Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wednesday Review: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

Title: Cracklescape
Author: Margo Lanagan
Publication Date: August 2012
Genre: Horror and Science Fiction
Price: $5.95 (ebook)
Where to purchase: Amazon
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hi all, Julia here, coming to you a second time with a review of Cracklescape, an ebook collection of 4 short stories by award-winning Australian author Margo Lanagan that I picked up at World Fantasy Convention in Toronto back in 2012. I first heard of Margo Lanagan back in 2009 when I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose. At that time, her book Tender Morsels won Best Novel in the World Fantasy awards, and I read it and was completely blown away by it. So when I had an opportunity to read something else by Lanagan, I was really excited (even though yes, it took me over a year to finally get to should see my crazy TBR pile, it’s a looming threat to my bedside security. Good thing this one was an ebook). This collection is apparently part of a series of other books in the “Twelve Planets” series by Twelfth Planet Press, an Australian publisher of women-friendly speculative fiction--sort like of Hadley Rille Books’ Down-Under counterpart.

Anyway, enough intro, let me tell you about this collection.

There are four unrelated stories here. If anything does unify them, it is perhaps, as Jane Yolen says in the introduction, that they are all about ghosts or some kind of unreal being. But it is also, as Yolen points out, the lush poetry of Lanagan’s writing. Like any great poet, Lanagan’s language is evocative, perceptive, specific in its details—it is worth reading slowly, on a sentence-by-sentence level (if you can be that patient...sometimes I can’t be so I have to go back and read again).

The first story is “The Duchess Dresser”, about a young urban flat-dweller who finds his dresser is possessed by a female ghost from a previous era; she possesses him as well, and then appears to his flat-mates. I really liked the set up of the whole story, the gorgeous and vivid descriptions, and the relationships between both the main character and the ghost and the main character and his flat-mates, but ultimately I was frustrated with it because the story felt like it ended far too abruptly and unsatisfyingly. We never found out who the ghost was or why she was there or what ultimately happened to the main character and his flat-mates....for a few minutes there I actually thought I might have gotten an incomplete book, it ended so mid-stream.

The second story is my favorite of the collection: “The Isles of the Sun”, about a boy named Elric (no, not of Melniboné) who sees beautiful golden aliens and winds up leading the kids in his small town to follow them to another, lighter, world. I loved Elric’s insistence on The end of the story really hit me in a personal way when it switched point-of-view to the boy’s mother, who discovers her son missing early one morning and follows his tracks just in time to watch all the kids seemingly disappear. Though she doesn’t encounter the grim disaster she expects, she still loses her child in a way that makes no sense—and Lanagan really made me feel that parental loss and despair and confusion.

The third story, “Bajazzle”, is the most “horror”-genre story of the collection, about a self-centered, self-righteous, sexist pig of a man we first encounter on a train with his wife on his way to a beach party. He definitely gets his comeuppance in a very creepy and graphic way when he encounters a succubus at the party, and Lanagan’s description of the whole encounter (complete with freaky tikis) is really hard to scrub out of your brain. This story also felt not completely successful to me because the first part (on the train) and the second part (at the party/with the succubus) were so different and didn’t seem strongly related enough to me. Howeer, to Lanagan’s credit, I was so happy just wallowing in her language and the sheer “ewww” factor of the fantastical elements that I didn’t mind.

“Significant Dust”, the last story in the collection, was about Vanessa, a young woman out on her own trying to make sense of her life and her traumatic past by living out on the edge of nowhere, and the area 51-like alien encounters that start to happen there. It was my second favorite story, though I felt like it too suffered from a rather abrupt ending just when things started to get interesting. The speculative element was very light in this story, definitely serving as more of an intriguing mysterious background to Vanessa’s own unfolding backstory, which was beautifully drawn and compelling.

This is definitely a collection to pick up if you love gorgeous prose with a dash of the fantastical. It definitely made me want to pick up some of Lanagan’s other story collections (Black Juice won some World Fantasy awards also, apparently). I’m also intrigued to try some of the other Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press. I’ll have to get that TBR pile down to a reasonable level first...nah, why wait for something that’ll never happen? :)

Monday, April 28, 2014

On War and Women

Louise, thank you so much for inviting me to fill a guest spot for Heroines of Fantasy on your watch. I'm a big fan of historical fiction, even though I don't write it (yet), so in return for this little moment in the spot light, I promise to bring in some historical fiction authors on my watch next autumn.  

