of political opinions. You also see some of those opinions shift over time: under the pressures of the Revolution, some women become more radical, and some less.

9780062691316We Set the Dark on Fire, by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Buy it for: A reader who loved The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale
We Set the Dark on Fire is an absolutely gorgeously imagined dystopian tale set in a Latinx-flavored secondworld. The power negotiations in this book are intricate, layered, and dangerous. The world Mejia builds is intriguing and has curious mythological underpinnings. I absolutely love the twist that Mejia puts on the traditional YA dystopian love triangle; that alone would make the book worth reading. The heroine’s voice is also so strong and exciting.

9781984831927House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig
Buy it for: A reader who loves fairy tales
House of Salt and Sorrows is one of the most absorbing books I read all year. It’s a gothic mystery, a mythological epic, and an atmospheric fairy tale all wrapped up into one tale designed to consume a reader’s imagination. It goes to some seriously dark places, which took me by surprise and which I appreciated. Based very loosely on The 12 Dancing Princesses, this is a book to get lost in, and it would be particularly good to curl up with in the deep chill of winter.

51pcMG05OnL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Great Goddesses, by Nikita Gill
Buy it for: A strident feminist still searching for beauty in a rough world
Great Goddesses is a stunning poetry collection — and I say this as someone who is not always a fan of poetry. Gill explores the women of Greek mythology, from the primordial forces of night and chaos to the titanesses and goddesses with incredible powers to the mortal women damaged by the gods’ designs. Each one is an indictment of patriarchy; many have a particularly vicious-glorious energy that I really enjoyed. It’s not always an easy read, since so many stories cut straight through heart and mind down to ichor and bone, but it’s cathartic and gorgeous.

9780062931795The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, by Olivia Waite
Buy it for: A romance novel reader with a sense of adventure or someone who liked Gentleman Jack but wants something a bit softer
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is queer historical romance! Yes, thank you, more of this, please! It hits all the standard beats that a romance novel should, so you get that comfy and familiar feeling while reading it. It just happens to feature a f/f pairing. Both ladies are charming and interesting characters, and the focus on science within the story is also refreshing. I was reminded a lot of Courtney Milan’s and Lisa Kleypas’s books while reading this one.

So those are some focused recommendations! I encourage you to look for them at a local independent bookstore, if you can.

Other things I really enjoyed this year:

  • The Tethered Mage and sequels, Melissa Caruso
  • The Perfect Assassin and The Impossible Contract, K. A. Doore
  • Wanderers, Chuck Wendig
  • Lost Stars, Claudia Gray
  • The Temeraire series, Naomi Novik
  • Space Opera, Catherynne Valente
  • The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H. G. Parry
  • Rage, Cora Carmack
  • City of Brass, S. A. Chakraborty
  • The Magnolia Sword, Sherry Thomas
  • Fray, Rowenna Miller
  • Hello Stranger, Lisa Kleypas
  • Rebel Rising, Beth Revis
  • Enchantee, Gita Trelease
  • The Everlasting Rose, Dhonielle Clayton
  • The Borgia Confessions, Alyssa Palombo (forthcoming in 2020)
  • The Body in the Garden, Katharine Schellman (forthcoming in 2020!)
Panoramic view of the Roman theatre in Palmyra (from Wikimedia Commons)
General

Worldbuilding for Masochists Podcast — Expansion

This week, I had the great delight to be a guest on the Worldbuilding for Masochists podcast!

Go listen. Listen to the episode I’m in, then go back and listen to the other eleven, then listen to the one I’m on again, then keep listening to new episodes as they come out.

The podcast as a whole discusses the process of worldbuilding for fantasy novels. So far they’ve covered basics like geography and deep-dives into things like fiber arts. I’m in the episode “The Play’s the Thing”, focusing on the arts and popular entertainment. A natural fit for a Shakespeare scholar, really, and I do spend a lot of time in the episode nattering on about early modern theatrical culture. We talk about the socioeconomic conditions surrounding art, how technology affects art, and the role that art and entertainment play in society and politics. Honestly, I could’ve gone on for another six hours. Recording the podcast was an absolute blast, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.