This month we're celebrating the release of my second novel, High Maga. The writing of this novel was such a rich experience, and today I'd like to share some thoughts on the events that inspired the story. So, without further ado, here's my guest post for HoF:

On War and Women

I’ve learned from our discussions on Heroines of Fantasy that one author’s “tired old trope” can be another’s world of opportunity. This message came home to me again just a few weeks back, when one of our guests listed war as a worn-out topic of fantasy.

That got me thinking.

High Maga, which debuts on the market this month, is essentially a story of war and violence.

Had I just spent the last three years crafting a tale that has been told too many times?

Or worse, was I telling a story that should not be told at all?

About a year ago, after reading a draft of High Maga, one of my critique partners questioned the content of the novel.  “Why so much violence?” she asked. "And why, in particular, the violence against women?"

The short answer is that war is a violent event. If an author chooses to tell war from the women’s perspective, sooner or later she will have to address the violence witnessed or encountered by those women.

The long answer has to do with my personal history and the history of my family.

I grew up with people who knew war on an intimate level. Not the battles of soldiers and veterans, but the struggles of the women left behind and the children they tried to protect as the world fell apart around them.

I heard about women who gave birth while bombs rained down on the city, of endless periods of fear and starvation and begging, of homes transformed to rubble, of daring escapes from occupied territories through dangerous midnight landscapes.

I came to understand war not as a heroic sequence of decisive battles, but as a desperate struggle for survival by civilians caught in the brutal crossfire.  

I learned that that a woman’s journey through war carries its own style of heroism. This is not always the charge-into-battle style that inspires our songs and movies. Rather, it is a heroism born of incredible endurance under some of the most brutal circumstances ever visited upon the human spirit. A heroism reflected in an awe-inspiring capacity to rebuild one’s life in the wake of utter destruction.

This is the vision that fed the writing of High Maga.

Deep inside, I wanted to pay tribute to the kinds of stories I heard as a little girl and to bear witness to the terrible loss that war causes, no matter how or why it is waged.  I sought to give a voice to those swept away by convulsions of violence, suffering through no fault of their own, their history silenced by death.

Above all, I wanted to paint my characters with dignity, even as they wandered -- or were thrust -- into the heart of darkness.

Did I succeed?

I will have to let my readers decide.  

But I am glad to have attempted the journey, and I am very grateful to all the characters of High Maga for entrusting me with the gift of their story. I hope I have done them justice.


About High Maga

Lands ravaged. Dreams destroyed. Demons let loose upon the earth.

War strikes at the heart of women’s magic in Moisehén. Eolyn’s fledgling community of magas is destroyed; its members killed, captured or scattered.

Devastated yet undaunted, Eolyn seeks to escape the occupied province and deliver to King Akmael a weapon that might secure their victory. But even a High Maga cannot survive this enemy alone. Aided by the enigmatic Mage Corey, Eolyn battles the darkest forces of the Underworld, only to discover she is a mere path to the magic that most ignites their hunger.

What can stop this tide of terror and vengeance?

The answer lies in Eolyn’s forgotten love, and in its power to engender seeds of renewed hope.

“War propels the book forward, and the characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst. . . . Fans of Gastreich’s previous work will want to catch this continuation of her story.” –Publishers Weekly

Purchase links:

About the Author

Karin Rita Gastreich lives in Kansas City and Costa Rica. An ecologist by vocation, her past times include camping, hiking, music, and flamenco dance.  Her first novel, Eolyn, was nominated for the 2012 Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.  Her third novel, Daughter of Aithne, is scheduled for release in 2015. Karin’s short stories have appeared in World Jumping, also from Hadley Rille Books, as well as in Zahir, Adventures for the Average Woman, and 69 Flavors of Paranoia.  She is a recipient of the Spring 2011 Andrews Forest Writer’s Residency.

Follow Karin’s adventures into fantastic worlds, both real and imagined, at
Eolyn Chronicles
Heroines of Fantasy
Eolyn on Facebook
Eolyn on Twitter

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Claire's Wednesday Review, Now Insights

Hi all! I'm supposed to have a review for you today.  Unfortunately... that's not the case.

You see, I selected a book (which shall remain unnamed), purchased it with much anticipation, and cracked it open that night.  When I began reading though, I had a hard time connecting with the story.  Figuring it was me, and I was just in some weird funk, I set it aside to come back to the next day or so.

Two days passed, and I had a chunk of reading time available.  This time, I made it to chapter five before I had to set it aside again.  This time,  I wasn't in a funk--there was something wrong with the story and not only that, the delivery of it as well.  But there were real snippets of beautiful writing that I couldn't let go of, and I returned the next evening.  I got another several chapters read, when I finally had to accept I wasn't going to finish this book.  I didn't want to, reading further felt like a chore, and any review I wrote as a result would be extremely negative. And in this case, because of my schedule and how long it took me to reach that conclusion, there was no time to ask for someone else to step in today.

I don't believe in lambasting a book on a public forum.  It doesn't solve much of anything.  Will it give the author feedback? Of course, but anything constructive is going to get lost in a defensive reaction, be that actual or internalized. Will it give readers insight?  Sure, it will scream "don't rush out and buy this book".  Perhaps that's part of my responsibility.  But I'm not a stop-gap nor do I want to be a block to sales.  There are plenty of other people out there who don't mind that role. I'm not one of them.

This blog, however, is designed to provide thoughtful, analytical evaluation of books we've read.  And leaving a review that says, "I read Sam's Multimillion Dollar Project and I couldn't finish it." isn't thoughtful and analytical.

So what I thought I'd do with this entry was take a few minutes to share the three biggest things that appeal to me in a book, and perhaps that will help be insightful for those submitting books for review.

1. Epic world design.  By this, I don't want to be told I'm in some fantastic place with awesome gadgets, knicknacks, and other "cool stuff".  I want to see it.  I want to know what the magical gold-infused Elven steel feels like to the handler.  I want to know the color of the three moons as they set, or how they set, even.  I want to see how the clan in the east hates the clan in the west, not just have it stated as part of the narrative...and more importantly, why.  I want the rules for world functionality to be enforced, not randomly altered to fit a plot need.  Make the world come alive.  Make me feel like I've stepped into another time and place.  And the more complicated and layered it is, the more I'm apt to like it.

2.  Strong but believable heroines.  A five foot three woman who is seeking to avenge her father's death and can wield a dagger with lightning-fast reflexes and who doesn't scream at spiders but does weep for an eviscerated bunny, is believable.  A five foot three woman who can wield two greatswords with lightning-fast reflexes and overpower a stone golem who has no fear of anything and never encounters an eviscerated bunny is not believable.  Women are emotional creatures.  Stronger women repress those emotions or express them in varying ways other than constant tears.  But emotions don't just die for women--not without good explanation.  You can have a strong heroine, but she can't be over-the-top and implausible, or I'm simply going to set the book aside.

3.  Gripping Conflict.  A hero quest is one thing. It's a goal, it's a purpose and it's bound to involve battle and action scenes.  But give me gut-wrenching choices, decisions that aren't black and white and pose some insurmountable choice for the hero or heroine.  I like internal conflict over external conflict, though the external conflict keeps me moving through the story.  I want dire consequences.  People twisting in the wind.  And people truly affected by the decisions they make.  Simply creating battle scenes that have no consequence, or having everyone support the hero's decision no matter what it may be, gets ... well... boring.  And that was the largest issue with the book I set aside.

Anyway, those are a few of my biggies.  If your book matches, feel free to throw my name in on the review request!

Hope you all had an enjoyable holiday. And may you encounter greater books than I!

Till next time...


Monday, April 21, 2014

The Response From The Lassies!!

Hi, it’s Louise here again, for another exploration of the wonderful world of medieval history... In my March post, you may remember how I talked about the difficulties of writing women in a world which is deeply misogynistic in its thinking.  We’ve also heard from several writers who have had to wrestle with this problem on a daily basis.

So we’ve seen the theory, and we've also seen how several authors have approached the problem.  Now it's time to set the record straight - what was it like for medieval women in practice?

For my case studies, I’m going to introduce you to three women of the Middle Ages. One of these women -  Black Agnes of Dunbar (Norris, 2007, 66) – has grown into the stuff of legends through the centuries, but I think we can safely say that whatever the truth behind her story, the facts can’t be too far away.  My second is Christian de Pisan (Leyser, 1995, 284), an Italian-born lady who married a French nobleman at 14 and - after losing her husband at the age of 25 - supported herself by writing.  My third example is the simply-named Emma Huntynton, whom I’ll be citing as an example of the broad class of capable widows who, following their husbands’ deaths, continued running their husbands’ businesses (Leyser, 1995, 178).

‘Black Agnes’ is the popular name which has been given to Agnes Randolph, daughter of Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. In 1338, during the Scots Wars of Independence, she held Dunbar Castle against an English army for 5 months on her father’s behalf, before being relieved by a Scots army. Upon seeing a siege engine known as ‘the sow’ being moved into place, she reputedly uttered the immortal words, “Beware, Montagow [Montague, the besieging Englishman], for I shall farrow thy sow.”