While I mention a few things to do with ancient Rome in the episode, I thought I’d expand a little bit here and talk about some of the pop culture that shows up in From Unseen Fire, and some of the things I’m building into Books Two and Three as well.

Panoramic view of the Roman theatre in Palmyra (from Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of the arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle show up at the patrician dinner parties. Socioeconomics, after all! The people with lots of disposable income are the ones who can burn a lot of cash amusing themselves.

Dancers are mentioned both at the Vitelliae dinner party early in the book and at the Autroniae Saturnalia revels towards the end. Dance was a spectator sport for most Romans by the end of the Republic. Earlier in their history it may have had religious purpose and been something citizens even of high status would have engaged in, but as the centuries went on, it became considered more vulgar. Country peasants might have danced for pleasure, but for Romans in the city, dancing was something to watch, not do. The dancers would have mostly been slaves or perhaps freedmen and women of very low social status, on a level with actors.

What sort of entertainment did the Romans (and, thus, my Aventans) actually engage in? Wordplay tops the list. Riddles were a common form of game at parties, as Marcia Tullia shows us during the hunting getaway at her country estate:

“Let’s have a game, instead. I heard an excellent riddle at Appia’s last party. Dear, would you be so kind as to share it?”

The Romans loved puzzles and paradoxes akin to the Two-Door Riddle made famous by Labyrinth. They also played with visual puzzles like rebuses, and even carved riddles on some tombs and funerary monuments. Thinking of them trading these things at parties and in taverns, I’m reminded of learning the Green Glass Door riddle as a Girl Scout; we played it for a ridiculously long time. (And if you don’t know that riddle, oh please allow someone to tell it to you in-person rather than googling it). We humans are clever monkeys, and we like things which test our wits.

Poetry for the Romans came in many forms — some of them regarded as high art, others as common vulgarities. Nor did the poets necessarily limit themselves to one side of that spectrum or the other. As I mention on the podcast, my favorite Latin poet, Catullus, certainly did both. One of my favorite scenes is the doggerel poetry game that Autronius Felix plays with Urbanus, a character who is designed as sort of a mix between Catullus and Ovid:

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They then move on to skewering particular targets — political opponents of the Popularists. That’s also true-to-history. A ton of Latin poetry has either overt or implicit political purpose, and it’s often pretty crude. When we see Urbanus again a bit later, though, he’s reciting a more highly-regarded form of verse — which, I must confess, I pretty much straight-up stole out of Ovid’s Fasti.

But though we see a lot of artistry at the fancy dinner parties, entertainment is not limited to the upper crust of society. Music could be played and enjoyed by anyone. A musical education was part of patrician upbringing, though certain instruments like the pipe were considered improper for the highborn. Plenty of murals show highborn ladies, particularly, with lyres and similar instruments. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned as popular legend would have it — because, for one thing, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and also because he was nowhere near Rome at the time — but he was known to play the cithara, an instrument more like a lute.

Music served many functions in Roman life. It was used during religious rituals and during funerals, during festivals and in theatrical productions, but it also infused daily life. It’s from the ancients that we get the idea of shepherds playing upon pipes. In From Unseen Fire, as Latona walks with Sempronius through the markets after the Cantrinalia, she hears the flautists and other musicians hired by merchants to draw attention to their stalls. That’s historically-based — ancient merchants didn’t have commercials or mannequins to get the word or draw the eye, but they were plenty creative. Some would even have trained animals at their stalls — juggling monkeys and the like.

Music also played a role in war: horns and drums were used by the legions to keep time while marching and to give orders during battle.

Plays were also popular entertainment, though of a very different stripe from the early modern theatre that I spend a lot of time discussing on the podcast. The Romans had both tragedy and comedy, though no tragedies survive from the Republic era and few from the Imperial era. Seneca’s are the best well-known, while Plautus and Terence are the most famous of the comedic authors. Roman comedy tended to be quite bawdy and relied heavily on stock characters similar to those which would eventually develop in commedia dell’arte. Although playwrights could be well-regarded and plays themselves were entertainment for all classes, actors were of extremely low-status, on a level with criminals and sex workers.

In From Unseen Fire, as part of conversation at one dinner party, Old Crispinia asks Latona:

“Now, tell me what you thought of that play where I saw you last week. Damned frivolous piece of tripe, if you ask me—”

In the earlier draft, I actually named the playwright (Practus), but when my editor asked me to trim down on the total tonnage of the names I inserted into the manuscript, that was one it was easy to lose. I’m imagining Practus as a Plautus analog.

Fresco image of a man with a spear fighting a lion (from Wikimedia Commons)Gambling and board games were also popular with Romans of all classes. Gambling was technically illegal during the Republic and much of the Empire, but that was a law often honored more in the breach — and it was permitted during the Saturnalia, as when we see Aula dicing at the Autroniae’s party. The Romans also played non-gambling games with dice and markers; they had board games somewhat resembling checkers and chess, and in Aven Book 2 you’ll see (assuming it doesn’t change in edits) little Lucia playing tali, a game with knucklebones similar to the modern(-ish) game of jacks.

Now, you may have noticed that I’ve yet to discuss what’s probably the most famous form of ancient Roman entertainment: the games. Modern culture mostly focuses on the gladiatorial matches, but Roman games included many more exhibitions, including theatrical performances, staged animal hunts, and chariot races — which were the most popular part of the games in ancient times.

I’ve written a very large series of events for the Aven Cycle to take place at some games. Early on, they were in Book One, but as edits went on, they just didn’t fit there anymore. I briefly thought they might fit in Book Two, but, no, it looks like they’re going to be in Book Three. I do mention games in Book Two, though, and if all stays more or less as-is, you’ll get to see a little bit of Aventan tailgaiting!

So! That’s arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle. Go listen to the podcast. Again. ;D

Images and Artwork

Word Cloud — Aven Cycle Book Two, Revised

Word Art

I turned in a new draft of Aven Cycle Book Two to my editor last week! And, as is traditional, I made a word cloud for it. The five most-often-used words in this draft (apart from articles and pronouns and such) are: Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, magic, more.

I’m glad to have this draft turned in, and I’m eager to hear what my editor thinks. The changes in this draft feel solid. The sequence of events is better paced, and the ending is a lot more emotionally-driven. It still needs some work, to be sure, but it feels like now that work can be polishing and smoothing, not full-on chiseling.

General

Jigsaw Puzzle Revisions

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been revising Book Two of the Aven Cycle. It’s been an interesting process, because while I’m not actually generating a ton of new content, it’s felt like that kind of heavy lifting.

Have you ever seen that thing where an artist puts together jigsaw puzzles that have the same die cut pattern, but different pictures? That’s sort of what it feels like I’ve been doing.

I needed to rearrange some major incidents in the Aven/Latona plotline. Her story’s pacing was all out of joint. Big chunks of story needed to be moved up a lot, and others needed to be sacked entirely. Sometimes, though, bits and pieces of a scene were not just still usable, but still desirable — an important emotional beat, or some necessary observation on the wider plot. Then, the trick becomes recontextualizing the old scene for the new pacing and character arc. How can I lift this conversation, or at least its main beats, and redress the setting? Do I need to adjust the dialogue for a different mood or sense of urgency? Practically, am I now referring to things that haven’t happened yet?
There’s a lot to keep track of.

I also have to do that without things falling too out-of-sync with the Iberian plotline, where Vitellius, Sempronius, and Rabirus all are. I think I’ve kept things fairly well-yoked, but as I approach the Big Moment in the Iberina plot, I’ve still got a lot of the Aven/Latona component left to get to. (I’m beginning to have a lot of sympathy for George R R Martin, trying to weave plotlines happening concurrently in so many different locations. Not coincidentally, the new project I’m percolating for consideration as this year’s NaNo will all take place inside a single city).