Portencross Castle, Ayrshire - What Was Life Really Like?
The feisty defence put up by ‘Black Agnes’ is not an isolated case, and we can perhaps understand her better by referring to an important document written by Christian de Pisan, The Book of Three Virtues.  A veritable Mrs Beaton of her age, Christian de Pisan’s reference work was a guide to women on how to be a good woman, which meant of course being a good wife, and a good mother. Following on from last month’s post, we might expect this to advocate that women should be meek and virtuous at all times, subservient to their husband’s wishes.  But this isn’t the case – for a woman to be a useful contributor to her household, she’s got to play an active part in its running.  Christian advises the wives of nobles to be astute politically, and to be strong and courageous. Such a woman must be a good leader, and a wise counsellor: that way, she can support her husband properly, and also represent him in all matters when he’s absent. For this reason, ‘She must know the laws of arms and all things pertaining to warfare’ (Leyser, 1995, 286). This description by Christian directly inspired the kind of woman I had in mind when recreating the characters for Fire & Sword, a woman perhaps best typified by Helen Campbell, wife to Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie.

Christian de Pisan did not, however, focus completely on the nobility.  She also offers advice to the wives of artisans and labourers.  She urges women to make sure their husbands rise early and apply themselves vigorously to the tasks before them. That these women were more than capable of understanding their husbands’ trades is clearly evidenced by the vast number of widows who continued their husband’s businesses through widowhood. Emma Huntynton is a good example: following the loss of her husband in 1362, she inherited both his house and his apothecary’s shop and continued working in that trade throughout, we must presume, the remainder of her life.  Though the medieval historian, Henrietta Leyser is quick to point out that for widows, working was a requirement, something expected of them by their peer group (who presumably didn’t want to support them financially). 

So there we have it.  Three real medieval woman.   Whose stories serve to show us what life was really like back then. A misogynistic world in theory, perhaps, but one where, in practice, reality was often very different.


Leyser, H 1995. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (Phoenix, London)
Norris, J 2007 Medieval Siege Warfare (Tempus, Stroud)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday Review: Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines

Title: Invisible
Editor: Jim C. Hines
Genre: science fiction commentary
Price: $2.99 (ebook)
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Point of Sale: Amazon / B &N / Smashwords
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

A few months back, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote an article suggesting that science fiction writers might want to include more than just Straight White Males in their stories.  What should have been as controversial as “you should bathe regularly” created an amazing swirl of controversy on the Internet.  Invisible is a response to that controversy.

Blogger, author and (full disclosure) personal friend Jim C. Hines is a Mark 1 Straight White Male.  However, he offered his blog to various people who wrote moving essays about being other than Straight White Male, and what it meant to them to read (or not read) of people who were more like them.  Jim then collected 13 of those essays into this slim ebook.

The essays are all exceptionally well-written, and speak powerfully to the experience of being Other, as well as the help one can get by reading the right book at the right age.  Writers varied from an albino (have you ever seen a not-evil albino in fiction?) to people of various genders, orientations and races.

As an author, I want to entertain people.  I want to affect them in some positive way.  Reading the essays in Invisible helped me better understand how to do that.  As a businessman, (and all writers should be people of business) Invisible pointed out that non-Straight White Males have money and are interested in science fiction.  Providing them characters they can identify with can be profitable.  As an artist who happens to be a Straight White Male, part of being a good artist is an ability to populate your book with other than clones of yourself.  Invisible gave me some thoughts on how to do just that.

If you want to be a writer, you should do yourself a favor and read Invisible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Uncommonly Common

I am a curious oyster. Anyone who knows me, knows this. Words are my obsession, as might be expected from a person who spends at least twelve hours a day with them. If I am not writing, I'm editing. If I'm not doing either of those, I'm reading. And if I'm doing none of those things, I'm either cooking, sleeping, or doing laundry.

One of my favorite avenues of learning is listening to college courses on CD in my car. I am currently listening to The Secret Life of Words, all about the English language and its origins. Fascinating stuff.

There is no pure English. It has been, from the very first utterances, a borrowing language. Germanic at the base--which in itself is a mish-mash of combining peoples--and full of French and Latin, the evolution is fascinating and far too involved to get into here.

I'm going to start with 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. Suddenly, the royals were French--French who did not speak the native language. Many did, however, speak Latin, as the language of learning. So did some of the natives. Many of the doublets we still use to this day come from this time period, when you didn't know if the person you were adressing spoke French of English. Cease and desist. Law and order. Safe and sound. Peace and quiet. One French or Latin, one English, both mean the same.