20190828_023650684_iOS

The picture above is from my bullet journal, where I’ve been trying to stay on top of all of this. I listed out every scene in the earlier draft, by chapter, with the titles I used in Scrivener. Then I’ve been marking down when I migrate them wholesale (as I can do with most of the Iberian chapters), when I’ve migrated them with alterations, when I’ve struck them entirely, and where — as with so many — I’ve migrated only part of a scene, and what it’s now part of in the new draft. I’ve also made notes on some where I know I want to include a portion of a scene in the new draft, but haven’t found a place for it yet. Some of those may end up being jettisoned if there’s just not a place for them, but this way, I can tell at a glance what puzzle pieces are still hanging out on the table.

I’m wishing now I’d left a line in between each entry, though, because some scenes have been chopped up into three or four pieces, and it’s been hard to write small enough to note where all the pieces have gone!

General

But isn’t this a girl book?

My favorite book to recommend to readers of a certain age, or those shopping for them, is Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. It’s a perfect rec for middle grade readers with an interest in fantasy who have already consumed the “big” titles at that level — Warriors, The Unwanteds, Land of Stories, Percy Jackson — but who might not be ready for full-on YA yet. It’s great because, despite being an award-winner with a special place in the hearts of many, it is an older book, and so it doesn’t have the marketing splash that the big series do. But I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me, so I absolutely love recommending it to others.

The protagonist, feeling constrained by the expectations their life defines for them, embarks first on a quest of self-betterment. They learn all sorts of useful skills from the palace staff, everything from fighting to cooking to Latin, because they don’t just want to sit around and be waited on all the time. But when their parents try to force them into a life they think is too small, too tedious, too ordinary, they run away and decide to become the “official captive” of a dragon. They then end up having to figure out how to defeat a wizard who’s trying to steal the dragons’ magic and poison them. And that’s just the first book — the rest of the series has more tricks and twists, surprising rescues, and dashing feats of heroism.

Did you notice that I used a gender-neutral pronoun throughout that description? That’s because the protagonist is a girl, Cimorene — and that fact alone puts parents off buying this book for their sons. Never mind the fact that this is, at heart, an adventure story. Parents frequently take one look at the cover, as I’m pressing this book I’m telling them is amazing into their hands, and dismiss it. “But isn’t this a girl book?” they ask me.

Y’all.

Your sons can read a book with a female protagonist. It won’t hurt them. I promise.

In fact, evidence suggests it’ll be really good for them. It’ll teach them to empathize with the girls and women in their lives. It’ll help them see that it’s not just boys who are the center of stories. It’ll help normalize female protagonists for them, so that female-led stories can stop being rarities for us to cling to and can instead be just stories, like male-led stories have always been.

So please, stop asking me, “But isn’t this a girl book?”, because I die a little inside every time you do.

Bits of Fun

The Battle of Winterfell Predictions

I was going to do this on Twitter, but then I realized it would be too long and annoying to thread. This will obviously have spoilers for the whole series up to this point, including the first two episodes of Season 8. Read at your own risk.

So, here are my “who lives, who dies” predictions for Episode 3/The Battle of Winterfell (recognizing that it’s not impossible that the Battle will span more than one episode). Dead on the left, living on the right, and I’m stuck in the middle with you.

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My guesses are grounded in my theory that the very last episode of the series will be winnowed down to essentially the same cast as the very first, excepting those who were dead before Season 8 started. If I weren’t committing myself to that, I think I’d have Theon and Bran on the other side of the chart. Theon definitely feels like noble sacrifice wight-fodder at this point, and it seems impossible that Bran’s “lure the Night King to the godswood” strategy is going to work, with three episodes left after this one, so they’d be easy to mark for death. I’m guessing, though, they have some plot armor to get them through to the endgame.

I also, broadly, think that those in possession of Valyrian steel will make it through Winterfell — which means Sam gave up his hall pass to Jorah. They just made such a big deal of the passing of that sword, it feels significant. I can easily see Jorah dying to protect Daenerys ultimately, but I don’t think it happens yet.

The exception to my Valyrian steel theory, however, is Brienne. I think she’s tragic toast. She was given too big a hero moment in episode 2, with the knighting. She got what she’s wanted her whole life. She’s been validated and supported by men she thinks well of. She’s been acknowledged. She’s happy. And so it feels like she’s reached the pinnacle of what the series would allow her and is going to go out in an epic act of heroism. Podrick probably goes down with her. (If this were a different kind of series, she’d be pulled back from that brink by someone, probably Jaime, reminding her that the problem with a death worthy of song is that you’re not around to enjoy the singing… But that’s not the sort of world this series lives in.)

Grey Worm made the mistake of making life plans for after the battle, which is hard to see as anything but a jinx.

Beric Dondarrion has been fighting for the Lord of Life for all of his improbably-prolonged life; it makes sense that he’d go down defending the living now. I’m thinking maybe he makes it through a lot of the battle and then does something heroic to help cover the retreat of the survivors.

Tormund has been excellent comic relief, but he’s really not necessary to anything going forward, and being a fan-favorite makes him an easy gut-stab for the audience.

The Hound, also, has been superfluous for a while now. Although… wait. He was in the first episode, wasn’t he? Damn. I might have to move him to the other column so as to be consistent with myself. Plus, it would give him the opportunity to finally engage with The Mountain, which the show has telegraphed a lot across the seasons. Okay, consider The Hound moved to the Dohaeris column. I had just genuinely forgotten he was in the first episode.

Royce is on the death list mostly because I only just remembered he’s still around? Representing the Vale, I guess? But he’d be an easy commander-figure to take out without actually offing any of the main characters. Same for Edd, really, which is a shame, because I enjoy Edd. But I think the 999th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is destined for death, so that, however the endgame turns out, the next phase of Westeros opens appropriately symbolically with the 1000th. (Though it’s an interesting thought… if they really defeat the Night King, will a Watch and a rebuilt Wall be needed?)

Clearly something terrible is going to go down in the crypts, which is what will do for Gilly and Sam, I think. I’m not sure if I’m convinced of the theory that seems to have simultaneously occurred to the entire fandom just as Episode 2 ended, that the Night King will power-up all the dead Starks. (Though the Episode 3 preview might well be canting in that direction with Daenerys saying, “The dead are already here.”) My hesitation is because I can’t recall quite how firmly the world has established its own rules on how wights are created. I can’t remember if they need direct contact from a Walker or not. I feel like they do? Yes, early on, wights re-animate inside Castle Black, but it’s pretty clear they’d been turned before they were taken back there and had just been in stasis or something. So, if the corpses in the crypts are in a position to be re-animated, it seems like the people down there already have plenty to worry about. And that may well occur — or maybe the Night King’s magic will reach them without direct contact. One way or another, the frosting of the crypts in the teaser trailers and the focus they’re given in the opening credits both seem to signal something major happening there, and I don’t think it’s just that people keep deciding to have poorly-timed conversations in front of Lyanna’s tomb.

Speaking of Lyanna — the other Lyanna, that is — she’s another fan favorite, it would hurt to see her go, but she’s not critical to the plot. Yes, we might all want to see her set up as Queen of the North when the dust settles, but do we really think the series is going to give us that? No. They want to hurt us. I mean, imagine that little bundle of ferocity suddenly going blue-eyed. (Especially if she doesn’t die first and goes Walker, not wight? She’d be a hell of a lieutenant for the Night King to have on hand).

Gendry is a gamble on my part. He’s one I’d put on the bubble of survival. But I suspect he does something dumb and heroic on Arya’s behalf. (As Dany told us last season and as Sansa reminded us last episode, heroes are really fond of doing dumb things that get them killed for the sake of love). It’s possible that happens a little later on, though.