The borrowing that began mostly with 1066 really kicked into gear when the Black Death reached England in 1348. Roughly one third of the population died, and suddenly, all those laypeople who spoke English got to fill in the spaces formerly denied them. What happened then was marvelous--the English started borrowing. Words for law, art, learning. They needed them. They borrowed from the scholarly Latin, and the elevated French. It is no coincidence that scientific and law terms tend to be Latinate, while those for the culinary arts are French.

Now look at this:

They don't mean quite the same thing, do they? Or do they? Ask is casual, question is slightly less so, and interrogate is comparatively severe--yet all have essentially the same meaning. What's the difference?

Ask is based in the Germanic/English and thus, common.
Question is from the French, slightly elevated from the common.
Interrogate is borrowed from Latin, most elevated as the language of scholars.

Fire, flame, incinerate. English, French, Latin.
Burn and combust--English, French
Broth and soup--English, French--and supper, which we get from the Latin, suppa, meaning the same.

Writers tend to grasp for the "low" speech of the common English for some things, and reach for the "high" speech from the French and Latin borrows for a more elevated feel, and most of us don't do so consciously. Let us take an old standby, Lord of the Rings. Mr. Tolkein (who most assuredly knew he was doing so) uses the "high speech" of Latinate word choices by and large, but look at how he uses the common vs. the elevated with his characters. There are no dialog tags necessary in Lothlorian, to tell the reader when Frodo speaks and when Giladriel does.

What made me really see this for myself was the word incendiary, a word Mark Nelson chose to use that always stuck out with me as I edited, The Poets of Pevana. Mark's writing has always said, "high speech" to me, and while listening to this course, I realized why--he often chooses "formal" Latinate or French borrows over the more basic English. He used the word incendiary brilliantly, to encompass fires set with words, and with flame. But he also peppered the text with that elevated speech, giving it that "high" feel.

It is one thing to make these choices subconsciously, and quite another to do so consciously. I will see books, and my writing, differently now. Will you?


This is my last post for a while, a prospect that leaves me feeling a bit bereft, I must say. Yet with my added responsibilities at Hadley Rille Books since Eric's stroke, I suppose I should welcome one less task on my list. Should being the key word here. Look for me in comments!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Review: High Maga by Karin Rita Gastreich

I’m going to be rather unfair on High Maga and compare it to a book where the story was near perfect: Eolyn, its predecessor. Presumably you have read Eolyn. If you have not, go now and do so because it’s excellent.

Eolyn began rather like a classic fairy tale, with a small child getting lost in the woods and encountering a witch. This set the tone for its mix of gentle companionship, friendship, love and sporadic but brutal violence. There was a definite pattern of recurring loss leading to hope, trust (sometimes misplaced), unexpected loyalty and a lasting love.

High Maga, on the other hand, is much more about attempting to stave off inexorable forces and despair, emphasised by the growing body count. Here even the love story becomes double-edged and a potential source of calamity to a far greater degree than ever in Eolyn.

Of course Eolyn was entirely self-contained. High Maga is very clearly not merely a sequel but also the middle of a trilogy. In many ways I am reminded of the first two Star Wars films (before Lucas betrayed a generation by chasing the toddler market). The first eclipses the second in the purity of the storyline, the second rises above the first through its darker themes and grittier tone, though High Maga, unlike The Empire Strikes Back, has a definite and fitting end, albeit with enough plot strands trailing to make a third book obvious and necessary.

Darker. Bleaker. Different.

Even the villain is different. Tzeremond was, of course, far and away the best character in Eolyn. Steadfastly loyal, scheming, clever, concerned, utterly convinced that he was right. My kind of chap really. And how he’s missed too. Tzeremond alive would have, as a character notes, been a tremendous asset in the defence of Akmael’s kingdom. Indeed with Tzeremond alive the whole sorry situation that causes so much grief here would very likely not have arisen. Defence is needed because while the events of Eolyn progressed steadily towards conflict but at a fairly gentle pace, here the start is more viscerally violent and fairly soon, after some excellent relationship complications affecting several characters, the book is almost wholly concerned with war and its consequences.

Which brings in the villain. Or rather the two. One is a sultry, ruthless, superb, demon-raising sorceress – very memorable, though not so much as her uncle who is an admirable counterpart to Tzeremond, albeit with none of that worthy’s virtues save courage. Tzeremond was never amoral or even immoral, by his lights, and did not revel in brutality. Mechnes is and does and is far more menacing, having a decidedly physical edge to add to a force of character at least equal to Tzeremond’s. Much as Vader steals the show in Episode V, Mechnes bestrides High Maga as a colossus.