Varys I’d also put on the bubble. I’ve got him in the death column largely because he’s been so ignored this season so far. They don’t seem to be investing in his future as a character. I could also see, however, Melisandre miraculously turning up to help him out of a tight spot in a “It’s not quite our time yet” sort of way.

Davos lives to keep being our Everyman, at least a little while longer. Missandei lives to make it hurt more that Grey Worm dies.

And then, I think, Daenerys has to have her dragons set fire to Winterfell to cover the retreat and to save the fallen from becoming wights.

I would love to be wrong about any and all of these. I would love this to be a different kind of series, less nihilistic, where it felt like more people would get to enjoy the future they fight for. But, well, that’s what fanfic’s for.

General, Personal

On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and they helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

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Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

Eowynsword

I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

Hobbiton

And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

General

A Much-Delayed Update

I have been woefully neglectful of this blog over the past six months! Apologies. Call it a hibernation.

What have I been up to? Well, I finished a draft of Book Two of the Aven Cycle and sent it off for editorial input. Eventually there will be revisions — many, many revisions — but in the meantime, I’m working on other projects! I’ve revived my own interest in The Seventh Star, a secondworld fantasy I began work on back when From Unseen Fire was out on sub, and I’m hoping to make good progress there. I’ve also still got the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera rattling around in my head, in search of a coherent plot, and I’ve had some ideas for a couple of projects that I’m not ready to let out into the world yet, even as nuggets. I feel like sometimes, talking about a new idea can bleed the energy right out of it, y’know? So there are two ideas that I’m keeping to myself for a while — one sci-fi, one fantasy — which may see some more devoted attention in the coming months.

PaperbackGiveaway.pngI’m also getting ready for the release of From Unseen Fire in paperback! I’m so excited about this, y’all. Hardcovers are shiny and impressive, but mass market paperbacks have always been my dear friends. You can see a video of me unboxing my author copies and talking a little bit about why I think mass markets are so great, especially for genre books, over on Facebook.

I’m also currently running two giveaways of those lovely little paperbacks! You can enter on Twitter and/or on Instagram. Already have a copy of From Unseen Fire? Enter anyway! Then you’ll have an extra copy you can give to a friend who hasn’t read it yet. 😉

You can also pre-order the paperback now from your favorite online retailer — Or, even better, heads into a bricks-and-mortar indie store to ask them to stock it for you!

I’m also looking forward to attending RavenCon in Williamsburg, VA from April 5th-7th. They’re still accepting registrations, so if you’re in the area, come see me! Here’s my schedule for the weekend, which you can also find on the Upcoming Events page:

  • Friday: 6 pm (Panel) Can’t You Just Google It? Research Techniques for Writers / Room L
  • Friday: 10 pm (Panel) Alt-History with a Fantastical Flair / Room 8
  • Saturday: 10 am (Panel) Clothes Make the Character / Room F
  • Saturday: 11:25 am – 11:50 am (Reading) Room 4
  • Saturday: 6 pm (Panel) Writing Ancient Cultures / Room F
  • Saturday: 7 pm (Panel) Female Friendship in SFF / Room 8
  • Sunday: 11 am (Panel) National Novel Writing Month / Room 8
  • Sunday: Noon (Panel) Spirituality and Religion in SFF / Room L

In other news: I’ve upgraded to a Business level site here, which means I have greater room to play around with the site’s appearance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the layout to something a little spiffier.

I’ll also be experimenting with hosting some Patreon material here rather than on the Patreon website. The WordPress platform offers a lot more flexibility in display and formatting, which would be useful. I’m still learning how the plugin works, though, so bear with me if there are any errant posts or mishaps in the meantime!

Okay, I think that’s about it for relevant updates. I promise to be a more dedicated blogger as we move into the sunny seasons.

Happy spring!


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