And that brings me on to something that I found very different between High Maga and Eolyn. Although Eolyn used the fashionable multi-character perspective approach with essentially different chapters focused on a single character’s perceptions, it always felt to me that Eolyn herself was definitely central, with Akmael, Corey and Tzeremond in important but definitely supporting roles. In High Maga, the strength of Mechnes’ character magnifies him above the rest and Eolyn herself is a trifle diminished by this. While Akmael remains strong, what surprised me was how much Corey seemed to fade. In Eolyn he seemed more witty, barbed of tongue and devious than he does here. I’m not sure he is in fact less witty, catty or devious but he appeared so to me, which was a shame, but perhaps inevitable as other characters besides Mechnes imposed themselves also.

The best of these is young Ghemena, one of Eolyn’s pupils and a shining example of childish grit. One thing I really like about both books is how the characters remain utterly true to their innate characters (Eolyn, for instance, is an astonishingly bad judge of character in many ways, for instance surely every reader of Eolyn had Tahmir marked as a wrong ‘un from first meeting . . .). Ghemena is a stand-out example of that realism: her age is her weakness and has a shattering impact on her ability to influence events as she would wish, and sows some extremely interesting seeds which may bear fruit in the third book. But Borten (who slew Akmael’s father in Eolyn) also rises in importance and provides an interesting twist to the plot. He’s probably the most straightforward of the characters except for noble old Drostan, who also features.

Crucial too is Adiana, one of Eolyn’s friends from Corey’s travelling troupe. She’s definitely the chief ‘supporting actress’ and, alongside Mechnes, probably the most interesting of the cast, though Ghemena is certainly my favourite. She probably suffers the most and how she copes exemplifies a certain sort of strength – guts, even – that is very often mistaken for weakness, submission, even collaboration. She is almost the opposite of little Ghemena – whose spitfire defiance is easily taken as a sign of courage, though in fact it is generally born of fear. Adiana may well be driven by a simple desire to survive, but survival in her circumstances demands courage to face the future.

And facing an uncertain, and undesirable, future is in the end what High Maga’s about. I mean obviously it’s about danger and demons and battle and flight and separation and love torn asunder and betrayal and all that sort of thing too. But as I said at the start, Eolyn seemed to me to be about hope and loss and also about choice between love and duty, whereas High Maga is more about despair and facing up to inexorable fate.

The end of Eolyn captured perfectly the whole sense of the book, where choices had consequences and love often conflicted with loyalty. Eolyn’s final choice really tied it all together and was immensely satisfying – it felt completely right and once it had been made, her alternative, which appeared very reasonable beforehand, was obviously wrong. I found the end of High Maga less satisfying. That is I think partly a consequence there actually being no right choice here – High Maga ends with a dilemma – but it’s also a consequence of there being a clear need for a final book in the trilogy. Let me be clear though, the ending of High Maga is just as fitting, it just doesn’t have the unexpected but in hindsight obvious sort of conclusion that ended the first book. That I think shows a welcome avoidance of formula and it’s also the case that no other ending would have done.

High Maga has been written in a way that probably allows it to stand alone well enough, but I think anyone who has not read Eolyn will miss a lot of the impact of many of the events herein. It’s a more powerful story than Eolyn but requires the context of that more perfect one to fully appreciate. When High Maga itself has a sequel and the trilogy is concluded, then I think it will feel entirely complete and take its proper place in the cycle in a way akin to The Empire Strikes Back. Hopefully though there will be nothing akin to ewoks in book three . . .

It’s a great read and in parts some may find it harrowing – but the tone is fitted to the subject matter. You’ve presumably read Eolyn to have read this far, so buy High Maga and prepare for an altogether rougher ride. It’s worth it.

review by David Hunter

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

REVIEW: Non-Compliance: The Sector

Title: Non-Compliance: The Sector
Author: Paige Daniels
Genre: SF
Price: $4.99 (ebook) $12.99 (paperback)
Publisher: Kristell Ink
ISBN: 978-1909845039
Point of Sale: Amazon  
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

It’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun.  Apparently I’m having a lot of fun, as now it’s time for my second guest review here at Heroines of Fantasy.  (My first review, of  The Shifter’s Trail, was back in February.)

Today’s victim book is Non-Compliance: The Sector by Paige Daniels.  It’s the first of a two-book series starring Shea Kelly.  The book is set in an America that rather narrowly won a war with undefined enemies.  The price of winning was that all Americans have to get government-issued chips implanted in them, which act like aircraft transponders.  Those that don’t are “non-compliant” and have to live in special sectors AKA ghettos set aside for them.  As suggested by the title, Shea Kelly is non-compliant.

She’s also a physically tough cookie and a computer geek, although not as good a geek as Wynne, her part-time stripper buddy.  The two of them are running a side gig to smuggle in good supplies to the sector, which brings them to the attention of the local criminal mastermind, the Boss, and his criminal rival, Danny Rose.  Problems ensue.

Although it seems like there’s a glut of dystopias on the SF market nowadays, I have to say I found Daniels’ take on a future America scared of its own shadow a tad too close to reality to dismiss.  We are, after all, living in a world in which we asked the NSA to please spy on us.  The idea of identity chips implanted for our own good seems possible.

Having found the world believable, I found Shea a realistic narrator.  Yes she’s tough, but she still also calls her dad (outside the Sector) at least every week.  She’s also not superhuman tough, and so occasionally loses a fight.  The other characters rang true, although hard-bitten, as one would expect of exiles.

Hard-bitten is pretty much the definition of much of the story, but Daniels also weaves in a budding romance between Shea and Quinn, the Boss’s main man.  The only thing I found disappointing in the book was the ending, which I felt was a dues ex machina.  Other than that minor issue, I enjoyed Non-Compliance: The Sector.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Joys and Pain of the Edit-Revise

Hi folks, Mark here with a few thoughts on my current experience: the joy-pain of the edit revise.

I've read The Lord of the Rings off and on since I was twelve. In many ways it has been the book of my life, and I don't mean that as an admission of nerdi-geek-ocd. It is a good friend, a teacher, source of solace when all other forms stale; Tolkien just works for me, and I am unapologetic about it. Deal with it. I hope my heaven has Rivendell and the Shire in it.

But the reason why I tag the Professor today is not for what he did in his novels. Whenever I read the volume, I always find myself dwelling on what he had to say in his forward about the drafting and editing process. He bemoaned his own lazy ways and poor typing skills, and then he said this: "and the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely rewritten backwards."  The term 'backwards' which I italicized always gets me, and I spend wonderful minutes imagining how that process went for him. And then I tally up how much there had to have been that he had to account for, and I shudder as if someone had just told me a story about the Nazgul and I turn the page and immediately sink into the story.

Now, I realize the Professor's son lays out whole wonderful edit-revise story in his multivolume study. I have to confess I have not read them all. I just haven't found the will to purchase all of them in hardback, and for some reason I have yet to see the whole set presented in paper back. I may be cheap, or perhaps I prefer my visceral reaction and shudder too much to want to ruin it with terminal knowledge. There is just something magical in that term 'backwards' that gets me every time.

I am now going through the revision process for my third novel, Path of the Poet King, and I finally think I am at least getting closer to what the Professor had to go through. I find myself constantly thumbing through the earlier volumes to check names, dates, tone--all that cool writerly stuff that comes when you breach the 300,000 word barrier wandering around in a world you've created.  CJ Cherryh has been quite candid on her blog about the challenges she faces with her long running Foreigner series. She has even gone so far as to ask her readers to help her fill in blank spots from lost files.

I'm lucky in that I have a colleague and friend as my editor. Terri-Lynne DeFino's kindness and honesty makes it an easy process for us, or at least I like to think so. For Path of the Poet King, I've been working off some detailed edit notes she sent me, as well as insights I've gleaned from our periodic phone conversations, and I think I have begun to frame my own method for the joy/pain of the revise/edit. I used to quail when Terri would tell me to "kill a few of your darlings."  Agony, pure, simple, wretched agony.  But with this latest novel the delete key seems to work just fine. "Whoduthunkit"?

In the end I think I revise forward rather than backward. Most of my issues fall into the too much tell and not enough show variety. I had to admit to myself the finished first draft of Path was more of an ultra-shiny plot outline than a fully formed story. I went through once trying to tame point of view, and then again removing a preponderance of passive voice. And now, going through it a third time with Defino's notes I find that in removing all the introspection, circular thinking, and wheel spinning that suggests writing around a story as opposed to actually writing the story, I've rediscovered voices in characters I didn't expect, I've added flesh in dialog, and recovered some of the magic that was Pevana for me when I first started putting The Poets of Pevana together as a unified tale. The effect is altogether exhilarating as I inch towards the end of this pass. Despite the joy/pain of the experience, I know that Path is a better book than it was going to be at first, and I'm sure DeFino will put it and me through the pasta stretcher again to squeeze out more or our imperfections. And by 'our' I mean myself and the novel. In the end I believe the edit-revision process gives life to the story and also serves as an instructional tool for the author. And when you've done a good job of it, well, it makes that first pint at The Green Dragon taste that much better.

So, do you have a particular method you resort to during the dreaded edit-revise phase?

Mark Nelson

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower . . . but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem . . .

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

I’ve been reading SL Huang’s blog for a while now. It’s interesting, intelligent and opinionated, and so I’d marked her first novel as something to look out for, curious to see how her writing translated into a longer form. The pitting of author's skill against reader's attention is not a zero sum game: if a book is good, both are winners. Nor are the stakes equal for the two sides. They're far higher for the author: there's a lot of books to choose among and so major tests for any one are Can it keep a reader reading? and Would you recommend it to a friend?

Well, Zero Sum Game passes both tests with flying colours. As escapisms go, I’ve found few better recently. The prose is crisp. The characters are finely drawn. And diverse (which ought to be a given but, sadly, isn’t). The pace is relentless, never letting a reader pause for breath. Onwards! it demands, effortlessly upping the ante, and, onwards, I rushed, breathless, through the story. I read this book in a single, four-hour session. The one time somebody tried to interrupt me, I snapped out something very short and pithy to the effect that I was reading and would they please leave me alone until I was done. Only, you know, rather less polite.

It’s a thriller, with sf overtones. Cas Russell has what I can only call a synaesthetic sense of mathematics; she views the world through a veil of numbers, vectors, equations and this allows her to instantly extrapolate trajectories, angles of incidence, forces and so on. This ability, coupled with her high intelligence, preternatural reaction times, near lack of physical fear and apparently unlimited access to firearms, makes her exceedingly dangerous. Whether Cas's abilities are innate or the result of modification by person or persons unknown is unclear; my money’s on the latter. She also has no past, no family and no curiosity about these lacunae: this is the first in a series and seeds of a longer plot arc are scattered in the text. Her closest associate is Rio, a man to whom murder and mutilation come as easily as numbers do to Cas. Cas works in ‘retrievals’; when a woman hires her to recover her sister from the clutches of a drug cartel, her path crosses with that of Arthur Tresting, a private investigator hired by a woman to find her husband’s murderer. And we're off into a rollercoaster of a plot.

I’m not a mathematician so I just sat back and let the maths wash over me in a pleasing torrent of words and effects; I hugely admired Huang’s verbal dexterity at depicting Cas’s numerical vision of the world. The effect was exceedingly enjoyable; akin to watching Sherlock, when the camera shows you Holmes’ vision superimposed upon the world. I recognised references, of course, but, although I can solemnly swear an intimate, intuitive understanding of mathematics is not required to enjoy Zero Sum Game, I suspect there are bonuses and Easter eggs a-plenty for those who have it. It’s also deeply satisfying to read a book which glories so in its characters’ intelligence: every superhero demands a supervillain and, in the power-hungry psychic, Cas might just have met her match. Both sides are clever; both are having to work against the other’s cleverness. But it’s not just their brains they’re using: there are also lots of guns.

And it is an extremely violent book – think Hollywood blockbuster. Lacking Cas’s sense for figures, I soon lost count of the bodies. It’s the same sort of violence as in a blockbuster and, because it is so over the top, as hard to take seriously. More disturbing, perhaps, is the acceptance of that violence, both her own and Rio’s, by Cas. Your opinion may differ. I’ll just mark that the shades of grey in this book are very dark indeed. Within the story, I rather suspect there is more to Cas’s acceptance of Rio than she is herself aware of; there are aspects of her relationship with him which echo her response to the psychic. I hope I’m right, because, on reflection, I find the alternative reading depressing.

You’ll have noted it wasn’t a reservation which stopped me from reading and enjoying, or holds me back at all from recommending. Moral ambiguity is as old as storytelling itself. For me, Zero Sum Game worked because it did what it set out to do extremely well: it tells a gripping story building to a highly satisfying conclusion. It’s an absolutely cracking read. I could suspend both disbelief and lack of sympathy because of the quality of the storytelling. And that is the one rule of writing: Do it well and you’ll carry the reader with you in spite of themselves. To that extent the title is a misnomer: I reckon both author and readers are winners here. The sequel can’t come a day too soon.

Harriet Goodchild

Buy Zero Sum Game:
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